Alright folks, gather in, gather in, we’ve got a pile of films to get through and not much time to do it. This week I’ve got a mixed selection of recent horror features and theatrical Naruto presentations, as we charged through not one, not two, but three Shippuden films over the last few days. After the relative disappointment of the first two Shippuden features, I’m happy to report that this batch was much stronger on the whole, with both films three and five standing among the strongest in the overall franchise. That plus the aforementioned horror features kept us pretty busy, though we’re also running distressingly close to Boruto’s most recent episodes. I’m gonna have to come up with a comfort anime replacement soon, but in the meantime, here’s the Week in Review!
First up this week was Smile, a recent horror feature about a psychiatrist (Sosie Bacon) who believes she is being hunted by some supernatural entity. This entity harasses its victims by disguising itself as the people around them, gracing them with eerie, unnatural smiles that no one else can see. Having been infected by this monster by a patient’s violent suicide, Bacon fears the same fate is in store for her, and must race to discover some defense against her shadowy possessor.
As a film whose central threat is people making creepy smiles at you, Smile faces an uphill battle in terms of filling out a whole movie’s worth of scares. The end result relies more on jump scares and loud noises than I’d hoped, but I actually found the film’s bones to still be sturdier than I’d expected. Smile’s threat essentially combines two other horror monsters: the anonymous, relentless stalker of It Follows, and the timed assured death of The Ring. Smile isn’t as strong as either of those films, but it effectively harnesses their sense of haunted urgency, and pulls off a couple genuinely alarming setpieces of its own. For a film reliant on so many hackneyed devices (alongside the jump scares, there’s a whole lot of “did that really happen” unreliable narrator nonsense), I was ultimately surprised by how well Smile comported itself. An above-average horror film, and a promising directorial debut for Parker Finn.
Our journey through the Naruto cinematic universe then continued with The Will of Fire, which I’m happy to report offered a solid recovery from the disappointment of Shippuden’s first two films. While the first Shippuden movie was visually disappointing and the second narratively clumsy, The Will of Fire is focused and generous, both in terms of its Naruto world payoffs and its impressive animation.
The story for this one is refreshingly simple: Kakashi believes he must sacrifice himself to save the village, Naruto and all of his classmates head out to stop him. In practice, this offers the perfect excuse for every member of Naruto’s larger class to strut their stuff, generally in the context of working in close collaboration with their usual squadmates. The Naruto franchise largely squandered the appeal of seeing these warriors collaborate as finely tuned teammates, and The Will of Fire is happy to redress that wrong, vividly demonstrating how groups like Hinata, Kiba, and Shino might collaborate to take down a greater foe. I’m pretty sure Tenten got more to do in this film than she did in the entire original series.
As for the animation, the fights all through this film’s middle half are uniformly well-animated, but the finale’s morphing showstoppers are something else entirely. The Will of Fire’s climax is a buffet of inimitable effects animation, from its billowing clouds of smoke to its wildly transforming monsters. The highlight is this remarkable sequence by Hironori Tanaka, but the whole last act is brimming with similarly remarkable morphing animation. An altogether excellent Naruto film!
Our next viewing was an exceedingly odd film, the recent quasi-thriller Dual. Karen Gillan stars as Sarah, a generally unhappy woman who learns that she is terminally ill. To save her family from the pain of losing her, she opts to have herself cloned, and thus begins teaching Sarah’s Double how to live her life. Cut to ten months later, and Sarah’s Double has entirely taken over Sarah’s life, only for the original to learn that her terminal illness has actually gone into complete remission. As such, the question of who will live Sarah’s life is to be resolved through the only sensible method: a duel to the death, held exactly one year hence.
Dual’s most abiding and winning feature is the straight-faced earnestness with which it unveils each of these preposterous developments. The film essentially maps a new reality of human experience without question or deeper investigation, allowing just a slight glimpse of its smile to peek through in sequences like the informative/psychotic “here’s what you and your double need to know” training video. Gillan herself is absolutely perfect for this role; she’s made playing slightly robotic characters into a science, and evokes just enough humanity here to make Sarah’s half-hearted will to live feel like a motive worth fighting for.
Dual succeeds effortlessly in setting up its off-kilter vibe, but what exactly writer-director Riley Stearns is saying with this gleefully contrived universe is a little trickier to divine. Gillan’s training sessions with her tutor Aaron Paul are their own reward; the reliable Paul easily matches Gillan’s deadpan affectation, and the two develop the closest thing to a friendship that might exist in this sterile world. The film is consistently funny without making any outright jokes, but its irreverence and tendency towards anticlimax at times feel like they’re superseding its need to actually reward the audience’s engagement. In the end, I’m still debating whether its conclusion was cleverly subtle or simply unsatisfying; and frankly, I’m annoyed to think that this might be precisely what Stearns intended.
With momentum on our side and the tantalizingly named Blood Prison not far ahead, we then pushed right on through the next Naruto Shippuden film, The Lost Tower. This one involves Naruto chasing a target into a mysterious glowing portal, which ends up popping him out twenty years in the past. There, he must team up with his father Minato’s elite squad, in order to investigate a mysterious puppet-filled city and hopefully return home.
After the unexpectedly excellent time travel arc in Boruto, I was eager to catch a similarly rare glimpse of Kakashi and his fellow ninjas in their early days. Unfortunately, The Lost Tower doesn’t offer that; Minato seems to figure out who Naruto is within five seconds of meeting him, and spends the rest of the movie telling Naruto to avoid saying anything that might fuck up the timeline. This is conscientious time travel protocol, but it sure doesn’t make for interesting emotional drama; instead, we spend most of the film on Naruto’s attempts to break through to a naïve princess, before a giant puppet kaiju arrives and stomps around the city for forty minutes or so.
Naruto is frankly one of the least interesting characters in his own series, and with none of his friends here to liven things up, The Lost Tower feels lacking in both scale and character payoff. The film’s second half is technically impressive in terms of large-scale action animation (no awful CG for the puppets this time, thankfully), but also aimless dramatically, and lacking any guiding philosophy of art design. On the whole, it unfortunately stands as a return to the initial mediocre standard of Shippuden films.
Spurred on by the crowd’s relentless cry of “BLOOD PRISON BLOOD PRISON,” we then charged directly onward into Blood Prison. Our expectations were high given its preposterously brooding title, and I am happy to report we were not disappointed. Blood Prison is undoubtedly the most unique and aesthetically holistic Naruto film so far, an unexpected slice of bleak mystery drama in the midst of a collection of bright childhood adventures.
Even from the first shots, it’s clear that Blood Prison is being composed with a sharper eye for layouts and color design than your average Naruto film. Extremely prominent shadows combine with generally muted colors to create a somber yet impactful visual language, matching the fatigued tone of the narrative itself. The titular prison is a visual marvel in its own right, rising up in austere towers and sharply cut archways, bringing to mind the alienating landscapes of my beloved Georgio de Chirico. And within these walls, Naruto is animated with the jittery intensity of a hunted beast, his energy resonating with the folk horror madness at the prison’s core.
As you might have guessed, I quite enjoyed this one! Like many of these films, its narrative required embracing some unlikely contrivances in order to make sense, but its merits as a tone piece and aesthetically unified piece of filmmaking are self-evident. I always like when a franchise’s tie-in films offer genuinely unique takes on their source material, and while Blood Prison certainly isn’t Baron Omatsuri, it’s still a striking picture on the whole, and the first Naruto film I’d recommend general, non-Naruto-embedded viewers check out. Nice work, Blood Prison!