Tokyo Film Festival: Hideo Nakata’s new film about a possessed doll that feeds on its victims’ life force has no soul to suck

From the Child’s Play films to the Cliff Richard single, there has always been something gut-churningly obscene about the concept of a living doll – but it has seldom seemed less alarming than it does in the latest film from Hideo Nakata.

It was gamy, seething work like the Ring films and Dark Water that made Nakata the one-time maestro of the J-horror movement 15 or so years ago. But his new picture about a bloodthirsty mannequin chasing squeaking cuties around a provincial theatre is an oddly docile thing: watching it feels like an hour and a half of chewing flavourless marshmallows.

The fact the lead role is played by Haruka Shimazaki, from the girl band AKB48, suggests a level of meta-playfulness around the living doll premise, but the film never ends up wandering down that subtextual side street – or indeed any other. Instead it just blithely clumps from one plot point to the next.

Ghost Theatre is too docile for aficionados and too drab for teens

Shimazaki plays Sara, a jobbing young actress with a talent for playing corpses – “When you died, your face really looked dead!” a fellow auditioner (Rika Adachi) says admiringly of her latest work on some TV murder serial. But breathing roles are harder to come by, so when her agent sends her to audition for a new play based on the life of Elizabeth Báthory, she springs at the opportunity.

Báthory was a 16th-century Hungarian countess and serial killer whose anti-ageing skincare regime involved bathing in the blood of young virgins. Either through malign occult forces or stupendous bad luck, one of the production’s key pieces of stage dressing turns out to be a possessed, life-size doll that feeds on the souls of young women.

The doll is introduced killing two sisters in a corny and muddled prologue (like much of the film, this sequence has a certain archness that isn’t obviously deliberate), so when you spot its head glaring glassily from a shelf in the prop shop, you already know what’s in store.

The more elaborate things get, the less convincing it all becomes

Sure enough, during rehearsals, the doll starts targeting the various young actresses on the cast, starting with Aoi (Riho Takada), the pretty but not obviously capable starlet playing Báthory herself, and working her way towards Sara.

The film’s very simplest shocks are neatly effective – the doll suddenly turning its head while on stage, for instance – but the more elaborate things get, the less convincing it all becomes. Nakata occasionally switches his camera to the doll’s point-of-view, a potentially eerie idea ruined by a distractingly ugly, digital kaleidoscope effect that’s overlaid on the image. And the soul-extraction process itself is likewise weakened by unconvincing CGI, and involves the doll sucking out its victims’ life force mouth-to-mouth while they whisper “Gimme, gimme, gimme”. (Tragically, all expire before reaching “…a man after midnight”.)

Then there is the matter of the doll’s movements, which have an "experimental dance" quality that has less in common with the terrifying, angular shuffling of Sadako in Ring than it does with Legz Akimbo, The League of Gentlemen’s unsparing send-up of community theatre troupes. It’s thin stuff indeed, but at least Shimazaki sells it as hard as she can, with plenty of wide-eyed, full-throated screams.

A rote sleazy director character (Mantaro Koichi) and the third act’s occasional pools and plumes of blood are the only things to dissuade you that Ghost Theatre has been purposefully toned down for younger viewers. As it is, it’s hard to fathom who exactly its intended audience is supposed to be: too meek for aficionados and too drab for teens, there’s just no soul there for the sucking.