Horror films tend to be dismissed all too often as mindless gorefests that shove anything onscreen for pure shock value, and the luridly-titled Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman is no exception. While many such movies deserve little attention (I'm talkin' to you, Captivity), the more thoughtful ones tend to be overlooked in the fray. The Descent was successful because of its convincing human drama, and the Saw series has thrived on its themes of how far a person will go to stay alive. But Carved just misses the boat, frequently hitting the nail right on its thematic head -- only to mess up horribly as often as it succeeds.
An urban legend tells of a frightening spectre known as the Slit-Mouthed Woman (Mizuno Miki). Clad in an overcoat, brandishing a huge pair of scissors, and a surgical mask covering her deformed face, this spirit is said to occasionally appear and creepily ask, "Am I pretty?" before dragging her victims off to a horrible fate. While it's nothing more than an old wives' tale for some, others believe the Slit-Mouthed Woman is responsible for recently abducting a number of schoolkids.
The police suspect someone's using the legend as a cover for their crimes, but elementary school teachers Yamashita (Sato Eriko) and Matsuzaki (Kato Haruhiko) lean more towards a supernatural explanation after a scary run-in with the ghost herself. As another kidnapping takes place, Yamashita and Matsuzaki set out to learn more about the Slit-Mouthed Woman's background, searching to find her hideout before the missing kids become the latest victims of her ghoulish wrath.
On the surface, Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman looks like exploitation cinema at its nastiest. The title alone conjures up images of seeing it as part of the next Grindhouse movie. But Carved turns out to be a bit more cunning than one might expect, a surprising turn giving the film a strong advantage that lasts a good chunk of the running time.
Right from the start, director/co-writer Shiraishi Koji establishes an effective, Candymanesque atmosphere, the film's first moments scanning bare city streets while voiceovers gossip about the legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman. Koji ambitiously expands his vision by introducing the theme of child abuse, presenting the majority of the characters as damaged goods whose lives are affected in some way by this dark element, one that also happens to tie in with the Slit-Mouthed Woman's motive and history. It's a mighty big step in the direction of establishing credibility, but for the most part, Koji pulls it off, deftly combining intense family drama with boo scares in a manner not unlike Hideo Nakata's original, atmospheric version of Dark Water.
Alas, as often as Carved succeeds, it fails. Sure, Koji deserves at least an A for effort in bringing such heavy themes to a production. A lesser director would've concentrated more on slicing and dicing. But there are a number of moments where Koji's approach falls flat on its face in the form of half-developed characterizations or scenes of abuse that would've been more frightening than any ghost the silver screen could devise if they hadn't looked so poorly-rehearsed and stilted.
The acting is decent for the most part, with sympathetic turns from Eriko and Haruhiko as teachers-turned amateur sleuths, as well as Mizuno Miki's unforgettable eerie appearance as the Slit-Mouthed Woman. But as the saying goes, appearances aren't everything, and the fear generated by the spirit's ghastly look is soon undermined by a couple of goofy examples of her supernatural rage. It also doesn't help that the story ends on a copout twist which I spent the entire movie hoping its director would be smart enough to avoid.
For the most part, Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman does a passable job of touching upon some heavy issues while not forgetting to sate the appetite of gorehound fans. Still, the film so often comes close to greatness that viewers may find themselves disappointed when their expectations are -- pardon the pun -- cut short.
MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)
(Released by Tartan Video; not rated by MPAA.)