GHOST ACTRESS details the odd doings at a movie studio in Japan. Unlike the usual make-them-jump-and-scream approach to telling this story, writer/ director Hideo Nakata, who wrote and directed the Japanese film, THE RING, on which the current American release is based, has opted for creating a mood of gradually increasing unease tempered with the usual case of battered nerves involved in any film production.
For director Toshio Murai, this is his big break, with all the attendant pressures that involves. Late one night, while reviewing the footage of that days shoot, he discovers, to his horror, that there was already something on the film stock. The lovely scene of two sisters walking at dusk in the gentle glow of a lantern gives way to a woman speaking hysterically. There is no sound to explain the scene, but in the background, not quite in focus, is another woman, one with insane eyes and an air of malevolence that doesnt require dialogue to express itself. The cinematographer, who has been with the studio for decades, figures that theyve used some mislabeled stock and shrugs off the fact that re-shoots will be necessary. Toshio, though, becomes fascinated by the clip. Hes convinced hes seen it before on television as a small child, and that it terrified him mightily. Though hed like to know more, the filming schedule takes precedence, so he asks the cinematographer to find out what it was. He does, it comes, he says, from a television production produced at their studio and that an actress in it died after taking a fall from a catwalk before filming was complete. Then he adds ominously that it never aired. When Toshio asks to see the footage again, the cinematographer tells him that he burned it because it was evil.
Now anyone whos ever been on a film set for any length of time can tell you that it is not a bastion of rationality. Emotions run high and time is a whole lot of money, so when peculiar things begin to happen, no one much notices. Footsteps in the catwalks overhead are ignored. So are the sounds of a less than jolly laughter. But you just know that even the people making the film should start paying attention when a hard-as-nails agent storms onto the set, stops cold, throws a lucky talisman at her client and then runs away in terror as fast as her spike-heel pumps can carry her. I mean, those kinds of agents dont scare easily, if at all.
Nakata does something interesting in the way he unfolds his film. The supernatural becomes the backdrop for the action, always there, but, as it might very well happen in real life, secondary to the business at hand. And that allows for a terrific behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking, a terrifying process in and of itself. The sequence that will be a young girl wandering pensively and silently through her house in the film-within-the-film entails a dozen people surrounding her, scurrying around and over each other just below camera level and looking like nothing so much as the Keystone Cops. You have to admire the actresses focus. There is an intriguing denoument that leaves many doors open and not a few questions unanswered, so if you like everything tied up with a tidy bow, you will be disappointed. Still, even if the low-key spookiness is less than blood-curdling, its a refreshing change from the usual blood-fest.