Hollywood co-option may not have pulled the trigger on J-horror, but it supplied the gun. No huge loss—the genre’s limited vernacular and reliance on teen appeal drained it of originality pretty early on. But its demise pushed inventive auteur Shinya Tsukamoto—who rode the success of Ringu and its knockoffs to notoriety without ever having to dip into the same overtapped well—off the global cinephiliac radar.
Funny, then, that Tsukamoto’s 2006 Nightmare Detective—newly available stateside from the Weinstein Company’s gore-DVD label Dimension Extreme—is a J-horror throwback. And a mixed bag, mixing the director’s characteristically hyperkinetic visuals with pat morality and the pulp-Freudian mumbo jumbo of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The titular character (Taboo’s sublimely sneering Ryuhei Matsuda), whose ability to enter people’s dreams has left him an antisocial, self-loathing wreck, is drawn into a police murder investigation involving “0,” a cell phone-wielding nut job (Tsukamoto in a disturbingly self-reflexive turn) who coaxes victims into violent, somnambulant suicide. A cop (pop vixen Hitomi) sets a trap for the killer in her sleep, with the stroppy antihero as her reluctant knight in shining pajamas.
The film pivots on the urban angst Tsukamoto has milked from Tetsuo (1989) to A Snake of June (2002), but it replaces the bold, liberating sexuality of those films with grisly violence that’s often hard to watch. The result is a hectoring lesson in how technology has left Japanese culture emotionally paralyzed and morally indifferent (the same qualities that give the N.D. his brooding hunk appeal, but whatever), barely mitigated by an intriguing premise, genuinely nightmarish imagery and guardedly hopeful resolution.
Tsukamoto’s currently wrapping up a sequel, so fingers crossed that this entry’s unduly influential financial backer and Tsukamoto’s apparent midlife malaise don’t recur like some tedious bad dream.