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‘#Manhole’: High-Concept J-Horror Movie Overstays Its Welcome



What happens in the manhole stays in the manhole.

That would be one way to describe this initially intiguing and increasingly outrageous Japanese horror flick, which features pop star Yuto Nakajima as a young man who, on the eve of his wedding, falls into the film’s titular trap and can’t get out.


The Bottom Line

Not your ordinary manhole.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Cast: Yuto Nakajima, Kento Nagayama
Director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Screenwriter: Michitaka Okada

1 hour 39 minutes

Directed by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Sketches of Kaitan City) from a script by Michitaka Okada (Masquerade Hotel), the movie definitely makes the most out of its setting, concocting dozens of obstacles to keep the suspense high as its hero gets sliced, bludgeoned, heralded on social media and poisoned by toxic sewage as he attempts to escape. But about midway through, #Manhole more or less jumps the shark — or is it the manhole? — by throwing in so many twists that it veers towards gory parody.

Premiering in Berlin’s Panorama section, the film should find an audience at home thanks to Nakajima, an actor, model, and singer in the platinum Japanese boys band Hey! Say! JUMP who gets his pretty face severely messed up here. International interest will probably be limited to midnight madness screenings and the wide world of streaming.

The hashtag before the movie’s title is a clue as to what #Manhole is about: Part contained-space thriller (think Buried in Tokyo), part social media satire, it showcases pretty much all you can do when you’re stuck several meters underground with only a phone, a pencil case and fairly reliable cell service to keep you connected.

This is what Shunsuke Kawamura, a successful real estate agent about to marry the boss’ daughter, has available to him after he spends the night drinking with his office buddies, then stumbles into a hole that seems to be part of an abandoned construction site. His odd behavior, including the fact that he doesn’t immediately call the cops, gives us a few clues that resurface later on, and Kumakiri does a good job setting up pitfall after pitfall, from the rain pouring down to toxic foam seeping from open pipe

With his location unclear and the police all but unhelpful, Shunsuke first dials up an ex-girlfriend who’s also, handily, a trained nurse. Then he sets up an account on Twitter (renamed Pecker in the film, LOL) for an online avatar he calls “Manhole Girl,” hoping that a few perverted insomniacs will come to his rescue. This prompts lots of onscreen messages and titles that overwhelm the movie’s second half, which loses track of its minimalist concept to indulge in outré plotting and ample gore.

There are nonetheless a few standout moments involving gross-out body horror and crafty production design (the sets are by Norifumi Ataka), especially a scene where Shunsuke, whose leg gets cut open by a rusty ladder, has to use a tiny stapler on his to keep the wound from bleeding out. The film pulls no punches when it comes to putting its tall and handsome star through the wringer, and Nakajima willingly appears both ridiculous and sinister as his character gets his comeuppance several times over.

#Manhole is the kind of low-cost concept that a Hollywood producer could look to remake, and there are ways of improving upon its scenario while keeping the basic premise intact. (Note there is already a K-horror flick from 2014 called Manhole — minus the hashtag — about little girls getting kidnapped.)

One thing would be to add more humor and never take the setup too seriously — a sin this version is often guilty of, especially during its overcooked finale. But perhaps there’s only so much you can do when you try to squeeze a movie into a manhole and somehow find your way to the surface.

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