Without wishing to use the word “gratuitous” too gratuitously, in and around the twentieth time a version of “Mack the Knife” plays over footage of a Japanese schoolchild being splatted against a wall by a shotgun blast, the adjective becomes pretty hard to avoid. Takeshi Miike, a director famed for violent excess in oft-banned films such as “Ichi the Killer” and “Audition,” showed a more accessible side to his work, if not necessarily one with a lower body count, in 2010’s entertainingly gonzo samurai picture “13 Assassins.” A highlight of his recent output (we were less enamored of his oddball “Ace Attorney” and dull “Hara Kiri“), it’s hard not to see his latest, which boasts the seemingly google-translated English title “Lesson of the Evil,” as a regressive move. Sacrificing narrative coherence for gore and spectacle is a forgivable crime (one we wonder if the graphic novel source material is also guilty of), but not when you allow that goriness to become humdrum and uninspired in execution. The slasher picture, which is what we suppose this film eventually morphs into, relies on a certain novelty in how our successive victims are offed for us to retain interest — there should be jumps, scares, the unexpected, the gruesome. But for all its (literal) buckets of blood and fetishistic slo-mo messy deaths, ‘Lesson,’ enjoying its World Premiere at the Rome Film Festival, spends its entire last third in an orgy of murder that feels, of all things, rote.
Mr. Hasumi (Hideaki Ito, here displaying minimal acting capabilities and an oddly scrubbed-looking face) is a serial killer who is a recent addition to the teaching staff at a large high school. Initially popular with the students, gradually his nature reveals itself, and as a small group of them become suspicious, along with another teacher, he starts to kill again. And again. And again. Initially, though bogged down with a labored backstory and some really ludicrous hokum about Norse mythology, the set up is promising enough, and some of the early deaths are good ‘n’ nasty. The misfit fellow teacher is an interesting character, who confides that one of the reasons he suspects Hasumi is that he does not feel jealous of him, as he should, because on the surface, he is a loser while Hasumi has it all. It’s an interesting take on psychopath psychology, and for a moment the film seems to be setting up a kind of intellectual cat-and-mouse between these two teachers. But then Hasumi kills him on a subway train, and that’s that.
In fact, it’s at about the two-thirds through point that the film peaks. Though the deaths are probably already in double figures by then, each is sufficiently different and differently motivated, to keep things ticking along, even over the hammy acting and grotesque plot holes. And, adhering to mandatory genre rule #635 regarding films set in high schools, namely that the climax of the action must take place at some sort of social event like prom or graduation, here the students create a Halloween-style haunted house theme to provide the appropriate after-hours backdrop for Hasumi to lock the place down and go truly berserk. If Miike had chosen to wrap things up quickly here, we’d have had a perfectly serviceable, if silly, 90-minute horror/thriller, ripe for an even-worse Platinum Dunes remake.
But there’s another 40 minutes to go. The schoolkids seem to multiply, the better to scatter and flee and be picked off, one by one, by Hasumi. Every one of them gibbers in fear as he reloads, no one thinks to rush him or throw a goddamn chair at him or anything, they mostly go like lambs to the slaughter, and where’s the fun in that? Nobody enjoys watching teenagers get butchered more than we do, really, but we need to kind of know who they are, if only in bare-minimum “Final Destination” style, in order for their deaths to have any shock value. Instead, here we get whole sequences of black haired girls in identical uniforms screaming in corridors before their midriffs explode, to strains of the by-now-truly-irritating, omnipresent “Mack the Knife” (it’s about a killer, see?). Occasionally we break the monotony of Hasumi’s murderous rampage to go into an ill-judged schlocky flashback or hallucination referencing the fellow serial killer he partnered with back in Harvard (no really, the guy came up to him and said “Let’s be partners!”). Occasionally the movie pays direct homage to Sam Raimi or “American Psycho” or, most egregiously, David Cronenberg, which is momentarily fun if you like that sort of thing and don’t mind the fact that it serves no narrative purpose. But mostly we spend a lot of time watching identical kids die identically, after all interest is gone, hence: gratuitous. And it’s not as though that is the point of the exercise either; this is not some Haneke-esque deconstruction of the nature of our desensitized reaction to screen violence. It’s just too silly to lay a claim to any philosophy, even nihilism.
Miike is famously prolific, churning out anywhere from two to seven features a year, and working across film and television. With that kind of output, you’re probably going to get more misses than hits, especially since, commendably, he does appear to try to flirt with different stories and genres from film to film. But as shocking, perverse and downright nasty as some of his previous films have been, this one commits the biggest crime against taste of them all: it bores. And after over two hours, it has the nerve to tack on a terrible “it’s only just beginning” quasi-mystical ending, followed by the dreaded words To Be Continued. We can only repeat what we blurted out, loudly and uncontrollably, when that title appeared on screen: “Oh, please don’t.” [C-]