'Higanjima' Bloody yet Bloodless Action-Horror Hybrid

Directed by: , Runtime: 122 minutes
Grade: C

If you were to splice together elements of Blade and Battle Royale, you'd get Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island, a tolerable live-action take on a Japanese manga of the same name. Blood spurts, blades fly, fangs shoot out and a cluster of high-school friends scurry to survive (and ultimately conquer) the wilds of a vampire-infested island, only there's no competition or reward other than locating -- and saving -- one of the kids' older, stronger, sword-wielding brother. Like its influences, it's heavier on the action and fast-moving tension than jump-scare horror or grotesqueness, with a plot that's barely compelling enough to support the brisk-moving activity. But instead of capitalizing on the streamlined story, this bloody hybrid never fully enthralls within the copious bustle and blunt-headed anime-esque posturing, leaving only atmosphere, visual gris-gris, and a faint lingering curiosity over which characters will survive to fuel its momentum. Surprisingly, it's almost enough to outshine its problems.

Higanjima doesn't start that way, though; in fact, even though it prepares for little more than a hack-'n-slash romp, the beginning reveals some excitement and promise. We're shown a high-school guy named Akira (Hideo Ishiguro) as he's running away from a group of hooligans, who are intermittently stopped by a scattering of his friends using their assorted talents: a bespectacled nerd causing a minor explosion, an archery-savvy girl launching an arrow in their trajectory, and a thuggish street kid who, well, drops boxes and acts tough. Once a beautiful female stranger halts Akira, pulls him to the side, and tells him that his estranged brother, Atsushi (Dai Watanabe), is stuck on an island that's overrun by bloodsuckers, he and his compadres make their way on-boat to the spooky, mist-covered island. At the very least, it suggests that chemical explosions, arrows, and deft blade work might claim the lives of some vampires, similar to Blade II's host of vampire killers -- only, you know, with novices up to the task.

But once they get to the island -- filled with ominous ghost towns, eerie forests, abandoned forts and byzantine underground temples -- Higanjima opts to tell the island's back-story (introducing us to the grand villain) and address why Atsushi's there in the first place, but it does so while removing the teenagers out of the fray of battle and into a Sophie's Choice-like imprisonment scenario that's not as frightening as it believes itself to be, or should be at this juncture. While this allows the island's history to emerge, which should be intriguing since it adds a creepy historical essence to the story, the script handles it with blunt dialogue and overstuffed flashback-heavy exposition that's almost like listening to a comic being read aloud, proving anticlimactic and uneven against the film's intro. On top of that, it occurs while also watching a bland, white-faced knockoff of Lestat de Lioncourt posture and talk in the way every grand old villainous vampire does: puffed-up and full of misguided posthumous wisdom.

All that's tolerable for the semi-schlocky B-movie anime adaptation that Higanjima seems like it's going to be, which can either move towards lavish blood-spurting action or skin-crawling horror at this fork in the road (or, if ambitious, try and nail both) and simply force us not to care about any storytelling missteps. But even while set against gritty claustrophobic environments and with danger looming around every corner (or up in the trees or behind crumbled ruins) while everyone's fleeing from vamps, it can't find firm footing in either arena, instead gravitating towards maudlin melodrama, of all things, concerning its shallow characters. While there's plenty of the red stuff to be seen, I'm hard-pressed to remember much of how it's spilled -- aside from knowing that it's not in creative use of arrows or chemicals, and little in the way of blade-wielding -- but it's easy to remember the weepy romantic beats between two of the friends and their eventual dejection towards another. I suppose that's part of the territory in entering a manga adaptation, but it doesn't gel here.

What's frustrating about Higanjima is that it's got a well-dressed, concentrated skeleton underneath its tepid action-horror flesh, with moody darkness encapsulating the steadily pace it builds. A few swordplay beats liven it up -- some occur during pertinent flashbacks, while others that involve a ninja resistance fighter and the bald-faced Akira kicking ass on the island -- while a slow simmer of plot contrivances and vampire-on-human tension allows the stylized brawling to persist. And some lively elements crop up in the action that counterbalances its sludgy story: menacing flying humanoid imps, hordes of conical-hat-adorned vampires storming a stony ruin, and a threatening (CG) monster tearing through underground passages. This is the stuff that should've been more evenly-spread throughout the script, instead of crammed into the last-third of its overlong two-hour stretch. Even if there's something inherently watchable because of its pale strengths, it's a crap-shoot whether it's worth slogging through the atmospheric but tiresome midsection to get to the brewing bloody chaos stirring below the surface.

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