Temple (United States, 2016)

August 31, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Temple Poster

One common complaint about modern-day horror is a tendency to spoon-feed plot elements to viewers, revealing not only too much about the resident evil but doing it in a manner that leaves little to interpretation. Whatever its flaws, and there are many, Temple can’t be accused of that sin. If anything, the movie is too ambiguous. The ending is so sudden and unexpected that, coupled with the skinny 78-minute running length, it’s easy to wonder whether someone forgot a reel along the way. If director Michael Barrett and screenwriter Simon Barrett want to make a sequel, there are plenty of available options.

The premise is simple enough. A group of three Americans – Christopher (Logan Huffman), Kate (Natalia Warner), and James (Brandon Tyler Sklenar) – have come to Japan to study temples. Their first option (perhaps not the smartest choice considering its reputation) is an isolated locale infamous for its involvement in the 1968 disappearance of six children and the subsequent murder of a monk. Provided with the temple’s location, the three intrepid adventurers, guided by a child, make the trek up a mountain from a remote village. There, as dusk approaches, they find the structure. That’s when things go wrong.

Questions abound, enhanced by the wrap-around structure that features an investigation into the incident led by a Japanese police officer (Naoto Takenaka), his interpreter (Asahi Uchida), and an unidentified, seriously wounded man. What really happened at the temple? Was there a supernatural manifestation? Did someone go mad? Did a tragedy result from a romantic triangle? Have we (the viewers) been told the story via an unreliable narrator? What does the found footage show that we aren’t privy to? (We see some of it but this isn’t a “found footage” movie – only bits and pieces make it into the final cut.)

The movie boasts a strong sense of gloom and has a few requisite jump-scares but, on the whole, there isn’t much of a story. The film doesn’t develop the main trio of characters sufficiently for viewers to have a vested interest in their fates and some elements, like Christopher’s suppressed attraction for Kate and James’ equally suppressed jealousy, are presented perfunctorily. And there’s a fine line between atmosphere and incoherence that Temple crosses on more than one occasion. Many scenes are so dark that it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on. Maybe that was intentional but it muddles a final act that’s sufficiently confusing without it.

The film’s writer, Simon Barrett, comes out of the so-called “mumblegore” tradition and has long-standing relationships with indie horror filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Adam Wingard. Mumblegore influences (like the free-flowing, meandering dialogue) permeate Temple and there’s more than a passing resemblance to the Wingard-directed Blair Witch reboot/sequel (which Barrett wrote). Both films are about a group of camera-carrying young people getting lost in the woods, encountering something terrifying, and not necessarily emerging in one piece.

Problems aside, it’s refreshing to stumble on a film of this genre that doesn’t fall under the “standard order horror” umbrella where an avalanche of jump scares replaces attempts to generate a pervasive sense of unease. Temple shows a better path for horror films to follow but the screenplay is too threadbare and the characters too poorly developed for it to really work. This is about 2/3 of a solid effort – unfortunately, the other 1/3 was never made. For the rating, can I hand out an “incomplete”?

Temple (United States, 2016)

Director: Michael Barrett
Cast: Logan Huffman, Natalia Warner, Brandon Tyler Sklenar, Naoto Takenaka, Asahi Uchida
Screenplay: Simon Barrett
Cinematography: Cory Geryak
Music: Edmund Butt
U.S. Distributor: Screen Media Films
Run Time: 1:18
U.S. Release Date: 2017-09-01
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: In English and Japanese with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1