If you have any experience of Japanese horror, or knowledge of some of their lore, then you'll be aware of the slit-mouthed woman. Legend has it that she would appear in front of you, wearing a mask and carrying a sharp object, and ask you if she was pretty. Answer no and you get the business end of the sharp object. Answer yes and she moves the mask away to show that her mouth has been slit open at the corners (hence . . . slit-mouthed woman). She will once again ask if she is pretty. Answer no and you are killed. Answer yes and she uses the sharp object to make you look just like her. She doesn't sound like someone you'd really want to meet, but nor does any boogeyman, which is what she is. It's an enduring urban legend, and there have been, unsurprisingly, a number of movies made about her. This is just one of them, not to be confused with Slit Mouth Woman from 2008.
Children start to be kidnapped in a small Japanese town and reports from witnesses seem to point to the infamous slit-mouthed woman as the main suspect. Is she real? Or is it just someone wearing a mask and using the fear of the legend to make their crime spree more frightening? Kyôko Yamashita (Eriko Satô) has to dive fully into investigation mode when her daughter (Mika Sasaki, played by Rie Kuwana) disappears one day. Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Katô) helps her, having already spent some time trying to confirm his own suspicions about the killer.
It's strange to see this directed by Kôji Shiraishi, who also co-wrote the script with Naoyuki Yokota. The two had previously worked together on the excellent Noroi: The Curse (now there's a horror film crying out for a super duper release if ever I saw one), which managed to feel very grounded in reality while making use of various plot details that felt like genuine Japanese lore (I cannot recall now how much, if any, of the background to the events were sourced from reality). So a film about the slit-mouthed woman should allow them to once again scare the crap out of viewers, and allow them to once again ground the horror in a reality that makes the sense of dread all the more palpable. But they don't bother. Instead, they serve up a film that is almost a standard crime thriller, with a memorable villain at the heart of everything.
I realise that what I'm saying could actually be applied to a lot of modern horror movies from Japan - they're most often about people investigating the circumstances around one or more deaths - but A Slit-Mouthed Woman doesn't have any of the scares that the others do. I suspect Shiraishi and Yokota figured that the woman herself would be the main scare, and her physical appearance is certainly enough to cause a shiver to run down your spine, but they should really have worked on a number of decent set-pieces to keep everyone on their toes.
Satô and Katô are fine in their roles, yet they're often trying to make something out of nothing, discovering revelations delivered by the script that will be obvious to most people from the earliest scenes. Kuwana has to be a child in peril, and acts accordingly, and Miki Mizuno does a good job as the woman with the "Glasgow smile".
There's nothing here that's badly done, and the figure using the mask allows for some extra paranoia that feels as specific to Japan as the rest of the lore being utilised, but far too much of the runtime is relatively free of tension and actual scares. Which is always a tough hurdle for a horror movie to overcome.
Americans can buy the movie here.