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Monday, March 18, 2013

Death Penalty.Com/Death Penalty.Com 2: A New Beginning DVD Review

Death Penalty.Com and Death Penalty.Com 2: A New Beginning are Japanese horror films about a web site where you can go to request a real murder. The catch is that you also have to help the other players commit their murders, or you yourself will become a target. It’s an interesting concept, particularly as we’ve all seen aggressive and hateful behavior online. People feel freer to post hurtful comments because of the anonymity, and so if they could simply go to a web site and type in someone’s name, knowing he or she would be killed by other people, would they do it?

Of course, then they have to take part in the murders of other targets, people who are strangers to them, people to whom they feel no aggression or anger. I wish these films, particularly the first one, did a little more to explore how people would react to having to do that. It seems all too easy for these characters. By the way, the second film is different enough from the first that it doesn’t feel like a simple repetition, as many horror sequels are these days. Both films are presented in their original Japanese, with English subtitles (no awful dubbing here). Both features are presented on a single disc.

Death Penalty.Com

The first film, Death Penalty.Com, is about a young man named Ryuta, who explains to us in voice over that to pay off his gambling debts he works as a receptionist at The Honey Box, a “barely legal call girl service.” One of the girls seems to really like Ryuta, and promises she’ll work hard as a prostitute to help him pay off his debts. We could all use a friend like that.  Also in voice over Ryuta mentions how he wishes Kojiima, the manager, would disappear. Then, conveniently, he stumbles upon a web site with this message: “Is there someone you want killed? Click here.”

After Ryuta is blamed for a girl’s latest overdose, Kojima kicks him. So Ryuta remembers the web site, and goes to it. Several people are chatting on the site. They’re all in masks to hide their identities, so Ryuta quickly grabs pantyhose and puts them over his head.

The guy who runs the website (referred to as “God”) explains how it works to all the players, but really to us. So it’s lucky that Ryuta happened to log on at just that moment. One player picks a target that he’d like killed, and several other players are assigned the roles to make that happen.

Sekine, the first player, tells the others how he’d like his target killed. This scene goes on a bit long, as we’re basically just watching a computer screen for several minutes. Ryuta doesn’t believe it’s real, and I can understand why. The clients seem like sad, demented losers playing online role-playing games in their parents’ basements.

Sekine thinks it’s a game too, until the next day when his target is missing. He threatens to go to the cops, then logs off. So the other members are allowed and encouraged to kill him. But how do they get his name, address and so on? It’s not clear. We haven’t seen Ryuta enter any personal information. But failure to do one’s part in the game causes that person to become a target, so the guy running the site would have to somehow know their identities. But how?

The next round, Ryuta is chosen to provide the weapon, which is sleeping pills. He puts them in a locker, then sends the information over his phone. Later on his laptop, he sees photos of himself near the locker. So clearly he’s in dangerous territory here, well over his head. And to make matters worse (when they should be better), Kojima is fired for stealing money and a new person is taking over as manager. It’s an interesting twist, because the reason Ryuta entered the game now no longer exists. But can he leave the game? He’ll certainly want to soon enough, when the film’s next twist occurs.

The next twist brings some problems of believability. And there are some obvious questions. Like, if it’s that easy to stumble upon the website, wouldn’t the authorities be aware of it? And how are people with no experience in killing (and with a limited time allowance) suddenly able to do such a good job that the authorities have no clues and suspect nothing? However, despite this film’s flaws, I did find myself getting totally into it.

Death Penalty.Com 2: A New Beginning

The Friday The 13th series had four films under its belt, including a “Final Chapter” before titling a film “A New Beginning.” Death Penalty.Com’s second film bears that title. However, in this case, the title is misleading, for this film is apparently a prequel, telling how the website was first put into motion. So it should be titled: “The Beginning.” Perhaps it’s something lost in translation, but it’s helpful to know that going into it.

The opening scene shows a school girl on the phone, walking up some stone steps. She then suddenly collapses. It’s actually a great shot, the girl standing still, the leaves of the trees behind her a brilliant green, and then she silently falls backward out of frame.

Then we’re introduced to a group of young people who work part-time as debuggers for computer games. They’ve been hired to test a new game – Death Penalty.Com – and have been put up in a lodge together to do their work. But it’s soon clear that they’ve been gathered to do more than debug the program. 

One of them says a bunch of high school kids killed themselves around here, and we get flashes of that school girl again. This film, like the first one, has some voice over narration, but this time it’s by a female character, Mio. Mio dreams of that school girl, then tells us she’ll go back to Tokyo when this is over, as this place has too many bad memories for her.

While testing the game, Mio goes to kill M, but finds he’s already dead. This actual murder freaks the game-testers out, but they sit around and talk about it, rather than calling the police or going home, which is somewhat unbelievable. And while they start accusing each other, on the computer the game begins – with “God” and four players.

One girl does finally call the police, but we’ve already seen her do a couple of odd things at this point, so there is some doubt about whether she has really called them. She says the police want them all to stay there for questioning. Meanwhile the game continues, and the debuggers learn why they’re really there.

Toward the end, the film takes a strange tangent, suddenly offering a message against bullying that’s tied in with the information given earlier about the series of suicides in the area. Apparently, the guy who created Death Penalty.Com did so with the idea of ending bullying. I do like the idea of people doing the worst of things with the best of intentions, but it seems that in the process of testing the game, he would have realized that it wouldn’t have his desired effect.

Both films were directed by Ryota Sakamaki. The only special feature on this disc is a set of trailers.

This double feature of Death Penalty.Com and Death Penalty.Com 2: A New Beginning was released on March 12, 2013 by Danger After Dark.

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