Director Adam Wingard walked haplessly into the volley fire of internet-trench-warfare in August, as Netflix deployed it’s much anticipated American adaption of Death Note.
Cult fans of the beloved manga franchise created by Tsunami Ohba and Takeshi Obata were all writing the name Adam Wingard in their note books, and picturing his face, as they wrote their scathing critiques, the moment the film dropped. The attack was swift, and the judgement was brutal; Death Note sucked.
But now that the smoke has cleared, some have doubts on the justice of the mob ruling.
After all, let’s not forget the underlying themes of Death Note; justice, use and abuse of power. Power, which we all have at our fingertips, in the age when mob mentality can snowball in Facebook posts and Youtube comments – resulting in an avalanche of negative energy. On the richter scale, however, this was not Ghostbusters 3 (see our review here). The reviews were mixed.
Wingard may not be a household name, but as a director of horror movies, he has integrity, kicking off his career with Home Sick (2007), a brave splatterfest unprecedented in the modern era. He also directed tape 56 of the now iconic VHS (2012-2014) series, the glue which held that franchise together. He is a competent stylist, and can direct an engaging horror plot.
Death Note follows the story of Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a high school student who finds an enchanted notebook, the titular ‘Death Note’. Coming into alliance with the death God Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), Light finds he has the power to cause the death of anyone whose name is written inside the pages.
Taken in a certain way, this could easily be a metaphor for the modern power of internet lynch mobs to change the fate of society, and indeed the modern Roman colosseum of thumbs down and thumbs up – which decide the fate of a film’s success or failure in the digital landscape.
Whilst reviews of Death Note have been largely negative, many at least have praised the stylistic direction of Wingard, and some of the cast performances. Willem Dafoe is an obvious standout as the shinigami death god Ryuk, but I think Nat Wolff is also underrated as the film’s edgy, emo protagonist. Some blame Wolff’s pale, wan look for the moody Twilight-style character drama of this adaption. But let’s face it, this kid looks exactly like a manga character, with his bleached hair and angular eyebrows — and simultaneous likability and psychopathy. Wolff has the classic horror persona of those teen drama oriented slasher films of the 1980’s — facial expressions filled with ennui, moodiness and angst that sometimes evokes Gyllenhall’s Donnie Darko— or a wimpier Bruce Campbell.
It wouldn’t be the first time an American adaption of a Japanese classic got it slightly wrong. In this case the fault seems to mainly lie in trying to cram 107 chapters, or 39 episodes of a manga/anime series into 100 minutes. But like Gore Verbinski’s remake of Ringu (1998) and the subsequent trend of American/Japanese remakes (The Grudge (2004), The Eye (2008), Dark Water (2005)) — there’s always going to be some appeal lost in cultural translation.
Taken on it’s own merit, Death Note is a worthy addition to the landscape of modern horror. Let’s not pretend the manga and anime series didn’t have their own failings. The multiple Shinigami and their video-game persona owners in Ohma’s original manga, sometimes play off as cheesy and cartoony as Pokemon or Homestuck. Meanwhile, some scenes in the remake ooze class, as they evoke classic 1970’s horror films. For instance, the opening decapitation scene when Light first uses the Death Note is straight out of the original Omen (1976) film. Fans of horror can be safe with the knowledge that Wingard is a fan of the genre, perhaps more so than he is a faithful adaptor of anime.
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its flaws. Some of the drama and pacing in this movie is weak. The relationship between Light and his father (Shea Whigham) doesn’t come off as believable at all. Light and Mia (Margaret Qualley) are well developed, but the tension between them seems to get more and more underplayed towards the overplayed climax of the film. Keith Stanfield has an interesting take on “L”, the detective investigating the Kira murders, but the playoff of the audience’s expectations is not as well conveyed as the anime series, where the viewer really questioned who they should barrack for.
Netflix’s Death Note is not a faithful adaption for the cult fanbase of the original series. However, as a standalone horror film, Wingard’s film is entirely watchable, and the powerful themes of Tsunami Ohba’s writing are successfully translated to the screenplay format.
The movie is far from perfect, but if you’re a horror fan, and you aren’t familiar with the original work; if the little icon in your recommended movies keeps popping up and you’re wondering wether you could be bothered giving it a go; if you’re bored on a Sunday night with nothing else to watch – in my opinion you could do a lot worse than Netflix’s Death Note.
The film was initially pegged to be a Hollywood Blockbuster produced by Warner Brothers, but it got bogged down in pre-production. Netflix (being the hip, down-with-the-street-kids company that it imagines itself to be)— was hoping to cash in on the pre-existing cult-coolness of the franchise by picking up the morally controversial film. Unfortunately for Netflix, in its recent slew of poor decisions, the movie has absolutely isolated the fanbase and garnered all sorts of negative attention.