Now that kids are back in school and Labor Day has come and gone, it feels like summer is all but over and we’re heading into fall. I’m seeing a few leaves just starting to change and there’s already Halloween decorations popping up in retail aisles, but the real signs that autumn is upon us: the Belcourt Theatre’s Italo Shock: The Night Has 1000 Knives series is about to start and the new feature film version of Stephen King’s IT will also be in theaters in September. It’s safe to say that scary movie season is about to click into high gear, and Netflix’ new original film, Death Note, is the first monster clawing its way out from under the bed.
Death Note premiered on Netflix on Aug. 25, and the film is based on the Japanese manga of the same name. The film tells the tale of Light Turner, a bullied, nerdish high school student who finds a demonic book that literally falls out of the sky during a thunderstorm. Shortly after Light begins reading the book, he finds out that the tome also comes complete with its own “death god” named Ryuk – a 7-foot tall goblin-like creature played by Willem Dafoe. Ryuk explains to Light that if he writes a name in the blank pages in the back of the book then that person will die. Let’s just say Light’s bullies won’t be bothering him anymore.
A lot of the set-up in the movie’s first act doesn’t fully dovetail. This story is less than logical at times, but, of course, Death Note is a movie that stars Dafoe playing a 7-foot tall demon. Death Note doesn’t have a flawless screenplay, but it does have interesting characters, gushing gore and a cool take on what might happen if you give an angsty teenager power over life and death.
Death Note also comes complete with some of the retro referencing and conspiratorial stylings that made the Netflix series Stranger Things such a big hit: the score recalls the pulsating compositions of electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder and the soundtrack includes 1980s hits like INXS’ “Don’t Change” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” At one point a scene from the cult classic horror flick Phantasm (1979) can be seen on a television screen, and a mysterious police investigator named “L” has a backstory that includes allusions to the infamous conspiracy theories about the Montauk Project.
There’s a lot to like here, but even though the movie has only been online for a little over a week a lot of reviews from critics and viewers are coming in thumbs down. As I mentioned, the screenplay plays fast and loose with several aspects of its own continuity. In addition, the retro music and references don’t make a whole lot of sense in a story set in the present day – it’s as if the filmmakers wanted a bit of that Stranger Things magic without fully committing to a period film. And some write-ups are even accusing the movie of “white-washing” – this adaptation is set in America instead of Japan, and it’s almost completely bereft of any Asian characters save for one supporting role, and the Ryuk creature which is a distinctly Japanese monster. All of these criticisms could honestly be leveled against this movie, but I think its greatest sin is that we’re watching films and television in the midst of a science fiction and fantasy renaissance where anything that’s not as good as the excellent Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, Black Mirror or Planet of the Apes reboots pales in comparison.
But, here’s the thing: even though sci-fi and fantasy can offer deep, moving allegories about the human condition, they can also offer great visuals, compelling speculations about the nature of reality and fun questions like, “What if a teenage boy in Seattle had the power of a god?” Death Note may not be the best new horror fantasy of the decade, but it has got a great mix of stylish cinematography, paranoid mystery, gory effects and – don’t forget – Dafoe in a role that will please fans of his over-the-top performances as the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films. If you like your horror films that mix fun with frights, you’ll enjoy this bookish bogeyman tale.
Death Note is streaming on Netflix.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist and performing singer/songwriter based in East Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.