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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Death Bell is like Saw meets Battle Royale (that ultra-violent Japanese movie where students are sent to a deserted island to kill each other for a televised competition). America has a long history of horror movies in which teens die, but foreign horror films seem to be increasingly using the device to suggest cracks within the educational system. I suppose it makes sense; as a teen, very little in life seems as scary as high school, so why not make up scary stories about the experience?

In this case, the student body in question is pretty typical. You've got your hard workers, your slackers, and of course your class clown. There is also a teacher trying his hardest to get through to each of them. The lesson plan takes a pretty dramatic turn one afternoon when the school's closed-circuit TV signal is hijacked. Suddenly and without warning, the classroom television is broadcasting a live feed of a student, chained inside a tank that is rapidly filling with water. Some kind of mathematical equation is scrawled on the side of that tank. A menacing voice tells the students that they need to solve the math problem before the tank fills, thus killing the girl.

One by one, other students start disappearing, only to later pop up on that same TV signal. Each of them risks a gruesome death unless his/her peers can solve some academic trick. Since this is a horror movie, I doubt it's giving anything away to say that they generally fail. One of the kids eventually figures out that there is an order to the abductions, which in turn leads to a shocking secret about who is orchestrating the whole thing.

So on one hand, Death Bell is a torture porn flick (albeit less graphic than American ones) and on the other it's a social commentary about how today's teens need increased motivation to really buckle down and learn. Interesting combination. Does it work? Yes and no. As a curiosity, it absolutely works. The premise is utterly preposterous, yet there is something about it that I found compulsively watchable. I mean, imagine it - teenage viewers are lured in by the grossout stuff, only to find that they're actually being delivered a sermon about their own scholastic apathy. It's almost brilliant in conception. It's also fun in a completely gonzo way.

As a legitimate story, Death Bell works a little less successfully. Some of the cultural things are, I believe, lost in translation. Nothing too major - just some of the little details that are confusing to us but which probably signify something very specific in the movie's native land. Also, the way the plot unfolds is a bit confusing at times. It is not always clear what puzzle the kids are trying to solve. Later on, the movie tries to squeeze in a bit of a ghost story that doesn't exactly fit with everything else. This leads to the finale, which scrambles to identify the killer in a way that makes sense, even though it more or less comes out of nowhere.

Death Bell is the kind of movie that's worth watching, with conditions. You have to like foreign oddities. You need to be in the mood for something where a cool concept is more important than an effective execution. Watching with some like-minded friends would help. In short, it's the kind of picture I would talk up to buddies who I know will watch a film simply because it's kind of messed up. Hey, I would say, you've got to check this out! And they would. And we'd talk about how bizarre and strange it was, without ever saying that it was "good" or "well made." A curiosity piece - that's what Death Bell is. If you dig them from time to time - and I do - it's a mindless way to waste 90 minutes of your day.

Death Bell is available from IFC on Demand until January 12, 2010. If your cable company offers this service, you can order it with the push of a button.

( 1/2 out of four)

Death Bell is unrated but contains bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.

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