Detention is an adaptation of a 2016 Taiwanese horror adventure game released exclusively on Steam by Red Candle Games, which has already stormed the box office in its home country as well as in nearby Hong Kong. It’s not difficult to see why; the film has a built-in audience and those who want to enjoy the kind of creepy ghost stories East Asia releases on the regular will surely opt for it on a Friday night multiplex trip. Weirdly, though, where most video-game adaptations lean too heavily on the source material, Detention strays too far away, opting for a moody, non-captivating relationship drama over any sustained scares.
The story is set in 1962 Taiwan, during the White Terror. With the territory under martial law, being caught reading so-called “banned” books frequently results in torture and even death. Thrust into this dark milieu are two young students trapped in the nice-sounding but totally creepy Greenwood high school overnight. Because there are only two characters, you expect the body count to be low, but flashbacks flesh out the story while also providing clues about the reality of the duo’s predicament. Before too long, evocative red candles (hey) are being used to light the way down foreboding hallways while ghost girls with crackling limbs lurk in the shadows.
Detention is a strange kind of misfire. It starts off strongly, with a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of beloved teacher Mr. Zhang (who has clearly left the building already, if you know what I’m saying) and a grave discovery in the school’s picturesque courtyard. The monster stalking the kids carries a lantern while the ghost girl haunting the halls has a Resident Evil-esque messed up face. There’s a cool effect with a swinging lamp illuminating spaces in a genuinely unnerving way, while ritualistic hangings and other state-sanctioned executions are interspersed throughout the narrative as the kids get progressively more lost and confused inside the building.
The issue is that director John Hsu, and his co-screenwriters Shih-Keng Chien and Lyra Fu, front-load all the scary stuff so that once it’s established that there’s something spooky going on, the action swerves to focus on a borderline inappropriate student-teacher relationship, dysfunctional parents – one of whom prays for the other to die and ominously intones “Buddha has answered my prayer” when it seems like it might actually happen – and, naturally, communist paranoia and the various historically-sound implications of the time (it’s entirely possible eastern audiences are getting more out of Detention because they’re more familiar with the subject material, of course).
While the propaganda element is certainly timely, it’s not explained adequately to give insiders something to hook into. Likewise, dividing the movie up into chapters makes it feel longer than it is and doesn’t necessarily clarify anything either. The movie doesn’t feel like a video-game adaptation because the characters are so fleshed out and the performances are committed and lightly nuanced, but that’s also what drags it down because so much emphasis is placed on the interpersonal dramas over creating a tense, dangerous atmosphere. The central mystery isn’t even that hard to figure out, so it’s annoying that it takes the characters so long to get it (the payoff is oddly sweet though, even if the emotional crux is misplaced).
This sounds like a completely insane complaint to make about a video-game adaptation, but maybe if the filmmakers had been more faithful to the source material, Detention could’ve been as terrifying as the game reportedly is. Hsu’s film isn’t a complete dud, of course; the central location is creepily dilapidated, and there’s real warmth to the cinematography in spite of the chilly atmosphere. Compared to the deathly dull Silent Hill movies, this is a masterpiece of reinvention but, as it stands, Detention relies on dodgy CGI for its spirits and isn’t particularly scary, which will disappoint fans of the game. For everybody else, it’s puzzlingly anemic as a horror movie and wholly unsatisfying as a character-driven drama. An impressively put together and performed miss, but a worthy adaptation when it does stray into creepier territory.
WICKED RATING: 5/10