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Frightfest 2017 Review: Death Note

Ryuk in Death Note

Adam Wingard, the horror hero behind the likes of You’re Next, The Guest and Blair Witch, has taken quite a battering over his adaptation of super-popular manga Death Note. At the time of writing, he’s (bravely) laughing off a barrage of negative comments on Twitter, mostly from fans who would’ve rather Wingard had left well enough alone. We don’t need an Americanised Death Note, they wail. You got this character’s HAT WRONG, they whine.

Truth be told, Wingard doesn’t deserve the predominantly negative reaction. For one thing, his Death Note doesn’t, like this year’s ghastly Ghost In The Shell, conclude with Nat Wolff’s Light revealing that, actually, he is really Asian after all. Rather, the demonstrably talented filmmaker has made exactly what he set out to make; an American take on a popular story to lure in viewers such as myself, who wouldn’t touch the manga but hear his name and sign right up.

Charisma vacuum Wolff is Light, an angry young man who comes upon the titular notebook almost immediately once the film begins. The Nice Guys Margaret Qualley is the bad girl he’s almost certainly going to fall in love with, the kind of chick who continues smoking even when the heavens have opened because she just doesn’t give a f**k. Willem Defoe is Ryuk, the demon supposedly in charge of the book. Lakeith Stanfield is L, a mysterious foe for Light.


That’s the crux of it, the emphasis here being on style rather than substance. Wingard wisely keeps things simple, story-wise, and super-stylised everywhere else (a decision sure to isolate some). Light and Mia use the Death Note to off people they believe aren’t deserving of their lives (a bit like Jigsaw, but without all that overly earnest posturing about valuing life and blah blah blah), get drunk with power and catch the attention of L as well as the local law enforcement, of which Light’s father is a member.

This is where things get slightly tricky. A certain suspension of disbelief is required to understand how Light’s Pop doesn’t immediately guess it’s his son doing all the killing. But let that go and Death Note is a lot of fun. Stanfield is an absolute hoot as L, while Defoe’s performance has a touch of Freddy Krueger to it.

Wingard, a fan of practical over CG, keeps Ryuk mostly in shadows so the dodgy computer FX don’t take us out of the story. His dark presence is more keenly felt as a result. His character design, as teased by the initial trailer reveal, is super cool and the gravelly voice Defoe adopts makes the well-judged moments of humour (“I don’t have a pen” Light deadpans at one point) hit harder.

death-note-light-and-lThe comedic moments are natural and unforced, as opposed to the usual brand of annoying, Marvel-esque teenage japes that grate pretty much immediately. Death Note is fairly emo and Twilight-y (thought thankfully not as mind-numbingly serious) but Wingard’s horror credentials are front and centre in the film’s unexpectedly gruesome deaths.

The main issue (aside from a bizarre AHS reference) is with Wolff, who’s a blank slate totally unsuited to this kind of emotive material. He fades into the background, particularly next to Qualley’s spark-plug. She, forgive the pun, lights up every scene she’s in while he might as well have a lampshade on his head. It’s a shame, because he showed real promise opposite Cara Delevigne in Paper Planes.

The main issue people seem to have with Death Note, aside from the usual “ruining the thing I love” non-arguments, is how earnest it is, but can we really fault Wingard for believing in what he’s doing? True, the ending leaves room for further installments that may never come, and the thing likely would’ve worked better as an episodic TV show, à la Stranger Things, Riverdale, etc. but for what it’s worth, you could do a lot worse.

Director(s): Adam Wingard
Writer(s): Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Stars: Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Willem Defoe, Lakeith Stanfield
Release: August 25, 2017 (Netflix)
Studio/ Production Co: Vertigo Entertainment
Language: English
Length: 101 minutes

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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