Full disclosure: I was not that interested in watching Temple until I saw that screenwriter Simon Barrett (A Horrible Way To Die, V/H/S, You’re Next, The Guest) was attached. Then I read a blog post about the film from Barrett himself. He detailed how he’d worked on the script with JT Perry (Hellbenders) between 2010 and 2012, but after only receiving partial payment from the producers for his work, he never heard from them again.
Still, I wondered, how bad could this movie be? As it turns out, pretty bad.
The film opens in the present day in the Tojigi Prefecture, Japan. There are police officers poking around the forest with flashlights. One of them sees something disturbing in an old temple but we don’t see what happens, only a splash of blood on the pages of an old book on the floor.
The opening credits then indicate that in 1968 six children went missing in a Japanese temple and were never found. A monk at the temple was murdered but no one knows why or if it was connected to the missing children.
Temple then cuts between scenes of a mysterious, injured person in a wheelchair being questioned by Japanese detectives and scenes of a student named Kate (Natalia Warner) talking to the camera. She explains that she is traveling to Japan to study Shinto and Buddhist temples. She’s bringing her boyfriend James (Brandon Sklenar) and her long-time best friend Christopher (Logan Huffman) who is just getting over a dark period in his life that came about after a bad breakup.
If you were thinking that the dynamic of a possible love triangle and the tease of a character’s troubled past could lead to something interesting, you would be wrong. It quickly becomes obvious that whatever work was done to Barrett’s script after he sent it to the producers removed any trace of his usual craftsmanship.
There are so many problems with this movie. Christopher’s past never comes into play. Kate is the least believable student of Religious Studies possible. The acting from both Warner and Huffman is terribly unconvincing and the only character who seems to have any agency is James, and he proves himself to be a jerk fairly early on and continues being a jerk until the end of the film.
In addition to mixing what seems to be a misguided attempt at found footage with a more conventional narrative, Temple isn’t even remotely terrifying. There are several badly executed jump scares, and stereotypical J-horror tropes like creepy children with missing eyes. There is a lot of mumbo jumbo about ghosts and curses. Worst of all, there are clichéd Japanese characters and cringe worthy exotification of Japanese culture, such as a mysterious figure in a rice hat by a fire.
The film either repeats itself or doesn’t give viewers enough information, and not in the way that engenders suspense or interest. One character repeats the story about the missing children and the murdered monk that was already covered in the opening credits sequence. Yet, when Chris gets pulled through the floor of the titular temple by someone or something, James takes one look at him and tells a worried Kate, “Well, looks like we’re going to have to stay the night,” a statement that comes across as both hilarious and confusing. It isn’t until maybe five minutes later that we realize Chris has been seriously injured; his leg is wrapped in a makeshift splint.
The movie ends as confusingly as it began with Kate running through an abandoned mine, Chris killing James for no reason, and then Chris (in the present day with the cops) going crazy and attacking everyone. The only remotely interesting thing about Temple is the creature design. Yes, there’s a creature. No, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Temple represents veteran cinematographer Michael Barrett’s (no relation to Simon) directing debut. Let’s hope he picks a better script next time around.
Temple opens on Friday, September 1 in select theaters and VOD.