That Temple is written by Simon Barrett, who’s evinced a gift for cannily mining the psychosexual tensions between characters in films like The Guest to nerve-jangling effect, suggests that it will devote itself to playfully bucking convention. But the first sign that no such promise will be fulfilled comes right away. Inside a fluorescent-lit eyesore of a hospital in Tokyo, a wheelchair-bound American, covered in plastic because of his horribly disfigured face, is pushed down a hallway just slowly enough for one to make out the shadowy figure of a child in the distance. And by the time reams of backstory have been delivered unto us by way of a series of videos conveniently located on a laptop and the story flashes back to “five days earlier,” viewers have effectively been put in the position of giving the side-eye to more than just the creepy children in this walking tour of J-horror’s hoariest signposts.
In the film, three young Americans descend upon Tokyo on the pretext of Kate (Natalia Warner), a religious studies major, wanting to study Buddhist temples. Her best friend, Chris (Logan Huffman), ostensibly tags along because he speaks Japanese, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s really because Kate’s boyfriend, James (Brandon Tyler Sklenar), requires a target at which to aim his dude-bro insecurities. Also, Chris lost a brother in a horrific accident and at one point had some kind of breakdown, so traveling to Japan is a way for him to recalibrate his sense of being, as well as cast some kind of doubt over the source of the horrific events that befall the trio once an old manuscript obligatorily steers them in the direction of a nefarious temple.
Temple is directed by Michael Barrett (no relation to Simon) with a slick, workmanlike plainness that, while reverential of the story’s Japanese landscapes, promises no real frisson of excitement. There’s something to the way that James almost appears to play-act being intimidated by Chris, as if cognizant that his girlfriend’s buddy is truly the least sexually threatening version of a love child of Jared Leto and Jake Gyllenhaal imaginable. But this is a friction that ultimately yields no sparks. At one point, Chris records Kate and James as they make out in their shared bedroom in the middle of the night—a sudden act of indiscretion, if not exactly perversion, coming from someone who’s displayed no sense of sexual desire up to this point, until the viewer realizes that the moment exists simply to allow for Chris’s camera to catch sight of a dark figure walking past the room’s shoji screens.
It’s easy to imagine Adam Wingard voluptuously confronting the dimensions of Chris’s Japanophilia and Kate’s fixation on the relationship between religion and myth, even if just on the level of soundtrack. (Maybe during the club scene where Chris half-heartedly speaks to a girl while James, on the dance floor, cheats on Kate and in effect signs his death certificate.) But in the Temple that exists, the characters’ desires are just soulless prompts in a screenplay that’s content to simply have three Americans come face to face with the clichés popularized by J-horror. The scares may be less schlocky in execution than the viewer might expect, but that’s ultimately a misleading pretense to seriousness, as the film is truly only in the business of supplying the sort of fear that hinges entirely on the shock of the exotic.