by Carlo Santos,

Gregory Horror Show

DVD 1: The Nightmare Begins

Gregory Horror Show DVD 1
On an ominous night, a nameless, faceless stranger loses his way in the woods and stumbles upon a decrepit old hotel called the Gregory House. Having nowhere else to go, he decides to check in for the night—and unwittingly becomes the newest lodger in a boarding house for freaks. The rodent proprietor of the hotel, Gregory, is the least of the stranger's problems as he encounters all sorts of bizarre creatures: a cat whose orifices have been sewn shut, a reptilian nurse with a sexual fetish for drawing blood, the conscience-weighing Judgement Boy, and even Gregory's domineering mother. This nameless man's early attempts to escape all fail, but just as he begins to accept his fate, the secrets of the Gregory House begin to crumble, revealing a way out that may be even more nightmarish than permanent residence at the hotel.
It's hard to evaluate Gregory Horror Show as an anime production when it completely defies all preconceptions about what anime is. If defined strictly as "animation from Japan," then it certainly falls into that category, but with its blocky, all-CGI look, a principal character that's never seen or named, and English-only audio in this release, it could very well be an entrant to the Spike and Mike Animation Festival. If your idea of anime is shiny hair, vibrantly colored worlds and epic storylines, then prepare to have those ideas assaulted when you watch this show.

Surprisingly, the premise of Gregory Horror Show isn't too bizarre—the guest-turned-prisoner idea has been around since at least the original Dracula novel, and here it's played up to the point of being campy. What makes this anime an oddity in the story department is its structure: divided into 25 two- to three-minute "nights," the show intentionally constrains itself to brief bursts of plot. Even so, it falls into the usual trap of developing a continuing storyline about halfway through. For this reason it's best viewed in one sitting, and after a while even the short but repetitive opening sequence gets interesting as the main character's introductory narrations move the plot forward.

Although it's billed as a horror/comedy, the early episodes of Gregory Horror Show are just character vignettes that aren't particularly scary or funny, and for those familiar with horror clichés, they're predictable too. However, this is one series that's worth defending with the "it gets better" clause. As the main character gets caught up in trying to escape from the hotel and uncover its secrets, the series develops something that's worth more than gore or cheesy laughs: suspense. The later episodes become a gripping quest in finding the way out of Gregory House, and the conclusion—while not the most innovative—is a chilling reminder of why the scariest nightmares are the ones we create ourselves.

So, who is this mysterious nameless-and-faceless character who must claw his way out of Gregory House? Judging by the creators' intentions, it's YOU. Almost the entire story is told from first-person perspective, placing the viewer inside the main character's head. This is an ambitious attempt to make the story hit closer to home, but for the most part it comes off as contrived—and with the all-CGI look, it feels like being stuck in a first-person shooter video game. "Interacting" with the other characters is more fun, however: Gregory the mouse starts out as a flat stereotype of a creepy hotel owner but develops into an amusing adversary, and his supporting cast turns out to be more multi-dimensional than their early appearances suggest.

What really puts Gregory Horror Show in the "experimental" category is the raw visual style that looks like nothing in mainstream anime. Given adequate CGI software but lacking the talent or budget of a full-blown studio, the animators have devised a 3-D style that lends more eeriness to the series than any of the story elements. The blocky-headed residents of Gregory House have an air of evil cuteness about them—like someone translated Sanrio characters into CGI and then warped them beyond recognition (of course, simplified blocky characters are also easier to animate than rounded, realistic ones). The mathematically directed motions of computer animation also cause the characters to glide and amble around in a way that accentuates their detachment from reality. These techniques, however, could also be dismissed as amateurish shortcuts rather than conscious attempts to evoke a surreal style. Nowhere is this more evident than in the backgrounds, where strangely shiny wooden doors and stagnant fog do a better at pointing out "This is a CGI production!" than creating a gloomy atmosphere.

With only an English-language audio option, viewers of Gregory Horror Show will have to set aside their dub vs. sub conflicts and settle for the dub version. In fact, if not for the brief live-action segments that are distinctly set in Japan, this entire DVD could pass for a low-budget American production. Our nameless first-person character is voiced in a fairly straight-ahead manner, while the remaining characters make it a point to over-act their roles. In a show that makes no attempt to be realistic, this is understandable, but even Gregory's creepy-hotel-owner routine becomes grating after a while, especially with the high-pitched laugh. Don't expect any shades of nuance here—just voice actors having a raucous time with some really bizarre characters.

No horror production is complete without a spine-tingling music score, but sadly, the sounds of Gregory Horror Show are quite forgettable. Aside from a few well-placed chords of surprise, this show ignores music's power to create a mood, relying instead on the old clichés of quivering strings and dissonant notes as a background.

If you've grown tired of corporate-produced, merchandising-oriented anime and have ever wondered what kind of experimental animation exists in Japan, then Gregory Horror Show offers one such glimpse into that netherworld. It's an uneven production, with the technical aspects clearly hampered by budget limitations. On the other hand, the story isn't all that bad once it picks up, and the amateurish visual style becomes more confident towards the later episodes. At just 73 minutes, this stand-alone first volume is worth watching at least once, but make sure to check your definitions of anime at the door.
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : N/A
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : C
Music : C-

+ A rare glimpse into Japanese experimental animation, featuring shades of the absurd and macabre
Like many experimental works, amateurish in its production values and sometimes contrived

Director: Kazumi Minagawa
Script: Naomi Iwata
Original creator: Naomi Iwata
Kousei Kanou
Shigemi Morioka

Full encyclopedia details about
Gregory Horror Show (TV)

Release information about
Gregory Horror Show - The Nightmare Begins (DVD 1)

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