Shutter (2008) – Horror Film Review

Japanese kaidan are suffering from a severe case of cinematic over-exposure. The bright light of the projector bulb has burned away most of the mystery surrounding the various yurei, onryo, zashiki-warashi, and jikininki that have haunted the screen since Sadako emerged from her well in 1998’s RING. If there is a “seen it all before” ennui to recent Asian offerings, the American remakes have taken repetition one step further, creating a series of photo duplicates that have been variously air-brushed, blown-up, brightened, blurred, cropped, sharpened, and stylized in a failed attempt to surpass the superiority of the originals. SHUTTER, the latest photographic enlargement of an Asian horror picture, is clearer and sharper than many of its predecessors, but even the most expert re-touching cannot obscure the fact that we have seen it all before – and seen it again – many times.
The story follows Ben (Joshua Jackson) and Jane (Rachael Taylor), young newlyweds on honeymoon in Japan. Driving late at night, Jane hits a Japanese woman in the middle of an isolated road, but no body is found. Later, Ben, a professional photographer, finds that all the images from a lavish photo-shoot in Tokyo are inexplicably marred by streaks of light. Jane soon comes to believe that these flaws are actually examples of “Spirit Photography,” caused by the ghost of the woman she ran over. Ben dismisses the idea until the ghost turns its attention on him, but he remains reluctant to pursue the mystery to its conclusion. Jane continues searching and finds that the horrible secret underlying the haunting lies closer to home than she ever imagined.
SHUTTER is a little bit different from the typical J-Horror remake: it is not an American remake of a Japanese horror film; it is an American-Japanese remake of a Thai horror film. Producer Taka Ichise (who gave us the RING and JU-ON films) is on board, with direction provided by Masayuki Ochiai (INFECTION). The Japanese involvement infuses the film with an Asian appearance that distinguishes it from solo American efforts. The Tokyo locations look great, and Jane’s the fish-out-of-water predicament rings true. Still, with a blonde American woman seeking the truth about a dead, dark-haired Japanese girl, one cannot ignore the rather obvious similarity to THE GRUDGE (a previous Ichise production).

For J-Horror fans, it is fun to see Megumi Okina (who was so good as Rika in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, the Japanese predecessor to THE GRUDGE) graduate to playing a ghost, appropriately named Megumi. (This development fulfills the promise of JU-ON, whose ending implied that the baton had been passed from the vengeful spirit Kayako to Rika, suggesting that she would take over haunting duties in the sequel. That never happened, but thanks to SHUTTER Okina at last has a chance to scare rather than be scared.) Unfortunately, the remake drastically reduces the ghost’s frightful appearance. In the Thai film, Natre (Achita Sikamana) resembled a walking corpse; here, Megumi resembles a standard issue pale-faced, dark-haired ghost girl. The one attempt to avoid the usual visual cliche – giving Megumi shoulder-length hair instead of the long straggly locks of Sadako and Kayako – only emphasizes her relatively prosaic appearance, further diminishing the fright factor. The film attempts to compensate by making Megumi into a bit of a supernatural seductress, which creates a few nice moments, but the limits of the PG-13 rating prevent the idea from achieving its full potential.
This tendancy to crop the horror out of the picture extends to SHUTTER as whole. While padding out the story with additional character scenes and exposition, the script deletes several of the scariest moments (such as the scene wherein Natre emerged from the sink in her ex-boyfriend’s dark room). This unbalances the picture, with the contrast between horror and drama weighted too heavily in favor of the latter.
The result is a modestly interesting mystery-thriller, punctuated by occasional flashes of supernatural dread (in one case literally so: in a nicely staged scene lifted from the original, Ben’s photo studio goes dark, while he is menaced by the ghost, glimpsed only in the flash from his lighting equipment). There are several nice moments like this (Ben is joined by his wife in his darkroom – or so he thinks, until she calls him on his cell phone and realizes someone – or something else – has been standing beside him).
However, the overall the pacing is slow until Jane finally throws light on the mystery. Director Ochiai adopts the solemn tone and measured pace that served Hideo Nagata well in RING, but it does not work as well here, because SHUTTER lacks the ticking countdown that made RING suspenseful from start to finish, even when nothing exciting was happening on screen. With a first act devoted to establishing the characters and a second act taking those characters on the traditional arc from skepticism to belief, SHUTTER does not give horror its close-up until the finale.
The screenplay works commendably hard to present a compelling story about a young couple whose blissful relationship is put to the test, with the supernatural serving as a catalyst for change. It is an interesting angle on the familiar subject matter, but the focus is blurred by the necessity of bringing American audiences up to speed on the subject of spirit photography (a subject that the original film was able to take a bit more for granted). When a supporting character conveniently announces that her ex-boyfriend works at a magazine publishing spirit photography, she gets more laughs than Basil Exposition ever did in the AUSTIN POWERS movies – her function in the film could not be any more obvious if she wore a t-shirt emblazoned “writer’s device.” This leads to a one-scene cameo by HEROES’ James Kyson Lee, who unconvincingly tries to convince us that spirit photography is a real phenomenon.
The remake does have some nice touches. There is more than a hint of frat house sleaze among Ben’s male friends in Tokyo, suggesting past indiscretions before Jane was around. The slightly too intimate way Ben’s female acquaintances treat him is perfectly calibrated: is there really something for Jane to worry about, or has her judgment been blurred by culture shock? The script unnecessarily tries to clarify details of the haunting that the original left vague (why does the ghost, who prefers to manifest on photographs, first appear in the middle of the road?), but in some cases it improves upon story points, particularly in regard to the revelation of what happened to Megumi.
The flashback to the atrocity is one of the best in the film, a harrowing real-life kind of incident that is less visually explicit than the original but far more poignant. The writing, performances, and direction combine to perfectly portray the complicity that arises from failure to act. Megumi’s drug-dimmed half-awareness of what is happening to her – in front of someone who refuses to intervene despite her desperate appeal for help – is heart-breaking, and completely justifies the retribution that her spirit wrecks on the characters responsbile. The final revelation of what form this revenge takes retains the power of the original Thai film, provoking a wonderful surge of complex emotions. It is eerie but appropriate; even as the shudder passes down your spine, you know that justice has been done.

Megumi Okina as the mysterious ghost

SHUTTER (2008). Directed by Masayuki Ochiai. Directed by Luke Dawson. Cast: Joshua Jackson, Rachael Taylor, Megumi Okina, John Hensley, Maya Hazen, David Denman, Adrienne Pickering, James Kyson Lee, Albert Smith, Daisy Betts, Natalie N. Okamoto.

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