Laserblast 1/04/2011: The Last Exorcism on Blu-ray, DVD & VOD

Also: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA SEASON FOUR Blu-ray, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: SEASON 8 MOTION COMIC Blu-ray & DVD Combo, Four-Film Collections

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2011 begins with a bang – or at least a sulfurous blast of demonic hellfire – thanks to the home video release of THE LAST EXORCISM on DVD, Blu-ray, and Video on Demand. Although the film does not fully deliver on its promise, it is quite effective for most of its length, and those who missed in theatres should takes this opportunity to check it out. For those interested in the behind the scenes details, the discs come with some attractive bonus features.
DVD & BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • Actor and Director commentary with Daniel Stamm, Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian and Louis Herthum
  • Audio commentary with Producers Eli Roth, Eric Newman and Tom Bliss
  • “The Devil You Know: The Making of The Last Exorcism” featurette
  • “Real Stories of Exorcism” featurette
  • 2009 Cannes Film Festival teaser trailer

In addition, the Blu-ray offers these features not available on the DVD:

  • “Witnesses to an Exorcism: An Audio Commentary with a Haunting Victim, Deliverance Minister and Clinical Psychologist”
  • Audition footage
  • Theatrical trailer
  • BD Touch and Metamenu Remote

That’s about it for new horror, fantasy, and science fiction titles arriving on home video this Tuesday; most of the remaining releases are repackages of previously available titles.
Fans who just can’t get no satisfaction with reruns of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER will be pleased to see the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER SEASON 8 MOTION COMIC, which continues the adventures of the monster-killing blonde chick, which arrives as a combo pack containing Blu-ray and DVD.
If your taste turns more toward science fiction, you may prefer the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA SEASON FOUR Blu-ray disc. There was a previous BATTLESTAR GALACTICA SEASON 4.5 Blu-ray release in 2007. I will leave it to the hardcore fans to determine whether they want to double dip.
Several economy packages hit store shelves. Clive Barker’s BOOK OF BLOOD arrives in a “Horror 2-Pack” DVD with MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. GRAVES and ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION are joined in a “Double Feature” Blu-ray. Pacific Entertainment offers 25 FRIGHT NIGHT CLASSICS, starring the likes of Boris Karloff, Leslie Neilsen, William Shatner, and Drew Barrymore in titles you’ve never heard of and which the actors would probably prefer it stayed that way.
As if that were not enough for penny-pinching purchasers, there is a series of discs bearing the label “Four Film Collection,” which true to their name offer a quadruple does of terror. Sometimes the combinations  seem apprpriate; at other times, it seems like whatever was contractually available was thrown together. For example, putting LEPRECHAUN 1 through 4 in a package makes sense (or at least as much sense of releasing a LEPRECHAUN movie can), but simultaneous releasing a disc with PUMPKIN HEAD II, LEPRECHAUN, WISHMASTER, and WISHMASTER 2 is a bit of a jumble. Even more discordant is the combination of THE EYE (the American remake of the Chinese original), JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (the Japanese original that was remade with American stars), BUG (the psycho-drama directed by William Friedkin), and ALONE IN THE DARK (an obscure thriller starring Christian Slater as a private investigator who specializes in supernatural phenomena). A bit more comfortable nestled together are BORDERLAND, DARK RIDE, UNEARTHED, and THE GRAVE DANCERS: although not labeled as such, all of these titles have appeared under the After Dark Horrorfest label, which gives weekend-long theatrical exposure to films that otherwise would go straight to video. Of these, THE GRAVE DANCERS is probably the best film ever to screen as part of the horror fest.
These and other titles are available in the Cinefantastique Online Store.
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The One You Might Have Saved

Barbra (Judith O'Dea) in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEADRiffing on an earlier essay at Arbogast on Film, Final Girl offers this opinion on why Barbra in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), is the one horror movie victim she would have saved if she had the chance. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) of course receives undue contempt from contemporary audiences because she is – realistically and quite believably – traumatized by the horrible events around her; instead of morphing into a monster-fighting icon of female empowerment (something that would not really happen until Sigourney Weaver played Ripley in ALIEN eleven years later), Barbra simply sinks into catatonia until she briefly flares up at the end – only to be devoured by her dead brother. Barbra sets the standard as the archetypal character who cannot handle what is happening (she foreshadows Veronica Cartwright in ALIEN and Bill Paxton in ALIENS), and her ultimate fate is less shocking than deeply disturbing – which is to say it packs a deep emotional resonance that provokes viewers to think, “Oh no!” instead of “Ain’t it cool!”
I have never had quite such a memorably profound reaction to the death of an on-screen character as Final Girl records, but many are victims I have seen who did not deserve their fate. Below I offer my list…
A Woman of the Streets in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Arlene Francis (who would later become famous as a panelist on the TV show WHAT’S MY LINE) plays this euphemistically-named character (obviously a prostitute). Practically crucified on a rack, Francis screams – and screams – and SCREAMS while Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle examines her blood, hoping it will help his experiments. The way she is trussed up vaguely suggests some kind of S&M dungeon device, and this may be the distant grand-daddy of Torture Porn. And as if it were not enough to kill the woman, Mirakle insults her as well, adopting a tone of moral outrage because her blood is “polluted” (presumably symbolic of her state as a fallen woman), which means it is not suitable for his work. What is most amazing, however, is that this quaint relic from an earlier era actually still packs a punch, thanks to Francis’s unnerving vocalizations – which provoke an almost instinctive protective reaction in the listener.
Josef in THE BODY SNATCHERS (1945). Lugosi gets payback for Francis in this film, playing a dim-bulb assistant who makes the mistake of thinking he can blackmail the murderous body snatcher played by Boris Karloff. Josef is not much of a character, but it is sad to see Lugosi, briefly the reigning king of horror thanks to DRACULA, killed off by Karloff, the star who dethroned him by playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956). This is the one where meddling scientists operate on the Creature so that he can no longer breath underwater, forcing him to become a permanent land-walker. Some jerk commits a murder and tries to blame it on the innocent beast, who goes on a rampage, killing the real murderer. The Creature then heads to the ocean, lured by the sound of crashing waves, and the film leaves us in no doubt that he will drown to death attempting to return to the water that used to be his home. The humans in this film have much to answer for, and one wishes the Creature didn’t have to pay the price for their mistakes.
Dandelo in THE FLY (1958). Dandelo the cat becomes the unwitting victim of his master, scientist Andre Delambre (Al Hedison) who puts him in a matter transmitter. Dandelo disappears – but never rematerializes. All that is left is an echoing wale on the soundtrack. Poor Dandelo, I wish I could bring you back to our dimension; I have a little cat bed here, some cat toys, and a little catnip….
Miles in THE INNOCENTS (1961). Exorcising a malicious ghost proves to be a fatal experience for this young boy played by Martin Stephens. The tragedy of the downer ending hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. Did his governess (Deborah Kerr) save him from the evil influence, or did she unwittingly give him a heart attack by forcing him to confront the ghost? I don’t know if I could have handled the situation any better, but I would like to try.
The Monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969).This Japanese masterpiece tells the story of  Korean painter who can only paint what he sees. When his Japanese lord asks him to paint a divine vista, the artist insists on painting Hell instead. To aid in his endeavor, he asks his lord to stage a scene with a burning chariot; the lord complies – and puts the artist’s daughter in the chariot! As she burns to death, her pet monkey leaps from a nearby tree, joining her in the living funeral pyre. That’s right: in this film, no one comes to a good end – even the monkey dies! It’s such a gratuitous bit – an extra added sucker punch, just to make you feel even worse as you view the tragedy – that you want to point your fire extinguisher at the screen.
The Private Eye in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971).This Dario Argento thriller features a gay private detective in a supporting role. He brags that he has never solved a case but confidently insists that the odds must therefore now be in his favor. He does identify the murderer but only in time to become a victim himself. His demise by poison is poignant – as he realizes, at the moment of his death, that he was, for once, right. You really wish he had lived to enjoy his success instead of expiring ignominiously in a public restroom.
Dr. Martin in ASYLUM (1972). For me, actor Robert Powell will always be JESUS OF NAZARETH – that and the almost mystical father-figure in Ken Russell’s film version of TOMMY. The death of his well-meaning young psychiatrist at the end of this film is too horrible for words. Dr. Martin’s murder, I have to admit, is a pretty effective sick joke (the murderer strangles him with a stethoscope, then uses it to listen for the heartbeat that is no longer there). But the film had set him up as an idealist who objects – quite rightly – to the situation he finds in the asylum. When he dies, it is as if a small piece of hope dies with him.
Edward Lionheart in THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973). Vincent Price plays a hammy Shakespearean actor who kills the critics that trashed his performances. Although inspired by Price’s role in the DR. PHIBES films (in which the mad doctor triumphed), THEATRE reverts to a standard formula at the end, with Lionheart dying in a fire while the final critic walks away to live happily ever after. The injustice is infuriating: Lionheart should have survived and toasted the arrogant twit. (By the way, this is the only suggestion on my list that I mean literally: the film would be better if the script had been rewritten to make Lionheart triumphant.)
Sergeant Howie in THE WICKER MAN (1973). As he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a Scottish Isle, Howie (Edward Woodward) is set up as a bit of a dullard and an unsympathetic prick to boot. The effect for me is that he comes across as a pathetic patsy – a victim less of the murderous pagans on the island than of the unsympathetic screenwriter (Anthony Shaffer) who created him. Howie, I never really liked you that much, but I can’t stand to see anyone forced to take a fall like that. If there were any C02 left in my fire extinguisher after saving the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, I would use it on the flaming Wicker Man.
Jessica Bradford in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). We do not actually see Jessica (Olivia Hussey) die in this film, but the movie ends with her character drugged unconscious while the idiot police department (having fingered the wrong man) leaves her alone in the house with the real killer. Director Bob Clark later said in an interview with Cinefantastique that Hussey’s character had earned the right to live, and I have to agree. I have a hypodermic of adrenalin here that should wake her from her drugged-out torpor, if only I could reach through the screen…
Carrie in CARRIE (1976). I would have saved Sissy Spacek’s psychic girl long before her death at the end of the movie. When the film builds up to the horrible prank at the prom, it is one of the few moments in a horror film when I found myself dreading what was about to happen – even though I knew it had to happen in order for the horror to break out (which was, after all, what I had paid to see). Unlike most films, in which one eagerly anticipates this kind of thing, so that the film will get to the “good stuff,” I did find myself involuntarily reaching out to the screen, wanting to stop Nancy Allen from pulling that rope and dumping pig’s blood all over poor Carrie White.
Officer Jim Kelly in ALLIGATOR (1980). Robert Forster plays Madison, a cop who lost a partner years ago. When he needs someone to help check the sewers where some bodies have been found, most of his chicken-shit colleagues make up lame excuses, but Kelly (Perry Lang) steps forward – even though he knows about Madison’s past. Kelly’s reward for his courage is to be eaten by the titular alligator, while the cowards back at the precinct live to see another day. If Madison couldn’t save Kelly, I don’t know what I could do. Maybe flip the alligator on his back and rub his tummy till he fell asleep? (They say this works, but it never did with my pet alligator – I’d probably just end up joining Kelly’s dismembered body parts in the monster reptile’s gullet.)
Godzilla in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995). The radioactive reptile has been responsible for more death and destruction than one could possibly tally, but the payback he receives in this one more than settles his karma: a full-blown nuclear meltdown reduces the beast to nothing but a pile of ash blowing in the wind. There is a certain grandeur about this attempt to create a convincingly “final” death for the long-lived monster, but his destruction looks really, really painful. If I could just find a few cadmium rods to slow down the chain reaction before it reached critical levels…
The rat in THE EYE (2002). A distant cousin of the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, this rat serves a similar, though slightly vaguer purpose: it’s not enough for the humans to die, the filmmakers have to hammer home the relentless destruction by offing an innocent animal as well. Whatever the point, the rodent’s desperate but failed attempt to outrun the climactic conflagration by diving down a sewer pipe is a great piece of film-making – a perfect little exclamation point to the human destruction above ground. Poor rat, I wish I could adopt you and create a litte menagerie, including the monkey from PORTRAIT OF HELL and Dandelo the cat from THE FLY (I don’t think my facilities would accommodate Godzilla, however).
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The Eye (2008) – Horror Film Review

All too predictably, this remake of the Hong Kong horror film THE EYE (“Gin Gwai,” 200) recreates the original story with slick but anonymous Hollywood production values replacing personal vision. By now, the formula has become so mechanical that one wonders whether the filmmakers could be replaced with some kind of device, the cinematic equivalent of Photoshop, which would take the existing work and “retouch” it according to a programmed set of parameters: The dialogue must be translated into English. The location must be shift to the United States. The story should be presented more or less intact even if it makes less sense in its new language and location. To compensate for anything lost in translation, a few extra jump-scares should be added at arbitrary moments. The horror scenes should be enhanced with more elaborate makeup and/or special effects. The cast should be young and beautiful but not necessarily talented or famous. The script should spell everything out in letters as big as those on top of an eye-exam chart, lest viewers be too short-sighted to spot subtle details; and just in case, the actors should read the chart loudly, slowly, and clearly, so that the audience will hear everything they failed to see on their own. In the case of THE EYE, the result feels like a case of the blind leading the (presumed) blind – the filmmakers keep point to details that we see coming from a mile away.
The story features Jessica Alba as Sydney, a blind violinist who is able to see again after a corneal implant. Unaccustomed to vision, she cannot account for some of the strange sights she sees, including frightening figures who arrive to collect the souls of the dead at her hospital. Later, a series of visions and nightmares (including a rather lame haunted oven – shades of GHOSTBUSTERS’ haunted refrigerator) leads Sydney to discover the identity of her donor. This turns out to have been a young woman in Mexico, branded as a witch because she could forsee impending death (which she was powerless to prevent, because her warnings went unheeded).  On the way back from Mexico, the violinist and her doctor are trapped in a traffic jam: visions of flaming explosions foretell of approaching disaster, but can it be prevented…? 
Ripped from its cultural context, the story seems contrived and artificial, a curious spooky tale worth being retold at a slumber party sleepover but lacking much conviction. For example, in the original, the dark and placid figures who escort souls to the afterlife are based on the Buddhist equivalent of the Angel of Death; here, they are rendered as generic scarey boogeymen, who snarl a lot because they do not appreciate being observed by the living. Without the underlying belief system to buttress the story, the film wobbles with uncertainty. Sydney objects that her doctor does not believe her visions, but it is not clear what she believes them to be; she merely says that what she is seeing is “impossible,” imlying a certain lack of belief on her own part.
This uncertainty weakens the character, a problem exacerbated by the film’s attempt to play up her emotional distress. In a silly piece of melodrama that stalls the story midway, Sydney decides she has had enough of visions, breaks all her lighting fixtures, and wraps a cloth over her eyes, recreating her former blindness. In the context of a genre piece, the film simply is unable to sell the “drama,” which seems forced and contrived. (Curiously, Sydney’s whining self pity more closely resembles the ill-conceived characterization from THE EYE 2, which also short-circuited the story.)


Although Alba tries hard, she fails to overcome this limitation in the writing. She ably conveys Sydney’s emotional reaction to regaining her sight, but the script expects the impossible: Sydney is supposed to be simultaneously freaked out by her condition and also strong and determined enough to overcome it. This leads to some bizarre moments, such as an early scene wherein Sydney attempts to convince her doctor of her sincerity by taking his face in both hands – a ridiculously intimate gesture at far too early a stage in their relationship. (As dubious as the gesture is, far more amusing is the reaction – or non-reaction – of her doctor, played by Alessandro Nivola, to being touched by his ravishingly beautiful patient: no conflicting waves of attraction and guilt, of romantic desire checked by professional ethics. At most, he looks vaguely uncomfortable, like a teen-aged boy receving an unwanted kiss from his Great Aunt Tilly.)
To be fair, if you have not seen the original, the new version of THE EYE works well enough as a technically competent but artistically uninspired scare show; it faithfully recreates the original scares (including the famous elevator scene) and adds one or two new jumps. There are even one or two instances where, rightly,  the filmmakers attempt to correct flaws in the original vision.
We see a bit more of Sydney adjusting to life with vision. One very nice shot displays her adjusting to walking down crowded sidewalks, bumping into pedestrians who expect her to do her share in avoiding collisions – something she never had to worry about when her white can tipped people off to her blindness. There are other nice details: watching Sydney learn to sight read musical notation or falling back on her old habit of using an index finger to judge when a glass is full.
The screenplay also attempts to improve upon the ending. As good as the original EYE was, its story did feel a bit arbitrary; its full-circle structure left you feeling as if you had gone on a journey only to return to the same place, wondering what was the point. The remake goes for a SIGNS-type approach, implying that all the suffering and confusion was a thorny path leading to a decisive moment when Sydney can come to the rescue. It’s a laudable attempt to re-think something that did not quite work the first time, but it comes across as too pat. The closing narration, which spells it all out, only aggravates the problem.
As expected THE EYE ends up looking like a glassy imitation of its progenitor. It’s a bit dull and colorless; adding a nifty set of contacts or a stylish pair of shades is not enough to hide the deficiency. At least the film is not much worse than THE EYE 2, and it is considerably less ridiculous than the misguided THE EYE 10. The next time someone returns to this franchise, instead of a little cosmetic surgery, they should try a complete transplant.

TRIVIA

Patrick Lussier is listed in the credits as “Visual Consultant,” a job description that is not defined by any guild; Lussier previously had this credit on DARKNESS FALLS and WHISPER. Lussier’s more traditional credits include editing several films for Wes Craven (including SCREAM) and directing several direct-to-video films (including DRACULA 2000 and WHITE NOISE 2).

THE EYE (2008). Directed by David Moreau & Xavier Palud. Screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez, based upon the the screenplay for GIN GWAI by Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui, Oxide Pang & Danny Pang. Cast: Jessica Alba, Alessandro Nivola, Parker Posey, Rade Serbedzija, Fernanda Romero, Rachel Ticotin, Obbat Babatunde, Danny Mora, Chloe Moretz, Brett Haworth, Kevin K. Tamlyn Tomita.
FILM REVIEWS: The Eye The Eye 2The Eye 10
ARTICLES: Remaking Asian Horror – A Brief History

Remaking Asian Horror – A Brief History

THE GRUDGE: Kayako (Takako Fuji) performs her infamous downstairs crawl in the American remake.

THE EYE (based on the 2002 film by the Pang Brothers) is the lastest in a series of remakes inspired by horror films from Japan, Korea, and China. American audiences first became aware of this trend in 2002, when THE RING (a remake of Japan’s 1998 gem RING) was released to blockbuster success – nearly $130-million at the U.S. box office alone. This led to THE GRUDGE two years later (based on JU-ON: THE GRUDGE), which was almost as big a success as THE RING, earning in excess of $110-million on American screens. Of course, this kind of success inspires repetition, and it seems as if American cinema has been drowning in remakes of Asian horror films ever since (a fact spoofed in the tagline for HATCHET, which proclaimed, “It’s not a sequel, it’s not a remake, and it’s not based on a Japanese one”).
As one might expect from a trend based entirely on mercenary motives, the critical reaction has been mostly negative. After all, few of these films cry out to be remade; most of the originals are superior; and the main stumbling block to U.S. distribution is the language barrier (American audiences do not like to read subtitles, and dubbing often sounds silly). American filmmakers look to Asia less for inspiration than for ready-made templates that can be used to punch out duplicates; besides language and loctation, the major “improvements” usually consist of pumping up the pacing with a few more jump-scares and enhancing the special effects with computer-generated imagery.
What is perhaps a little more surprising in the face of the on-going trend is that, since THE GRUDGE, none of these films has become a blockbuster. In 2005, THE RING 2 topped out at $76-million; a year later, THE GRUDGE 2 fared even worse, falling shy of the $40-million mark. At this point, an Asian-inspired horror film that could crack $30-million would be an anamoly, yet Hollywood keeps churning them out ( apparently the rational is that the film can still be profitable because they can be made cheaply).
This is a sad statement about the lack of originality in the American horror genre. One can hardly blame filmmakers for chasing after the big bucks, but when it becomes an accounting game (“After  tallying in DVD sales and ancillary markets, we’re out of the red”), one has to wonder how the mercenary motivation can be strong enough to justify the continuing artistic hackery.
With this preamble in mind, below the fold we offer a rundown of remakes and spin-offs inspired by great Asian horror films. We had originally considered calling this a “Best of” list, until the absurdity of using “best” in this context reduced us to gales of derisive laughter. Read on, if you dare…

* * *

RING (a.k.a. “Ringu,” 1998).

RING (998) proves that television is bad for you: Sadako emerges from the cursed video tape

Our first entry is a bit of a joke: the film that started it all is a remake! Koji Suzuki’s novel had previously been adapted as a 1995 Japanese television mini-series that hewed closer to the source material. The feature film version made several significant changes: the lead character became a single woman with a child (as in Suzuki’s short story “Dark Water”); the virus metaphor (with references to small pox and DNA providing a hint of a scientific explanation for the cursed video) was downplayed in favor of the supernatural; and in a nod to David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, the memorable conclusion featured the ghostly Sadako emerging from the television set. The rest is horror history.

*

RING 2 (a.k.a. “Ringu 2,” 1999).
This sequel to RING is in a sense a remake, although we may be stretching the definition a bit. The first sequel, RASEN (a.k.a. “Spiral,” 1998, based on Suzuki’s novel), was shot simultaneously with RING, but it turned out to be a box office flop. One year later, the producers went back and made a new sequel. Although RING 2 is officially not a remake of RASEN, it does hit many of the same story points: Takano Mai (Nakatanii Miki) is searching to unravel the mystery of math professor Ryuji Takayama’s death in the first film; the parents of Reiko Asakawa (the reporter from the first film) choose to burn the videotape and die rather than spread Sadako’s curse; and Asakawa dies in a car accident. RING 2 is a bit of a rehash (“let’s take what worked before and do it again”), but it captures a little bit of the mood from its predecessor, and fans may find it diverting.

*

THE RING VIRUS (2000).
Before the Americans got ahold of RING, South Korea delivered this  remake (which takes its title from a phrase used in Spiral, Susuki’s sci-fi sequel to his original novel). This film contains several elements from the novel that were abandoned in the Japanese film; in his book The Ring Companion, Denis Meikle goes so far as to insist that RING VIRUS is too different to be considered a genuine remake. Nevertheless, this film retains the essential changes wrought by RING: the protagonist is a woman reporter with a child, and the film ends with the evil ghost (here called Eun-Su) crawling out of a television set. RING VIRUS has little to offer that was not done better in RING, but it does feature a few ideas/images that were borrowed in the later American remake, so the Korean film has had an impact on the trend that followed.

*

THE RING (2002).
Here is where the remake trend really took off at the box office. When producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes saw RING, instead of simply purchasing the distribution rights, the opted to remake it for American audiences. Their version borrows not only from its namesake but also from RING 2  and THE RING VIRUS (and possibly even DARK WATER). It is pretty much a soulless, mechanical affair, “distinguished” by the addition of a few gratuitous shocks (a suicide by electrocution in the bath tub and the goring of a horse by a ship’s propeller) and by some crazy foreshadowing (long before Samara [this film’s version of Sadako, played by Daveigh Chase], a fly magically emerges from a TV screen showing the cursed videotape, but our crack reporter does not sense a front page story at this miracle). The film is not exactly bad, but it is lacking in inspiration and atmosphere, creating some dull passages (unlike the original, which was tense even when nothing was happening). In any case, it was a huge hit, with a worldwide gross of nearly $250-million.

*

THE GRUDGE (2004).
Uniquely, this remake of JU-ONE: THE GRUDGE was directed by the same man who helmed the original, Takashi Shimizu; not only that, it is set in Tokyo instead of being relocated to America, and Takako Fuji returns as the malevolent ghost Kayako. The American production company, Ghost House, was created by Sam Raimi (director of SPIDER-MAN) specifically to remake foreign horror films for the American market. Raimi wisely realized that, in the horror genre, execution can be more important than story; hence the hiring of Shimizu. The screenplay by Stephen Susco incorporates elements from all four Japanese JU-ON movies and forefronts the leading lady (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), turning her into a more traditional protagonist and diminishing the fragmented narrative structure of the original. Despite the changes, this is easily the best of the American remakes, the only one that stands on its own. It’s a bit like hearing a recording artist redo one of his own hits: Working with Hollywood resources, Shimizu not only recreates his patented scares; he sometimes exceeds them. For example, check out the wonderful elevator scene, in which cat-ghost boy Toshio is seen on every floor: unlike the original, which relied on editing to fake the illusion, the American remake achieves the effect in a single, continuous take. The result was another box office hit, with worldwide reveneues of over $188-million.

*

THE RING TWO (2005).

Samara climbs out of the well in THE RING TWO

This time, the American producers followed the example of Sam Raimi and hired the director of the Japanese original to helm their film. Although not officially a remake of RING 2, this American sequel to the 2002 hit takes a similar tack, destroying the cursed videotape right off the bat, instead of following up on the implications of THE RING’s ending (which suggested that copies of the tape would spread like a virus). Having nipped the curse in the bud, the screenplay by Ehren Kruger has to come up with a new story, which it does, but only feebly. Now, Samara seems to want a mother figure to replace the one she lost while alive, and she turns her attention on harassing the son of reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts). With this storyline, and plenty of water imagery, THE RING TWO feels like more of a remake of DARK WATER. Hideo Nagata, director of RING, got a chance to helm this sequel, but he brings little of the atmosphere and intensity he achieved in his Japanese horror films; the film just coasts along, searching for scares like a tourist on a lonely road, desperate for a roadside attraction to break the tedium. The film showed a steep decline at the box office from THE RING, but it was still a big hit worldwide, earning nearly $162-million.

*

DARK WATER (2005).
This is not a particularly bad film, but it succumbs to the all-too-common “it’s not really a horror film” syndrome. Following the plot of the 2001 Japanese film, this remake stars Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly as a woman going through a painful divorce, who moves into a rundown building with her daughter. The dingy, deteriorating setting becomes an externalization of her declining mental state, and to top it all off, the place is haunted by a little ghost girl looking for a surrogate mother. The film was a box office disappointment, perhaps predictably; after all, its basic  had been stolen by THE RING TWO, so audiences were left feeling as if they had seen it all before. Consequently, this is the first evidence that remaking a J-Horror film is not the equivalent of minting gold. Worldwide box office returns fell shy of $50-million.

*

THE GRUDGE 2 (2006).
After the success of THE GRUDGE, this sequel turned out to be a massive disappointment. Like THE RING TWO, this is not an official remake of its Japanese namesake, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2; instead, we get an original story that finds screenwriter Stephen Susco (like Ehren Kruger before him) fumbling about when he does not have a pre-written story to copy. Judgin from the behind-the-scenes features on the DVD, there were major disagreements between the American production company and the Japanese filmmakers over what direction to take; the result is a compromised effort that plays out like a weak duplication of its predecessor. Director Takashi Shimizu utilizes his patented scare techniques, but they are undermined by a convoluted structure that delays the pay-offs past the point of audience patience. The film is also hampered by a rather obvious studio injunction to get the story headed toward America, presumably so that subsequent sequels can abandon the Tokyo connection altogether. One gets the feeling that the strategy was to set the franchise up to make less expensive sequels, possibly for the DVD market (a suspicion enhanced by the “Tales from the Grudge” Internet webisodes released before the film, which looked like resume builders for a potential future director). The box office result was a big drop from THE GRUDGE, with worldwide total not quite reaching $69-million.

*

PULSE (2006).
This remake of the enigmatic KAIRO (2001) sat on a shelf for a long time while the Hollywood filmmakers re-tooled it. They might as well have not bothered: when it finally came out, it barely earned $20-million in the U.S., with overseas totals boosting the worldwide total to a meagre $29.8-million.

*

ONE MISSED CALL (2008).
Arriving earlier this year, this remake proved once and for all that Hollywood just does not get it. The 2004 Japanese original (directed by Takasha Miike) was a virtual parody of the cliches that had proliferated in the six years since RING. Ingoring the satirical intent of the original, the American remake treats the material with a straight face, as if it had never been seen before, and the result is decidedly dull, even though the running time is nearly a half-hour shorter. Not only that, director Eric Valette botches the two big set pieces: the death of one victim in a television recording studio, and the resurrection of a corpse in a hospital. As of this writing, the film’s U.S. gross stands at $26.2-million, with overseas revenues yet to kick in. Final tallies should be somewhere in the neighborhood of DARK WATER.

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When a horror sub-genre is so depleted that it cannot deliver even basic scares, it is time to call it quits. Unfortunately, Hollywood refuses to learn its lesson. Not only is THE EYE opening today; A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (remade from the well regarded Korean film) is scheduled for later this year. Oh well, at least the continuing trend of Asian remakes is no worse than TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE HITCHER, and FRIDAY THE 13TH.

The Eye 10 (2005) – DVD Review

Despite the numeral 10 in the title, this is only the second sequel to THE EYE; the title actually refers to ten methods for viewing the dead, one of which was seen in each previous film, leaving eight for this movie to explore. This interesting concept helps retroactively turn the first two EYES into more of a matched pair (THE EYE 2 actually had little in common with its predecessor), and it also provides a vivid jumping-off for more sight-seeing among the dead. Unfortunately, the promising premise soon grows weary and bloodshot with strain, and the film develops an even more obvious case of myopia than afflicted THE EYE 2. Directors Danny and Oxide Pang display occasional flashes of the brilliant vision that made the original EYE a sight not to be missed, but more often than not they seem blind to the serious emotional qualities that made the film something more than a silly spook show.
The minimal story has a group from Hong Kong on vacation in Thailand, where a friend reveals “The Ten Encounters.” Having heard of the first two (brief flashbacks imply they are familiar with the vents of EYE and EYE 2), the friends decided to try the other eight, in hope of seeing a ghost. During one encounter (a sort of hide and seek by night in the woods, with a cat used to reveal the ghost), one of the group disappears, apparently sucked into the spirit world. Two of his friends bail out on him, returning to Hong Kong, while another stays behind to search for him, and winds up disappearing herself. Eventually, the two friends in Hong Kong, haunted by ghosts and guilt, return to Thailand and use the Tenth Encounter (sleeping in funeral clothes) to enter the Land of the Dead and search for their missing comrades.
For the first act, the concept works as a means to string together a series of frightening set pieces; you actually believe the film is going to consist of eight sequences, one for each of the untried “Encounters.” Although the method lacks the dramatic aspirations of the first two pictures, it does lend itself to a bigger eyeful of spooky encounters. In particular, an exterior sequence at a crossroads, tapping chopsticks on bowls to summon hungry spirits, is a highlight, with dozens of the dead swarming around the frightened humans (who must continue tapping or risk becoming visible to the ghosts).
Once the plot kicks in, the film stumbles and falls as if struck blind. The cowardly departure of two friends is treated as a joke, but it’s a bad one. Later, one of the lead characters is briefly possessed, and his jerky contortions are misinterpreted by a break-dancer as a challenge, leading to a lengthy music-video interlude, set to rap music. The sequence is actually one of the most memorable in the film (the visual slapstick is laugh-out-loud funny), but it destroys any vestige of credibility, ensuring that no suspense can survive for the third act excursion into the other world. In any case, the quest in the land of the dead is played for even cruder laughs, including a mind-bogglingly stupid flatulence joke: The swarms of the dead are held at bay by the warm breath of the living; when the living run out of breath, they resort to expelling gas, which is rendered as a computer-generated smoke ring!
Whatever their relative merits, THE EYE and THE EYE 2 aspired to a certain maturity in the story-telling, in each case focusing on a young adult woman undergoing an emotional crisis brought on by unwanted encounters with the dead. THE EYE 10, conversely, is juvenile in concept and execution, focusing on a group of stupid kids who invite trouble upon themselves. Perhaps this was intended to distinguish the sequel from its predecessors, but the attempt backfires: THE EYE 10 ends up resembling dozens of other bad teen horror flicks, filled with non-entity victims. And the incongruous humor seems like a deliberately brutal jab at the viewer’s cornea, warning the audience not to look for the serious quality that distinguished the first film.
All in all, this is one EYE that should have stayed wide shut.

THE TEN ENCOUNTERS

As listed in the film, here are the “Ten Encounters” for viewing the dead:

  1. Seeing through the eyes of the dead (as in THE EYE)
  2. Attempting suicide while pregnant (as in THE EYE 2)
  3. Playing with a Spirit Glass (which spells out answers like a Ouija Board)
  4. Tapping chopsticks on a bowl at an intersection to summon hungry spirits
  5. Playing hide and seek at midnight (a ghost will “hide” one of the players, but a black cat will reveal the ghost)
  6. Rubbing one’s eyes with soil from a grave
  7. Opening an umbrella indoors
  8. Gazing into a mirror at midnight while brushing one’s hair
  9. Bending over to look upside down through one’s own legs
  10. Being laid out in clothing as if for one’s own funeral.

DVD DETAILS

The DVD for THE EYE 10 features a good widescreen transfer with 5.1 surround sound, in the original language (Cantonese, Thai, etc), with English subtitles. Bonus features include a trailer and a making-of featurette. The featurette explains the reasoning behind the title (trying to do something other than the expected “Eye 3”). It also features the Pang brothers discussing their inspiration for the “Ten Encounters”: as in the featurettes for THE EYE and THE EYE 2, they claim to have based their ideas on real events, including a game of hide and seek in which a boy went missing for days but had only felt the experience of being gone for a few minutes (presumably because time is slower in the spirit world).

THE EYE 10 (“Gin Gwai 10,” a.k.a. “The Eye: Infinity,” 2005). Directed by Danny Pang and Oxide pang. Written by Mar Wu, from a story by Oxide pang and Danny Pang. Cast: Bo-lin Chen, Yu Gu, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Isabella Leong, Ray MacDonald, Kate Yeung.

FILM & DVD REVIEWS: The Eye The Eye 2 – The Eye (2008 remake)

The Eye 2 (2004) – Film & DVD Review

This follow-up to THE EYE provides another glimpse into the land of the dead. Fans may enjoy the “second sight,” but this EYE lacks the compelling vision of its predecessor. Less a sequel than a variation on the theme, the story has nothing to do with the original except for the basic concept of a young woman who sees dead people. The attempt to create something new, instead of rehasing the original, is laudable, but the effort is undermined by weak plotting and a somewhat unsympathetic protagonist, who never engages our interest as well as Mun (Angelica Lee) did in the previous film. The directing duo of the Pang Brothers offer compensation in the form of some more memorably spooky supernatural manifestations, and as before they try to balance the horror with sentimental moments that tug the heartstrings. In this case however, they over-reach themselves, eventually descending into overwrought melodrama. Read More

The Eye (2002) – DVD Review

This is one of the best Asian ghost movies to emerge in the wake of 1998’s RING, the Japanese hit that launched the J-Horror wave. A co-production between Singapore and Hong Kong, THE EYE looks somewhat superficially similar to RING in terms of plot (it is also about a young woman searching for a solution to a haunting) and style (the ghostly manifestations convey an effective sense of the uncanny), but closer examination reveals that the two films are quite different. Camera angles, editing, and special effects are more flamboyant, offering a few more large-scale thrills, but the story-telling is less assured, stringing together some great set pieces without building up the looming sense of dread that made RING such an effective scare show even though very little overt horror was on display. Fortunately, the dramatic shortcomings are balanced not only by the scare tactics but also by a subtle emotional poignancy that elicits almost as many tears as screams. To resort to a cliche, this is one of those films that works because you care about the characters.
The story follows Mun (Angelica Lee, a.k.a. Lee Sin-Je), a blind violinist In Hong Kong who undergoes a corneal transplant to regain her sight. While adjusting to her new vision, she has trouble accounting for some of the things she sees; her doctors dismiss this as a transitional period while her brain learns to process input from her eyes, but we son realize that Mun is seeing ghosts. And not only ghosts – she also sees strange, black shrouded figures who arrive to transport the souls of the newly dead, including (in one heart-breaking scene) a young girl suffering from brain cancer. Mun’s visions eventually include glimpses of another residence superimposed on her own room, and when she fails to recognize a photograph of herself, she realizes that the reflection she sees in a mirror is not herself but the dead cornea donor, Ling (Chutcha Rujinanon). Mun tracks down Ling’s mother in Thailand and learns that the local residents considered Ling a witch because she could see the future. After her attempts to warn villagers of a lethal fire went unheeded, Ling committed suicide, for which her mother has never forgiven her. Mun affects a reconciliation between mother and daughter, so that Ling’s restless spirit may move on. Returning home, Mun encounters a traffic jam. Frightened by the appearance of hundreds of dark shrouded figures, Mun  hurries to warn the drivers of an impending explosion. But will her warnings be taken any more seriously than Ling’s…?
The great coup of THE EYE resides in the in wonderfully eerie premise: a woman sees dead people, but she does not know what she is seeing, because vision is new to her. This puts a slightly different spin on the usual skepticism expressed by the doctors around Mun, who attribute her visions not to mental illness but to her unfamiliarity with being able to see.
The screenplay does a fine job of setting up the story and introducing us to the main character, who then holds our attention for the rest of the film (thanks in large part to a sympathetic performance from Angelica Lee). The first-person approach (keeping Mun at center stage and revealing the action through her eyes, if you will) helps hold the set pieces together. More than that, it creates a powerful audience identifation bound, so that the emotional impact of events on Mun is strongly felt, whether they be the appearnces of ghosts or the death of another patient in the hospital.
Directing brothers Danny and Oxide Pang (who also edited the film) do a wonderful job of presenting the supernatural in a credible manner. (An encounter with a dead man in an elevator – his feet floating inches above the floor – ranks as one of the absolutely most terrifying scenes ever captured on film.) They use lots of stylistic flash, but it is usually orchestrated to achieve emotional effects, either scary or sentimental. Occasionally, the montage editing (e.g., Mun’s glimpses of Ling’s past life) goes on too long, but film seldom if ever seems to be hitting you over the head; it simply makes each point with maximum effectiveness, and then moves on.
The plot follows somewhat conventional form (there is a trouble ghost who needs to be put to rest), but our identification with Mun carries us along, eager to see what will happen to her. Unfortunately, the climax focuses more on spectacle than dramatic resolution. The conflagration is rendered in horrifying detail (offering explosive thrills of a kind not seen in most ghost stories), but its plot function is slightly contrived: with Mun’s actions clearing echoing Ling’s, we are supposed to feel that the story is somehow coming full circle, but the point, if any, remains unclear. This may be simply a case of the filmmakers imposing an arbitrary circular structure because they could not come up with a dramatically satisfying resolution.
The back-where-we-started denouement may be thematically cryptic, and the pacing may sometimes be too slow (because the film feels comfortable building carefully to its effects), but there is no denying the film’s overall effectiveness THE EYE offers an intriguing look into the world of supernatural horror, one filled with shadowy figures glimpsed at the edge of sight and with more clearly visible souls of the dead intruding upon every day spaces, leaving no room for comfort. In the end, there seems to be little or no deliberate menace from the departed, but THE EYE shows that the mere perception of the presence is enough to unnerve, to disquiet, to delight with fright.

 DVD DETAILS

The DVD release of THE EYE presents the film in a wiedescreen transfer with Dolby sound. The soundtrack is in Cantonese and Thai with English subtitles. (NOTE: when Mun goes to Thailand, American viewers may be confused to hear her and her doctor-boyfriend suddenly speaking English; the idea is that, not speaking Thai, they use English as a common language to communicate with the locals.)
Bonus features include a trailer, cast and crew information (in text form), and a featurette about the making of the film. To some extent, the featurette is a standard promotional piece, with the producer, actors, and direcotrs providing interviews intercut with footage from the film.
Fortunately, there are some interesting behind-the-scenes details. Producer Lawrence Cheng talks about his efforts to organize co-productions between various Asian countries (THE EYE features cast and crew from Malaysia, China, Singapore, and Thailand.) The Pang Brothers reveal that their inspiration came from reading a story about a girl who committed suicide after receiving a cornea transplant, and the mention that the explosive finale during the traffic jam was based on a real incident. Perhaps most amusingly, there are brief soundbites from people who allegedly experienced the sort supernatural encounters scene in the film, implying that these, too, are based on real incidents.

One of the film's highlights: Mun finds herself trapped in an elevator with a ghostly old man

THE EYE (“Gin Gwai,” 2002). Directed by Oxide Pang & Danny Pang. Written by Jojo Hui and Danny Pang & Oxide Pang. Cast: Lee Sin-Je, Lawerence Chou, Chutcha Rujinanaon, Yut Lai So, Candy Lo, Yin Ping Ko, Pierre Png, Edmund Chen, Wai-Ho Yung, Wilson Yip.
FILM AND DVD REVIEW: The Eye 2 – The Eye 10 The Eye (remake)

Cybersurfing 01/29/08

Jessica AlbaALBA STUDIED HARD FOR HORROR FILM: PR-inside.com tells us that actress Jessica album took music lessons and studied blind people for her role as a blind violinist in THE EYE, which opens this Friday. Alba is building up quite the horror, fantasy, sci-fi resume, with roles in IDLE HANDS, SIN CITY, and FANTASTIC FOUR.
ROMANEK DROPS OUT OF “WOLF MAN”: Mark Romanek has decided that the path to directing THE WOLFMAN – a remake of the 1941 classic starring Lon Chaney – is just too thorny. The director left over “creative differences,” but Universal Studios insists that the project is in great shape. Benicio Del Toro is set for the lead, with Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt in supporting roles. The film was scheduled fo a February 18 start date; Universal will need to find a new director quickly.
JULIANNE MMORE SEEKS SHELTER: The actress has signed to star in a $25-million supernatural horror thriller from Nala Films (IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH). The Swedish duo of Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein will direct SHELTER, from a script by Michael Cooney (IDENTITY). Production is scheduled for March in Pittsburgh.
E.T. GIVES BIRTH TO CJ7: Hong Kong actor and filmmaker Stephen Chow cites Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film about a cuddly alien as inspiration for CHANGJIAN QIHAO (CJ7), Chow’s new science fiction film about love between a father and son:

“I watched it many times,” said Chow of E.T. “I was amazed that science fiction could be filmed like that. I knew then I wanted to make a mvoie like that. Spielberg’s work inspired me to become a director.”