The Ring Companion – Book Review

This 2005 publication is an excellent book that should be on the shelf of every fan of the RING films; in fact, J-Horror fans in general will find it supremely rewarding. Author Denis Meikle explores the RING phenomenon in such depth (the cultural context, the novels, the the adaptations for film and television, the sequels and spin-offs) that his book truly could have been titled “The Essential Ring Companion” without a trace of hubris. Meikle writes with the devotion of a fan and the intellect of a first-rate critic: his love for the subject comes through on every page, yet he never devolves into fan-boy gushing or mindless boosterism; he serves up both praise and criticism, in a fair and reasoned manner, and provides the kind of insights that will tickle the fancy of those who thought they knew everything  – only to have their awareness enhanced, brightened by a spark that ignites a new flame in the old embers.
Instead of chapters, Meikle divides his book into a prologue and seven “Days” (based upon the seven-day countdown in the story of RING from when when you see the cursed video to the moment of your death). Although mostly chronological, the text maintains interest by reserving certain details for a more dramatic effect (e.g., the famous ending of RING is not discussed in detail until the final chapter).
Along the way, Meikle covers his topic from every conceivable angle, beginning with the source material by Japanese author Koji Suzuki: three novels (Ring, Spiral, and Loop) and a collection of short stories (Birthday). Meikle seems troubled by Suzuki’s reluctance to commit to all-out supernatural horror (his Ring novels read more like Michael Crichton science fiction than Stephen King horror), but he appreciates their strengths and carefully notes the changes made in the adaptations, the first of which was a 1995 TV movie, RING: KANZENBAN, which spiced up the story with nudity.
Before getting to the more well known film adaptations, he provides a history of Japanese ghosts in legend and literature, along with a look at the ghost stories of British antiquary M.R. James, noting several plot parallels between RING and James story “Casting the Runes” (both feature a supernatural curse with a time limit, for example). This is followed by a look at Japanese horror cinema leading up to the 1998 film version of RING.
These chapters provide much-needed historical context for the RING phenomenon, showing Western readers that the 1998 film did not miraculously arrive out of thin air but was actually a modern reinvention of a long-established form. Nevertheless, Meikle’s attention to detail does get the better of him. Yes, Godzilla films are such a gigantic part of Japanese cinema history that it would be impossible to ignore them, but do we really need twelve pages – in a book about supernatural horror, not science fiction? Meikle is on more solid ground when dealing with classics ghost tales such as KWAIDAN and UGETSU (both adapted from traditional supernatural literature), not to mention Kaneto Shindo’s spooky double feature of ONIBABA and KURONEKO.
Meikle delves into the details of the four Japanese films derived from Suzuki’s books: RING, SPIRAL, RING 2, and RING 0: BIRTHDAY. He explores the way the first of this quartet fused Suzuki’s novel with Japanese folklore and elements borrowed from other horror films (including THE OMEN) to create an all-out modern ghost story that launched a worldwide phenomenon. He then notes the problems that plagued the subsequent films: RING had diverged so much from its source that the adaptation of SPIRAL turned out to be a major disappointment that was soon forgotten, leading to RING 2, an original sequel not based on Suzuki’s work. RING 0, a prequel, borrows the setting and time period from “Lemonheart,” a story in Suzuki’s Birthday anthology, but is essentially an original story that tells us how the young Sadako became the monster we met in RING. From there he moves on to the subsequent television adaptations, inspired by the success of the films, which also led to a South Korean remake of RING, entitled THE RING VIRUS.
Meikle rightly reserves his strongest praise for RING, noting the “palpable atmosphere of dread” that builds cumulatively throughout the running time. He dissects the problems with the two sequels but overpraises the prequel as “almost a classic in its own right” when it is at most a mildly interest addendum to the RING mythology. Meikle also accurately notes that South Korea’s THE RING VIRUS is much more faithful to the book than RING, but he takes the point a bit too far, arguing that RING VIRUS is not a remake of RING at all, despite the fact that several major inventions from the Japanese film recur in the Korean version (the protagonist is a single mother, not a married father, and the ghost of the Sadako surrogate, here named Eun-suh, emerges from a television at the end).
Meikle then rightfully trashes the 2002 American remake of RING, titled THE RING, along with its 2005 sequel THE RING TWO. This is followed by a chapter that examines the wave of J-horror films that followed in RING’s wake. As with the chapters on Japanese literature and Japanese horror films, this is an extra-added pleasure that makes The Ring Companion more than a quick knock-off, providing a broader view of the subject by exploring its repercussions on the films that followed. Meikle plows through dozens of titles, offering well-deserved praise for the more well-known ones (e.g., JU-ON, THE EYE, A TALE OF TWO SISTERS), while also singling out some lesser known lights such as Byeong-ki Ahn’s PHONE (2002), which he calls “thoroughly derivative but no less involving for all of that.”
In the Chapter titled “Day Seven,” Meikle examines the show-stopping finale of RING – one of the great horror sequences ever filmed – and then compares it with that of the various other adaptations, remakes, and sequels, which inevitably come up short.
In a final epilogue, Meikle waxes poetic about the RING phenomenon, noting the decline of American horror films into formulaic franchises. There is no doubt that the 1998 movie gave the genre a much-needed shot in the arm, inspiring a memorable trend that yielded several exciting movies. Without resorting to a heavy-handed hatchet job, Meikle makes his point well, noting the sad irony that the ghostly Sadako herself ultimately served as the inspiration for the formulaic American films, but that the integrity of the original film lives on.
If there is one regret you will have after finishing the book (besides the obvious one of wanting the reading experience to go on even longer), it is the absence of an index that would help you return to specific points on which you wish to refresh your memory. With so much information on so many different films and books condensed into nine chapters (counting the prologue and epilogue), finding your way back to discussion of a certain title can be a game of hide-and-seek. The only solution for it is to re-read the entire text from beginning to end -a proposal that is hardly unwelcome.

Ju-on, The Grudge (2003) – Film & DVD Review

Recall your worst nightmares as a child: your fear of the dark, of being alone in bed at night, of shadows without substance lurking in corners, beneath the bed, outside your door, or in your closet. Remember the creaking floorboards, the rustle of wind or the moan of some animal – a cat, perhaps? – which led you to believe that you were no longer alone, that something tangible was there with you, about to manifest itself before your frightened senses. Now imagine this fear captured on celluloid and presented to you with all the evocative power of your childhood nightmares – only now the nightmare seems utterly convincing, because you know you are awake, and utterly inescapable, because it can follow you anywhere: in attics, down stairs, along corridors, through doors, even into that one place you felt absolutely safe as a child – beneath the bed covers. This is the essence of horror captured in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, Continue reading “Ju-on, The Grudge (2003) – Film & DVD Review”

Top 20 Chick Flick Horror Movies

So, you’re a horror movie maniac. You just can’t get enough of ’em. You love the thrill of fear, the scream of terror, the sight of blood. But you have a problem: Your boxed set of BLIND DEAD movies does not enamor your girlfriend. Your Lucio Fulci collection does not send your paramour swooning with rapture. Your unrated torture porn DVDs do not arouse interest. The midnight movie screening of GRINDHOUSE does not inspire romantic fantasies. The latest French gore-fest does not excite erotic intrigue. If anything, the woman in your life is wondering whether you’re a latent serial killer whose interest in the female body does not extend beyond seeing it torn to pieces. You are faced with a dreadful dilemma: either continue to alienate your significant other or stuff those video nasties in the back of the closet along with the real pornography and suffer through endless nights of watching mind-numbingly boring chick flicks like BED OF ROSES (a fate that frightens you far more than anything in your horror collection). Well, lucky for you, we’re here to save the day. You see, there is a way to share your love of the horror genre with a psychologically stable female partner who is not interested in watching an endless stream of blood gushing across the screen. Believe it or not, there are “chick flick” horror movies. They may not be as intense and hardcore as some of your favorite splatter flicks, but they are quite good in their own right, with plenty of appeal to both men and women. Below, we will provide our list of the Top 20 Best Chick Flick Horror Movies.

NOTE:  We have more or less listed the films in order of their female appeal, which means that the top-ranked films may not be the most frightening. The first ten tend to emphasize romantic elements of the sort that might be found in a mainstream “chick flick.” The remaining ten simply feature strong female leads.

1. TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). This adaptation of Edgar Alan Poe’s “Ligeia,” features Vincent Price as a man obsessed with the fear that his late wife will return from the grave to haunt him.  Although technically too old for role, which was written as a young romantic lead, Price is wonderful as the doomed widower; with a little assist from the makeup department, he conveys the necessary mystique. Lady Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd) meets and falls in love with him, inspiring him to overcome his fear and marry her. The story is told from Rowena’s point of view, as she is intrigued and enamored by this brooding, mysterious man, only to learn that the dark secret hanging over him will not easily be dispelled. Thanks to a strong performance by Shepherd, working from a great script by Robert Towne, Rowena emerges as one of cinema’s strongest leading ladies – willful and intelligent, she risks her life to drag her husband from the grip of the late Lady Ligeia. The horror element is very muted; the emphasis is on the doomed romance between the two lovers. A moody masterpiece, the film’s fear factor is mostly implied; director Roger Corman includes a few jump scares (the sudden snarl of a cat) and some hypnotic dream sequences, creating an almost surreal sense of dread the relies on Gothic atmopshere more than on-screen violence. In short, this Gothic Romance is the perfect date night rental: you can enjoy the “Gothic,” and she will enjoy the “Romance.”

2. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Producer Val Lewton famously called this movie “Jane Eyre in the West Indies.” He may have been joking, but the statement was accurate enough in its way. The story follows a nurse named Betsy (Frances Dee) who gets a job on a plantation tending the brain-dead wife of her employer Paul (Tom Conway). The wife may or may not be a zombie (the film is deliberately ambiguous on this point); either way, her presence is a living a reminder of ugly family secrets that Paul would rather forget. Betsy falls in love with him, of course, but she sublimates her desire by trying to cure Paul’s wife, taking her to a voodoo ceremony. The attempt backfires: the locals are terrified of the zombie woman and want to destroy her. Atypically for the horror genre, the characterization and performances outweigh the horror; Director Jacques Tourner presents the horror almost entirely in terms of atmosphere, creating a dream-like world in which science and the supernatural vie for acceptance, but ultimately, the voodoo element is a backdrop for the love story between Betsy and Paul, with her in the Jane Ayre role and him as the Byronic Rochester substitute. Best of all, the lovers actually get together and (presumably) live happily ever after.

3. THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR (1947). This classic is much more romantic-comedy than horror, but the early scenes – when Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) moves into the old house and realizes it is haunted by the ghost of an old sea captain (Rex Harrison) are as effective as any genuine haunted-house movie. The ghost’s first appearance – a shadowy, out-of-focus silhouette – sends a shiver or two down the spine, and his later full-blown revelation -when Mrs. Muir lights and candle, revealing him standing next to her – is a genuine shock. After this, the film segues into a love story levened with humor, but Tierney and Harrison are absolutely wonderful, and the film will charm the woman in your life – and entertain you as well.

4. DRAGONWYCK (1946). This Gothic-Mystery-Romance features both Gene Tierney and Vincent Price; in many ways, it predates Price’s later TOMB OF LIGEIA, and it was filmed when he was still young enough to play a leading man. More important, this was before he had earned a reputation for screen villainy, so the horrible revelations about his character come as a complete surprise, instead of being telegraphed (as they are in LIGEIA). Price plays the wealthy Nicholas Van Ryn, who sweeps the lovely Miranda Wells (Tierney) off her feet and takes her as his bride to his ancestral estate of Dragonwyck. Miranda’s happiness is soon marred by strange noises in the night and other dark forebodings. Eventually we realize that Nicholas is interested in her only as a means of producing an heir to continue the family line, and if she fails in that duty, he may have to do away with her (as he did his previous wife) and find a replacement. It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a “horror” film, but it is steeped in Gothic atmosphere. Tierney, as always, is a captivating presence, and the romantic chemistry between her and Price is engaging, even if it eventually turns sour. If you like this film, you might also try REBECCA, the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, with Judith Anderson as the wonderfully wicked servant Mrs. Danvers. It’s another Gothic Melodrama – not an outright horror film, but filled with mystery and romance that plays well with both male and female viewers.

5. UGETSU (1953). Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s period piece, detailing the impact of civil war on two married couples, flirts with the horror genre in several scenes, ultimately turning into a ghost story. There are no overt shocks, but there are some wonderfully eerie moments when a husband realizes he is consorting with a ghost. The overall feeling is one of sorrow more than scares. The movie is ultimately about the price that women pay while their men try to achieve glory and honor during wartime. The result is a real tear-jerker that will have your girlfriend reaching for the tissue box and marveling at what a sensitive soul you are, while you enjoy the ghostly apparitions.

6. THE GORGON (1964). This is not the most effective Hammer horror film in terms of providing scares, but that is only because the emphasis is on romance. The film is a doomed love story about a young student named (Richard Pasco) who comes to a village where a monster is petrifying its victims. After a close encounter with the Gorgon, Paul is nursed back to health by Carla (Barbara Shelley) and falls in love with her. Carla, although she returns his affection, is bound by some dark power over her; eventually, we realize that during the full moon, she becomes the Gorgon. The dynamic acting duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are on hand as a doctor and a professor, each separately trying to solve the problem, but ultimately there is no hope for Carla or Paul. The film’s greatest achievement is that its horror effects are orchestrated for their emotional impact: this isn’t a movie that has you screaming in terror but weeping in sadness over the plight of the young lovers. The finale will have you and your lady-friend exchanging bodily fluids, but they will be tears of sadness.

7. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). This famous tale of the deformed mystery man lurking beneath the Paris Opera House is now considered a horror film, but in its day it was more of a mystery-thriller-romance. Erik the Phantom (Lon Chaney) delivers a series of frights (including the famous unmasking of his horrifying visage), but the story is really about his hopeless love for the young and beautiful opera singer Christine (Mary Philbin). The style of this old silent film is dated and stagy, but Chaney keeps it interesting; also, the sets and photography capture the right atmosphere – part horror and part fairy tale – creating the perfect setting for the this variation on “Beauty and the Beast,” with the monster evoking sympathy because of the tender emotions hiding behind his ugly countenance. There have been several remakes. The 1962 version is perhaps even more of a chick flick in that it de-emphasizes the horror element and purifies the Phantom (Herbert Lom)’s motives: he’s no longer interested in Christine sexually, only spiritually. The result yields few frights, but the film possesses a tender quality rare in the horror genre – which should increase its appeal to the distaff side of the audience.

8. DRACULA (1979). There has always been a certain sexual innuendo underlying the Dracula myth, with the mysterious, dark, foreign stranger sneaking into the bedrooms of virginal British ladies. Bela Lugosi played up the foreign mystique, and Christopher Lee emphasized the sexual aggression, but Frank Langella turned the Count into a romantic anti-hero, dashing and seductive, who not only lusts for women (their bodies and their blood) but loves Lucy(Kate Nelligan) for her spirit and intelligence. In 1992, BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, tries to emphasize the romance even more, but director Francis Ford Coppola fumbles, turning the story into an overwrought teen romance better suited to an episode of JERRY SPRINGER (vampires – and the women who love them).

9. CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964). Allegedly based on the work of Edgar Alan Poe, this Italian Gothic horror story tells of Alan, a reporter who wagers he can spend a night alone in a haunted castle. He meets a variety of spooks, including a very alluring one named Elizabeth (played by Barbara Steele, the Queen of Horror). They fall in love, but being – literally – from two different worlds, they cannot stay together, or so it seems. As daylight draws near, the other ghosts come seeking the young man’s blood; Elizabeth tries to lead him to safety, but he dies on the verge of escape. The seemingly downbeat ending is actually a triumph of love over death. As the camera pans up to the sunlight, we hear the disembodied spirits of Alan and Elizabeth conversing, and we know that they are now together for eternity – the ultimate romantic fantasy. Steele also starred in a dual role as an innocent princess and a vampire-witch in the 1960 classic BLACK SUNDAY – a much more effective horror film that also has a strong romantic element, thanks to the chemistry between the princess and a young doctor (John Richardson) who seeks to save her from the vampire.

10. THE GIRL IN A SWING (1989). This small independent film, based on the novel by Richard Adams, is essentially a love story about a repressed British man (Rupert Frazer), who meets and marries a mysterious German girl named (Meg Tilly). In the great tradition of tragic romances, the marraige is doomed, but only gradually do hints of a haunting arise, related to some guilty secret of Karin’s. The relentless ghost is seldom seen, keeping the horror content to a minimum; instead, the film focuses on the tragedy of the relationship. Though far from a masterpiece, the film works in its own way, achieving its emotional effects with far less cheesy manipulation than LOVE STORY – and it has a ghost, too, so what more do you want?

11. BEDLAM (1946). Another Val Lewton production, this period piece tells of an arrogant woman (Anna Lee) who is unfairly confined to the infamous English asylum. Although the official star is Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN) as the asylum’s evil overlord, Lee gives a great performance in what is truly the lead role: charting her character’s arc from selfishness to concern for the other patients, she emerges as one of the great female characters in the history of horror cinema.

12. THE INNOCENTS (1960). This excellent English ghost story, based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, a governess put in charge of two children living in a secluded mansion. She gradually comes to believe that the house is haunted and that the children are in league with the ghosts. The film is deliberately ambiguous: are the ghosts real or is Miss Giddens imagining them? Either way, it is a wonderful portrait of a woman desperately dealing with a horrible situation without a hero to ride in and rescue her.

13. THE HAUNTING (1963). Another great ghost story, this one portrays an attempt to investigate the “Mount Everest of Haunted Houses.” Based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the story is told from the point of view of Nell (Julie Harris), a fragile young woman whose desperate need for love and acceptance lures her to succumb to Hill House. An effective scare-fest, this film is also a great character study that should appeal to female viewers. Men can enjoy the scares and the presence of Claire Bloom as Theo, whom the film none too subtly insinuates is a lesbian. The 1974 film THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE deals with a similar situation: a team of two men and two women attempt a sceintific investigation of a haunted house. The scares are a bit more overt, and the psychology less in depth, but the film retains some “chick flick” interest thanks to the performances of Pamela Franklyn and Gayle Hunnicutt, who help create characters that the women in the audience can identify with.

14. THE OTHERS (2001). Intentionally molded in the tradition of THE INNOCENTS, this ghost story features another strong female lead, in this case played by the talented Nicole Kidman. The scares are extremely effective, but what holds interest from beginning to end is the focus on Kidman’s Grace Stewart as she desperately tries to protect her children from the mysterious forces at work in their isolated house.

15. THE ORPHANAGE (2007). Belen Rueda stars as Laura, a woman whose son goes missing in their new house, possibly abducted by ghosts. As with the three previous entries on our list, this film orchestrates a series of unnerving spooky encounters while focusing on the drama of the woman trying to deal with them. There is also a strong maternal element that plays well with women. Although vulnerable, Laura is not a Scream Queen or a victim; she’s not even the traditional “Final Girl” who survives and triumphs. She’s a complex, damaged woman who keeps going even when pushed to extremes. The film was executive produced by Guillermo Del Toro, whose PAN’S LABYRINTH and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE may also appeal to women, because of their portrait of childhood innocence menaced by adult horrors, with empahsis on emotional content.

16. CARRIE (1976). Despite director Brian DePalma’s reputation as a cinematic misogynist, this hit horror film features two actresses (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie) in strong roles, giving Oscar-nominated performances. This is more a high-school horror film than a chick flick, but it captures a sense of ordinary people living in a world we all recognize, and despite the horrible vengeance she ultimately unleashes on her tormentors, Carrie remains a sympathetic character that women – and men – can relate to.

17 RING 0: BIRTHDAY (2000). This prequel to 1998’s RING (the film that launches the recent J-Horror wave) covers some of the same territory as CARRIE. Set in a small acting troup, it tells the story of Sadako (Yukie Nakama), a young misfit with strange powers, who is tormented by her fellow thespians until she turns the tables. Presenting a far more sympathetic portrait of Sadako than seen in the other RING films, this is pretty much a bust as a horror film, but it is an interesting portrait of a sad, lonely, mixed up girl trying to fit in. In general, ghost movies from Japan and other Asian nations should find favor with female viewers: they tend to feature female characters as the protagonists, and the restless spirits are almost always women, their power in death redressing the imbalance they suffered during their lives under a patriarchal culture. Besides RING, check out PHONE, THE EYE, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, and SHUTTER.

18. ONIBABA (1964). This black-and-white Japanese horror classic has few traditional chick flick elements, but it focuses on two women in the lead roles. Like UGETSU, it portrays the suffering of women while their men are away at war; in this case a young woman and her mother-in-law make ends meet me murdering lone samurai and selling their armour. Toward the end there is a demonic appartion and possibly a curse, but much of the film’s appeal lies in watching the women dish out death to the men who fall into their trap.

19. ALIEN (1979). There is not much about this film that labels it as a chick flick, but it does feature Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ripley, the character who once and for all over-turned the cliche of women as helpless screaming victims in monster movies. That should be enough to get your girlfriend to sit through the chest-burster and other horrors on display.

20. DAY OF THE DEAD(1985). This last title is really pushing it, but we think you deserve something in return for making the effort to find common ground with your squeamish main squeeze. After sitting through all those Gothic Romances, subtle ghost stories, and psychological terror tales, you want some gruesome gore, right? Well, this film from writer-director George Romero is just the thing: it’s brimming with blood, but it also has a strong female character in the lead, Lori Cardilel as Sarah. Inverting the formula of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, in which Barbra (Judith O’Dea) was pretty much a useless space case, Romero makes Sarah the only one who can keep her shit together while humanity totters on the brink of extinction. That may not make it a chick flick, but it should offer at least a little redeeming value for making the love your life watch a man ripped in half by cannibalistic zombies.

If you are interested in the films on this list, most of them are reviewed more fully elsewhere on the website. You can access the reviews by clicking on the titles that contain hyperlinks.

NOTE: Yes, this article makes sexist assumptions about what constitutes a “chick flick,” and we know that some women do not like the term – an issue we addressed in this previous editorial.

UPDATE (04/27/08): We have received some suggestions for titles we overlooked:

  • Lucius Gore of Eplatter recommends SCREAM. I suppose the combination of humor and a strong “Final Girl” character would appeal to women more than a standard slasher movie.
  • Brian Collins of Horror Movie a Day recommends GINGER SNAPS.
  • Jeff Allard of  Dinner with Max Jenke believes that ALIENS has a greater female appeal than ALIEN, which makes sense, considering the maternal themes in the film. He also recommends ROSEMARY’S BABY – which is such an obvious choice that I am embarrassed to have overlooked it. Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Ira Levin novel is considered to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made (EXORCIST director William Friedkin puts it on his very short list here), and it’s all about a young married woman (Mia Farrow)undergoing her first pregnancy. Yes, we all know she is going to give birth to the spawn of Satan – or is she? The film actually delivers little-to-no evidence on this score except the professed belief of the Satanic cult (we’re supposed to trust them?). In a way, the movie plays out as a drama about a woman undergoing a trouble pregnancy, who is betrayed by her husband, and bedeviled by some kooky neighbors. In othe words, it is very much set in the real world, and features a situation that is completely relatable; even if the details are extreme, almost any woman could watch this movie and identify with what poor Rosemary is suffering.

UPDATE (01/28/09): Someone on an IMDB message board thread, linking to this article, suggested that THE DESCENT should have made the list.

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. Continue reading “Shutter (2008) – Horror Film Review”

Shutter (2004) – DVD Review

Strange things – ugly, scary, awful – lie hidden in the dark, unseen but not forgotten, waiting for their chance to manifest, crawling back into consciousness like Freud’s “Return of the Repressed” – refusing to lie quietly in the shadows, no matter how hard some characters try to keep the lights out. Invisible to the naked eye, they nonetheless manifest themselves via modern technology – in this case the camera lens, resulting in eerie “Spirit Photographs” that depict both the living and the dead. Are these images caused by guilty secrets or ghosts? In SHUTTER, the two are tied inextricably together, creating a chilling portrait of supernatural retribution from beyond the grave – one that will give even jaded J-horror fans a few pleasant goosebumps. After numerous films like RING (Japan, 1998), THE EYE (China, 2002), and a TALE OF TWO SISTERS (South Korea, 2003), you may think that the Asian ectoplasmic onslaught has dissipated like an exorcized spirit, but over the last few years Thailand has stepped in to fill the preternatural void, offering a handful of fine fright films that revitalize the familiar undead elements (including the spooky ghost girl with long black hair). One of the best of these, SHUTTER may not feel entirely new, but it is far more than a mindless zombie going through the familiar motions.
The story follows Tun (Ananda Everingham) and Jane (Natthaweeranuch), a young couple who run over a woman on the way home from a wedding party. Jane, who was behind the wheel, wants to go back and help, but Tun insists they drive away. While Jane is haunted by guilt, Tun goes about his business as a photographer, but he soon notices strange anomalies on the images he snaps: inexplicable streaks of light and shadow that sometimes seem to resemble the accident victim. Jane stumbles upon the alleged phenomenon of “Spirit Photography” and learns that ghost often manifest in images of loved ones whom they do not wish to leave. The ghost begins manifesting not only in photographs but also in dreams, eventually appearing to Tun while he is awake. Jane thinks she and Tun are being haunted by the woman they ran over, but Tun seems reluctant to admit the possibility or explore the mystery. Following clues in Tun’s photographs, she eventually learns why: the woman appearing in the photographs is Natre (Achita Sikamana), an old girlfriend who disappeared mysteriously after Tun treated her badly. What really happened, and why are all of Tun’s freinds from the wedding party suddenly committing suicide?

One of the eerie, effective elements of many Japanese ghost stories is the sense of randomness (most obviously manifested in the JU-ON films and their American remake THE GRUDGE, wherein you only had to step into the wrong house to be marked for death). SHUTTER works on a completely different level, with a ghost pursuing specific people in retaliation for a heinous act. This creates a servicable mystery plot that propels the film along at a decent pace. It also ties the characters to the supernatural events in ways that are relatable to the audience: most of us have not been literally haunted by a ghost, but more than a few of us have been haunted by guilty secrets in our past. This allows for some solid dramatic developments, and all the pieces – for good or ill – fall into place in a way that is entirely satisfying. There is just the right amount of complicity justify the haunting, mixed with enough regret to maintain sympathy for the character, and the film’s final shot is equal parts pathos and terror: for once, justice -as horrible as it is – is meeted out in a manner completely appropriate to the crime.
The scare tactics easily exceed anything seen in recent American attempts to cash in on the Asian horror invasion (including remakes of ONE MISSED CALL and THE EYE). The storyline is punctuated with numerous little spooky vignettes (an innocent medical technician who seems to call Tun a “lying bastard” in the dead girl’s voice; a ghostly face on a photograph that suddenly turns to look at Tun; the final-reel explanation for the pain in Tun’s neck, which has been forshadow by a nature documentary on the Preyming Mantis), and there are some imaginative and original set pieces. In one, the screen goes mostly black when the lights turn out, illuminated only intermittently by the flash of Tun’s photographic equipment, relying on the film viewer’s persistence of vision to pick out the uncanny details, such as the ghost who appears only for a frame or two and then disappears again. Slighly more conventional, but at least as startling, is the wonderful moment when Tun tries to escape the ghost by taking the a fire escape, and she pursues him down the ladder – crawling face down (perhaps an homage to Stoker’s Dracula, in which the vampire clambers down his castle wall in that fashion).
Looking a bit more like a resuscitated corpse than a disembodied spirit, Sikamana’s Natre may not surpass Sadako and Kayako as the Queen of Vengeful Ghosts, but she does deserve to be added to the family album right beside them. Everingham and Thongmee register as believable people, and their characters are blessedly free of the undue skepticism that slows down films of this type (including the upcoming American remake).
SHUTTER does tend to stop-down a bit as it enters its the last few reels. Like RING, it plays with the idea of laying a ghost to rest, only to have the horror continue unabated. Jane and Tun’s attempt to settle the karmic scorecard is not without interest, but it lacks the ticking time bomb plot device of RING. Also, there are a few moment that ring false or don’t ring at all (perhaps due to something being lost in translation).
When Tun is informed that the friend he saw dive off a building is only the latest one to commit suicide, you wonder how the news never got back to him before. There is a moment with a young child, dressed like a monk, staring at Tun, the significance of which is not quite clear (even with a flashback specifically intended to clarify it). And the plot hinges on some photographs that Tun took, for reasons that don’t quite make sense: the audience guesses they were for blackmail, but it seems more likely they could have been used as evidence against the perpetrators, rather than coercion against the victim. Perhaps shame is such a strong force in Thai culture that it can explain why the victim would not want the photographs shown, but if the victim is ashamed of what happened, would the photos even be necessary?
Despite some familiar sights and a very few blurry story elements, SHUTTER is well-composed snapshot of the land of the dead, exposing the supernatural in every shadow. Much of it you may have seen before, but as a college profession lectures in the film, the camera does not simply record reality; the lens interprets that reality, creating something unique, depending on the point of view. SHUTTER focuses clearly and cleverly on its ghost story, creating a creepy portrait of characters trapped in a darkroom with the dead. It may not disturb your sleep with nightmares afterwards, but while you are watching, it does deliver the shivers.


Regarding the young “monk” who can apparently see a ghost, it appears that he is actually a “Nain” (or “pre-monk”). The idea is that children have pure minds and can see things clearly that adults do not; a child how is a Nain would be especially able to see something spiritual, like a ghost.


The Tartan Asian Extreme DVD launches with an unstoppable montage of clips from the companies various releases. It’s not bad, but it is annoying to be forced to sit through it every time you pop the disc in the player.
Options include the original Thai track in DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, plus subtitles in English and Spanish. The English subtitles are easily readable and mostly free of the embarrassing typos and mistranslations that mare many of these Asian imports.
The film is divided into fifteen chapter stops – not quite enough to easily zero in on your favorite scene, but better than nothing. The transfer is good but slightly dark. Since this is a horror film that takes place mostly in shadows, the slightly murky image seems like part of the atmosphere, but it is easy to imagine a transfer that would prevent dark-clothed cast members from blending into the backgrounds.
Special features include an original trailer, an interview with the director and the cast, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a collection of trailers from other Tartan Asia Extreme releases (A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, THE RED SHOES, THE MAID, THE GHOST, THE HAIRLOOM).
The “Interview” is actually a brief promotional piece, in which the two directors, Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, talk about the research they did into Spirit Photography, allegedly obtaining books of real photographs from a university professor, plus additional shots from their friends. There are also snippets of Ananda Everingham and Natthaweeranuch Thongmee describing their characters. Overall, this is a piece that might whet the appetite of those who are looking forward to the film, but it offers little insight to anyone who has already seen it.
The “Behind-the-Scenes” feature consists of four segments, intercutting the directors’s comments with footage showing how scenes were shot:

  1. Car Crash. We see the stunt woman take the hit from the automobile and learn that the car knocked over a sign that fell on the camera
  2. Suicide. The directors reveal the secret behind one of the film’s bravura moments: in a single take, we see someone jump off a balcony; then the camera looks over the edge, revealing the body below. The actor who leaps was suspended on a wire, caught by grips on the balcony below, and pulled out of sight. His dead “body” was a double, set up beforehand.
  3. Ladder. This shows the camera rig used to keep the lens in close on Ananda Everingham while he tries to escape Netra by climbing down the fire escape. We also get a glimpse of the safety wires attached to the actor (which were removed in post-production)
  4. Real Picture from Location. The title says it all: the directors show a digital picture taken on location, which allegedly catches the shadowy ghost of a man who died on the road.

The ghost makes a reappearance in her lover's bed.

SHUTTER (2004). Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Written by Banjong Pisanthanakun, Parkpoom Wongpoom, Sopon Sukdapisit. Cast: Ananda Everingham, Natthaweeranuch Thongmee, Achita Sikamana, Unnop Chanpaibool. 
RELATED ARTICLES: Interview with “Shutter” Star Joshua Jackson

Culture and Horror: East vs. West

Here is an interesting bit of analysis that seems relevant in light of this weekend’s release of THE EYE: In “Culture and Horror: Valerie Wee Sui-Lin, Ringu, and The Ring,” John Morehead interviews an assistant professor from the National University of Singapore, who analyses the differences between Japan’s RINGU and its American remake THE RING.
One of the continuing problems with remakes of J-Horror is that the originals are based around certain cultural assumptions that support and enrich the narrative. When these cultural idiocyncracies are lost in translation, what remains is often a mechanical spook show that makes sense only on the level of an urban legend recounted at a slumber party, in which credibility and characterization are subordinated to shock effect.
Valerie Wee Sui-Lin does a good job of illuminating the distinctions between Eastern and Western approaches to horror, pointing out that depictions of the supernatural in film like RINGU are based on long-lived traditions. In particular, she answers the questions plaguing many Western viewer: What’s up with these vengeful female ghosts?

Valerie Wee Su-Lin:The female ghost is one if the mainstays of Japanese folk tales. Many of these stories date back to the Edo period (which began around 1603). What’s perhaps most interesting about these female ghost stories is that they feature women who are perfectly ordinary and, as expected in Japanese patriarchal culture, entirely submissive and obedient, until they are brutally murdered by men in authority whose social function is to protect and look after these women. Only after this betrayal do these women return as terrifying supernatural beings with the power and ability to exact revenge. Interestingly, these vengeful ghosts appear to be free of the patriarchal constraints and limitations that the culture commonly places on (representations of) Japanese women. I think it’s also worth noting that these representations have endured through the centuries. There are a number of popular Japanese folk tales that are regularly staged in Kabuki and Noh performances, and, as Ringu proves, the stories and this particular female figure continue to capture the imagination both in Japan, and the world, as it would appear.

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.


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…

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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.


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.


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.

* * *

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 (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.


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)

Sense of Wonder: J-Horror Day

Sadako appears in RING (1998).Although a bit late, we decided to turn today into “J-Horror Day” at Cinefantastique Online in honor of the release of ONE MISSED CALL, a remake of the interesting 2004 Japanese film directed by cult auteur Takashi Miike. The recent wave of Japanese horror films was launched in 1998 with RING, an “Instant Classic” that immediately established a set of cliches that were worked and reworked in numerous sequels, remakes, and rip-offs. In the East, RING (a.k.a. RINGU) served as a template for other creative artists, who contributed worthwhile variations on the theme, sometimes approaching the level of the original. PULSE (2001), THE EYE (a 2002 film from Hong Kong), PHONE (a 2002 film from South Korea), and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003) are all good enough to stand beside RING as unique horror efforts in their own right. 2003’s A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (another South Korean film) may be a bit too artsy for its own good, but it earns respect for its ambitious approach, combing supernatural motifs with psycho-drama. 2001’s DARK WATER (directed by RING’s Hideo Nagata, again based on the fiction of Koji Suzuki) may not match its predecessor, but it shows a firm command of the elements, yielding another creepy ghost story worthy of consideration. Continue reading “Sense of Wonder: J-Horror Day”