Clearly, it’s time to hang up on these Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films. No telephone company would get away with this kind of shoddy long-distance service. The call gets through, but the signal is so weak and garbled in the cross-Pacific transit that the message is lost, leaving audience on hold, waiting for scares that never come.
In case you cut class, here is a little history lesson: In 1998, there was RING, the first in a wave of J-horror that included numerous sequels, remakes, and rip-offs. RING (or RINGU, as it is called in America) is one of the few films that warrants the designation “Instant Classic,” in that its visual strategies and plot elements (specifically, a ghostly girl with long dark hair hiding her face) became immediate cliches, used and reused by other films. America got into the act with THE RING (2002) and THE RING 2 (2005), not to mention other remakes such as THE GRUDGE (2004) and PULSE (2006). By the time cult director Takashi Miike got around to filming the Japanese version of ONE MISSED CALLin 2004, the J-Horror formula was about as predictable as a 12-bar blues progression, and the only thing left to do was push the familiar tropes to the point of parody. Watching the film, one got the impression that Miike was trying to eat his cake and have it, too: delivering the anticipated horror while simultaneously satirizing the overly familiar plot elements (such as a lethal supernatural force whose victims know their appointed time of death down to the minute).
This sort of self awareness – which was the whole raison d’etre of the original – is totally lacking in the remake, which follows the standard strategy for this kind of thing: take the original story, recast it with American actors, and goose it up with some additional frights, usually in the form of computer-generated imagery, which might or might not suit the subject matter. The result is one lifeless, uninspired trudge through a rut worn so deep into the moldy ground that one expects the walls to collapse any second, burying the whole mess like a rotting corpse.
The film starts with its best (not good but best scene): a young woman in a backyard garden hears some splashing noises, checks out the pond, and gets pulled in by a pair of ghostly hands – which then grab her cat as well (for no other reason than that the filmmakers reckoned it would be a surprise). Although the woman’s demise is all-too-predictable, the image of her her hoovering over the placid surface – which we just know is going to erupt with some kind of horror – represents the one moment of genuine suspense in the film. (Unfortunately, even this bit is undermined when we subsequently learn that the victim was a recipient of one of the ominous phone messages foretelling of death: if she knew her appointed time had come, why was she not acting a trifle more cautious, instead of walking right into the line of fire, so to speak?)
After the funeral, Leann (Azura Skye) receives a “one missed call” message on her cell phone: although the incoming number indicates that the call was from her dead friend, the voice on the message is her own, screaming in fear, and the date indicates that the call originated a few days in the future. At the appointed time, Leann falls from an overpass into the path of an oncoming train, and after the impact her friend Beth (Shannyn Sossamon) is close enough to see Leann’s dead hand dialing a number on her cell phone. (Whether Beth does in fact see this is not clear. One should also note that in the Japanese original, it was quite clearly a severed hand that was dialing the number.) It turns out that the recipient of the call was Beth’s platonic roommate Ray (Jason Beghe), who soon has a close encounter with a piece of scrap metal from an explosion at a construction sight.
With three on-screen deaths under its belt, the film finally decides to give up the episodic death structure and settle into a plot. Beth teams up with a cop named Jack (Edward Burns), whose sister recently died while hiking; curiously, her body was found with a piece of hard candy in her mouth – which was also true of Beth’s dead friends. After Taylor (Ana Claudia Talancon) receives one of the fateful phone calls, Beth and Jack race to trace the calls to their source, the trail leading them to a missing woman and her two daughters, one dead, one alive. It seems mom had a record of continually bringing her daughters to the hospital , one for asthma, the other for injuries. Could she have been a child abuser? And did her evil somehow spawn this lethal string of phone messages?
Tracking down the chain of phone calls provides enough plot to keep the movie going, and the mystery has just enough twists to keep the film mildly interesting. Klavan tries to clarify (or at least rationalize) plot points that were vague in the original, but he also provides his own lapses of logic: After a skeptical police officer (Margaret Cho) tells Beth that no mysterious messages were found on the cell phones of her dead friends, do Beth and Taylor take Taylor’s phone to the police when she misses a call? No, they destroy the phone and throw it down a sewer. And why, oh why – when they know that a missed call is the harbinger of doom – do Beth and Taylor turn off their cell phones and take the batteries out – instead of answering every incoming ring so that there will be no more missed calls?
In the end the film cannot escape the arbitrary nature of its own premise. The screenplay by Andrew Klavan (which is credited to both the source novel Chakushin ari and to the 2004 film) inserts some techno-babble dialogue to explain how a ghost might be able to manifest itself through a cell phone, but that still leaves a big, gaping “why?” that is never satisfactorily answered: Why must the ghost manifest through a missed call that provides a premonition of a death to come – wouldn’t it be easier to simply kill instantly? (The real reason, of course, is to imitate RING, which also dealt with phone calls and time limits, but there it made sense: the dead Sadako wanted her victims to have time to duplicate the cursed videotape and show it to others, so that her curse could spread.)
With this contrived and ultimately unconvincing foundation, the film needs to support itself on style and scares; unfortunately, these are in short supply. Director Eric Valette presents the horror straight up, with a lot of CGI spookiness thrown in; we never get the heightened exaggeration that turned Miike’s film into a virtual parody. Also, Valette bungles the two highlights that Miike milked so well in the original. In the first, a reality show hosted by Ted Summers (Ray Wise) promises (falsely, it turns out) to exorcise the ghost before it can kill Taylor. In the second, Beth finds the missing mother’s corpse in the burned wreckage of a hospital, only to have it come to life in front of her.
Both sequences are treated almost like throw-aways; the television show, in particular, is a disappointment, lacking the overtly satirical approach of the original. Overlooking the convenient coincidence of the death being scheduled during prime-time, Miike staged the scene as a live broadcast, presumably being watched by millions of people nationwide; Valette has the death being taped, but the tapes are wiped clean, leaving no evidence. Perhaps the American filmmakers were fearful of the implications (ignored in the Miike version) of what happens when a nation is violently confronted with photographic proof of a lethal supernatural curse.
With such lifeless material, it is little surprise that the cast emerges as bland and unmemorable. Sossamon walks through looking more glum than frightened for her life; the victims are pretty much just walking targets; and when the ghost responsible for the haunting finally reveals his/her evil face, the effect is about at the level of a grade school play. (You can practically hear Count Floyd crying, “Oooo…scary, kids!”) The chief exception is Ed Burns, who is competent enough to play a cop with conviction, even when he’s on the trail of a ghost. And it is fun to see stand-up comedian Margaret Cho in a bit part; hopefully, this film will provide fodder for her next stand-up tour.
Striking a note of optimism unwarranted by the previous eight-five minutes, the ending of ONE MISSED CALL leaves the story open for a sequel. As with the rest of the film, the handling of the supernatural elements is so arbitrary that you can easily imagine the feverish screenwriter making it up as he goes along without regard for rhyme or reason: Evil manifests itself for the big climax. Good, after taking its own sweet time, finally manifests itself to defeat the evil. (Apparently, the Good Ghost in the movie has some kind of “Final Girl Exemption Policy” that requires intervention only to save Beth at the ending.) But then, wouldn’t you know it, that eerie ring tone begins playing at the Final Fade-out. Somehow, it is hard to imagine anyone bothering to answer this call.
Of the film’s several unanswered questions, perhaps the most intriguing is this one: Did the cat in the opening scene have its own cell phone, and did it receive a call foretlling of its death?
According to the Internet Movie Database’s entry for the film, director Eric Valette never watched the Japanese film, and asked his actors to avoid it as well. Too bad – they might have learned something.
ONE MISSED CALL (2008). Directed by Eric Valette. Screenplay by Andrew Klavan, based on the novel Chakushin ari by Yasushi Akimoto and the screenplay by Miwako Daira. Cast: Shannyn Sossamon, Edward Burns, Ana Claudia Talancon, Ray Wise, Azura Skye, Johnny Lewis, Jason Beghe, Margaret Cho, Meagan Good, Rhoda Griffis, Dawn Dininger, Ariel Winter.