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.

In America, unfortunately, where inspiration seems to be in short supply, RING has served less as a jumping-off point for filmmakers to explore a new approach to the genre than as a cookie-cutter used to stamp out copies of the original. Not only was there THE RING (2002) and THE RING 2 (2005); we also got remakes of DARK WATER (2005), PULSE (2006), and the upcoming THE EYE (2008). To date, the only American version of a J-Horror flick that even comes close to matching the original is THE GRUDGE, which benefitted from the wise decision to hire the original film’s director, Takashi Shimizu, and shoot the remake in Japan.

The problem with these American remake is that they have difficulty justifying their existence. Unlike a traditional remake, in which an old project can be reinterpreted for a new generation thanks to advances in film art and technology, these English-language transpositions exist simply because Hollywood is convinced that American audiences will not read subtitles (this in spite of the blockbuster success of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON in 2000).

There is no artistic rational for these films, which are typically scence-for-scene remakes, goosed up with some additional shocks for the benefit of viewers with Attention Deficit Disorder, who might grow bored sitting through a slow build-up. And the generous dollop of computer-generated imagery often used in these remakes is hardly an improvement, usually serving to remind us of how much better was the subtle approach of the originals.

American horror is in a pretty sorry state when SAW, HOSTEL, 30 DAYS OF NIGHTTHE MIST, and GRINDHOUSE - not to mention rehashed horror like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES – are the best that Hollywood can offer. It’s no wonder that Hollywood is scrambling in search of foreign gems that can be copied into look-alike costume jewelry that will (hopefully) fool inattentive viewers.

Genres inevitably run through cycles, and commentators love to discuss the Death of Horror, even though it continually rises from the tomb. The truth is that genre never really die; simply, the current fashion fades, while we wait for a new approach. J-Horror offered that new approach eight years ago with RING, and filmmakers in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea did a fine job taking the torch and running with it. Sadly, here in the U.S., we seem incapable of making any worthwhile contribution of our own. With all our technical profficiency, the most we can muster is some glossy forgeries.

This is most obvious in the case of ONE MISSED CALL, which opened last week. The American version misses the point of the Japanese original, which seemed to sense that the J-Horror wave was drying up and consequently presented itself as the last word on the subject, sometimes with its tongue in its cheek. The remake, unfortunately, is a straight presentation of the overly familiar story, delivered without wit or self-awareness. The filmmakers might as well have been living in a cave these last eight years, unaware of what has gone before, and because they don’t know what’s happening, they assume that viewers will be likewise ignorant, and react to the film as it it were unlike anything seen before on the big screen.

We can only hope that this trend burns out and that audiences refuse to support it with their ticket-buying dollars. A glance at film festivals and low-budget independent titles reveals that there are talented people ready to do something new, if only Hollywood would give them a chance. But that won’t happen until creativity and originality are at least as safe a bet as rehashing a story that was done better in Japan.

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The Japanese version of ONE MISSED CALL was directed by Takashi Miike, who also directed THE GREAT YOKAI WAR and “Box,” the best episode of the anthology film THREE…EXTREMES.

Before the American remake of RING, there was a sequel called SPIRAL (”Rasen”) and a South Korean remake called THE RING VIRUS.

Takashi Shimizu’s THE GRUDGE was followed by the less successful THE GRUDGE 2. Shimizu also directed the interesting though slightly disapointing REINCARNATION and the off-beat horror flick MAREBITO. You can read an interview with him here.

Japanese horror did not begin with RING. There was a long tradition of cinematic ghost stories that included such classics as KWAIDAN and ONIBABA (both 1965). One of the premier practitioners of this form was Nobua Nakagawa (JIGOKU); one of his last efforts of this type was SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (”Kaidan Kebe-Onna,” 1968), which was recently released on DVD here in the States. (In an interview on the JIGOKU DVD, writer-director Kirioshi Kurosawa jokes that he prefers not to show Nakagawa’s work when he teaches film classes, because he does not want his students to realize how much he borrows from Nakagaw in his own films, like PULSE.)

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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