Friday, November 07, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #4: Ghost in Translation

Isn’t it interesting that whenever you try to recreate the flavor of something, it never comes out quite right? Asian horror movies—known commonly as J-Horror—grabbed the attention of American viewers in the first couple of years of this century, and soon after Hollywood was all over these new properties like a flock of vultures that smelled carrion. But Hollywood was not content to just feast on someone else’s kill. Hollywood insisted on killing the genre itself and is still in the throes of the murder of the J-Horror ideals with countless remakes of J-Horror classics by the dozens each year.

This year I focused on three such J-Horror remakes released theatrically in 2008. “One Missed Call” and “Mirrors” are from lesser-known original sources, but still encompass all the typical keynotes of your average J-Horror shocker. “The Eye” is remade from one of the first J-Horror hits in the U.S., a film of the same name by the now Hollywood-ized directing team of The Pang Brothers.

To call them “shockers” may be getting right to the point of just why Hollywood can’t seem to recapture the magic of the original horrors from our far-eastern contemporaries. Most J-Horror films don’t find their success through an increasing series of shocks and jolts. In fact, many will only contain one or two jarring moments. But what frights they don’t bounce out of your body with sudden scares they make up for in your mind with moody atmosphere and horrifying creepiness. J-Horror more often than not manifests itself through ghost stories that work on your mind with long, slow build-ups to their frightening revelations and truly disturbing images of their ghostly apparitions.

In watching the American versions of “One Missed Call”, “Mirrors”, and “The Eye”, I noticed a couple of other similarities that also seem to consume the damned in these ghost stories. The stories of all three of these films revolve around and depend imperatively upon hospitals and fires. In every one of these movies a hospital has been the location that inspires the events that take place. And each story includes a fire that caused great tragedy to the ghosts that haunt the heroes. In “One Missed Call” a recent fire that claimed lives at a hospital is the focal point of a ghost that calls people on the cell phones days before they are to die. In “Mirrors” a department store fire is the site of tragedy until it is discovered that ghost a patient at the hospital the building once housed was the cause of the fire and the current travails of the security guard who now watches the building at night. And in “The Eye” Jessica Alba’s blindness is cured in a hospital, but her newfound sight reveals through ghostly images cryptic messages about a fire that killed many workers in a Mexican factory.

Now, “One Missed Call” and “Mirrors” are far too dependent on their gimmicks to inspire the fear they intend to. The possessed cell phones are not as scary as they could be. Once someone receives a call predicting their deaths, we immediately start to concentrate on just how they won’t be able to avoid their fate, and we start scanning the backgrounds and the words the characters use to predict just when their deaths will occur.

“Mirrors” relies too heavily on shock treatment—director Alexandre Aja’s insistence on jarring the audience with sudden images or noises to try and make them jump. Because of this, the creepiness of just how the mirrors seem to be watching and reacting to Kiefer Sutherland’s hero is lost. Our boredom with such conventional scare tactics then has us looking for loopholes in the logic of how the mirrors work. And once you do that, you see how little sense any of this story makes.

“The Eye” is the only movie that worked for me. In this case, I found it even more effective than the original, but possibly at the expense of the scarier points of the source material. I was slightly disappointed with the original version of “The Eye” when I viewed it a couple of Horrorfests ago because it seemed to want to be two different movies. The first half is a very disturbing personal thriller about a blind woman who finally has sight but is cursed by seeing beyond the world most people see, into the land of the dead and the grim reapers that escort them to the afterlife. The second half is a mystery of where her eyes came from and the tragedy that surrounded the circumstances that brought them to her. The first story was very personal and quite frightening. The second was something on a much more sweeping scale and lost all of the horror of the first.

I think the reason I like this story better in Hollywood’s hands is because they really never succeed as well as the original in making the first half of the story quite so frightening. Because Hollywood is much better at sweeping grand gestures than any other film community, this film was much more successful at embracing the overall mystery of the woman’s story. Without committing so personally into the horror of her discovery that she could see the dead and their escorts in death, I was able to relax into the grander mystery of where her eyes had come from and why they gave her this extra sight.

It is clear that Hollywood will never be able to accurately recreate what makes Asian horror so appealing to its audiences, but certainly there are elements of any film culture that can be exploited by America to make for some form of success. Sometimes it just takes more broken eggs than others to make an omelet.

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