Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remake Rumble: Ju-On vs. The Grudge

The contenders: Ju-on, directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2002; and The Grudge, directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2004

The story: When a person dies in a state of extreme rage, and that state of rage is made into a feature-length film, it leaves a terrible curse upon the place where the death occurred. Any person who enters that place is marked for death, doomed to return to the theater for the remake and/or subsequent sequels. The curse is relentless, inescapable... and now it's coming for you.

The battle: Remember when J-horror was a novelty? Hard to believe that a scant five years ago, Japanese horror had clawed its way to ascendancy, thanks to a set of (now) cliche attributes: pale-skinned and long-haired ghosts, a creeping sense of dread, and a return to the prototypical ghost story. Since then, of course, these tropes have become so common, they've even been mocked in the Scary Movie series. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And even though Ju-on came at the crest of the J-horror craze, it was itself a sequel, coming on the heels of two direct-to-video precursors.

Shimizu divides Ju-on into several episodes, each heralded with a title card naming the cursed victim. He jumps backwards and forwards in time, letting the viewer piece together the connections and the chronology. And, in an fascinating moment, one victim, a father who has entered the house in order to burn it down, encounters a vision of his daughter in the future. It's an off-putting moment that relies more on displacement than any jump scares, and I would almost say that it's the most eerie and effective scene in the film.

Ju-on also touches upon an extremely sensitive topic for the Japanese: elder abuse. Our social-worker heroine, Rika, first comes onto the scene when she makes a home visit to an elderly Japanese woman, who, by the looks of it, has been neglected. Shimizu's panning shots of urine-soaked sheets and the inset shot of a dark smear of unrecognizable filth certainly elicits a protean sense of horrific disgust, but for the Japanese, who generally revere and take excellent care of aging parents, it touches on a culturally-specific horror.

Unfortunately, the titular curse seems to spread, all Romero-zombie-like. So instead of having just Kayako (the deceased wife) and Toshio (the dead son) paying people unexpected visits, the curse infects a trio of schoolgirls. If one pale girl ghost is scary, than three must be three times as scary, right? Especially when they're wearing knee-high socks! On the DVD, Shimizu, in describing his deleted scenes, explains how the final shots of an emptied-out Tokyo harkens to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo, implying, perhaps, that the curse has spread wide enough to wipe out the population. Indeed, it's pretty effective at trimming down the city's inhabitants. Who needs population control when you've got a cursed house to do it for you? (Interestingly enough, even though the film uses Kayako, the deceased wife, and Toshio, the son, as the main bugaboos, Rika's final moments points more squarely at the murderous father, Takeo, as the true malevolence.)

With Sam Raimi's Ghosthouse Picture at his back, Shimizu was able to direct his own remake. Honestly, it's difficult to say whether or not this is a good idea. It's good if you want to control and honor the artistry of the original, but I wonder if a different set of eyes would have created a new vision -- so to speak -- of the original concept.

The Grudge focuses on American expats living in Japan, particularly Karen (the Rika role, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her boyfriend Doug. And even though screenwriter Stephen Susco tries to milk "zomg i can't read any of the signs" for all it's worth, he doesn't quite capture the sense of displacement in a way that enhances the terror.

As well, the episodic nature of Ju-on has been scaled back to center more around Karen, and in order to make up the time lost by eliminating the non-Rika segments in the original, Susco falls back on two all-American standbys: the love story and the detective story. How do we know Karen and Doug are American? Because they're always on the verge of getting it on at every possible moment. (Imagine Canadians doing that. Or the Swiss.) Once Karen discovers her cursed nature, it's a race against time (too reminiscent of Ringu) to neutralize the source of the curse.

Kayako in The Grudge is a much more menacing presence -- but not in her ghost form, strangely enough. Instead, Kayako is shown to be somewhat of a stalker, following around an American professor and popping up in all sorts of casual photographs. She's like the drunk dude in the background that you can't crop out. Her Madama Butterfly-like obsession sets her squarely on the road to spooksville, and even though it's the husband who's responsible for her death, her craziness over a white man (Bill Pullman, of all people! couldn't she have chosen Hugh Jackman or someone?) sets her up as a villianness.

White American men: the cause of curses everywhere.

The Grudge also suffers from over-Hollywoodization, including abuse of CGI effects and abuse of soundtrack. There's a sudden loud, build-up of strings and then... a door opens! Granted, Ju-on had its own soundtrack abuses, particularly a high-pitched tinnitus headache, but at least the ambient sounds were allowed to suffuse the atmosphere, rather than having an orchestra introduce herald each jump scare.

The verdict: Ju-on wins. The mental discombobulation from the fractured timeline adds a chronological je ne sais quoi to the horror quotient. Plus, it's difficult to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar face off with a ghost and just sort of cower. Now, I abhor typecasting as much as the next person, but I kept thinking, "Buffy, come on! Just kick her ectoplasmic ass!"

Friday, July 24, 2009

Remake Rumble: [•Rec] vs. Quarantine

The contenders: [•Rec], directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007; and Quarantine, directed by John Eric Dowdle, 2008

The story: A film crew, while following on-duty firemen, gets trapped in an apartment building with its residents... one of whom has come down with a mysterious illness. Needless to say, the illness involves face-biting, excessive salivating, and poor posture. As the authorities seal the building to prevent any residents from leaving, the film crew continues intrepidly taping the events. Think The Blair Witch Project meets 28 Days Later.

The battle: Although both films -- given their "found transmission" nature -- purport to be in real time, that sense is more pronounced in [•Rec] than Quarantine. The edits in [•Rec] are accompanied with digital fuzz, hinting at an actual camera being turned off, whereas the edits in Quarantine are much more smooth. Indeed, the sense of reality in [•Rec] feels much stronger. Angela Vidal, our newscaster heroine makes errors in her introduction to the show and whispers to her cameraman, Pablo, to cut if an interview turns out to be dull. Her tour of the fire house suggests real life for late-shift firemen: lots of boredom. Certain people are too shy to appear on camera. In essence, you get the feeling that this is a real event taking place, even to the point when, as the fateful emergency call comes in, the firemen feel no real need to use the siren on their truck. Given this firmly-established sense of the mundane, when the more horrific elements are introduced, the viewer is more inclined to accept these as plausible.

Indeed, the total immersion in the viewing experience allows [•Rec] to get away with jump scares -- say, for instance, a body falling down a stairwell. It's particularly well-done considering that many of the shots are done in long takes to emulate someone turning on a camera and leaving it on. There's no foregrounding of the scare with a ominous strings on the soundtrack or any other emotion-heightening techniques. Everything seems normal... and then boom!, a body falling into the frame. It's an effective moment. The long takes also amp up the gore factor, as the camera witnesses acts of violence that go naturalistically from shaky chaos to juicy face-munching.

[•Rec], being a Spanish production, also introduces two cultural-specific elements, one of which makes an important point, and the other which muddles an otherwise clean storyline. During one moment of respite, Angela interviews different trapped folks, which deepens the audience's sympathy for those caught in an increasingly dire situation. During these scenes, [•Rec] comments upon issues of immigration -- particularly, the Chinese family living upstairs. As the nature of the infection is discovered, blame quickly falls upon them, manifesting the stereotype of immigrants as bearers of exotic disease. (Ask Lou Dobbs on this point.) One vain resident (clearly coded as homosexual) who preens before his interview delivers a xenophobic screed about the smells coming from the apartment and their consumption of raw fish. He even explicitly mistakes Chinese and Japanese, saying that they're interchangeable. His buffoonery suggests a strong sympathy for the immigrants, who are just as doomed as he is.

The second cultural point is more problematic. Towards the end, it's suggested that the source of the outbreak might be demonic possession. For heavily Roman Catholic Spain, this might hold extra sway as a horrific element, but it adds some confusion. Had an exorcism taken place? Why all the scientific equipment? Did the occupant of the room take the Papal Encyclical about religion and science too seriously?

Quarantine, on the other hand, has a much more plausible explanation for the outbreak: a virulent strain of rabies. Given that the film is set in Los Angeles, this offers the opportunity for plenty of dog-related mayhem, and the director Dowdle is happy to oblige. Unfortunately, however, Quarantine also feels much more scripted than [•Rec], and a random, free-form night among the firemen becomes an opportunity for sexually-charged banter and playful harassment (coming primarily from Fletcher, played by a mustachioed Jonathon Schech.) Perhaps it's saying something about American firemen and their cult of masculinity. Come on -- firemen are plenty hot as is. No need to be jerks about it as well.

Interestingly enough, [•Rec] was released on DVD long after Quarantine, bearing the tagline "the movie that inspiried Quarantine." But Quarantine seems to be an almost shot-for-shot replica, with a notable exception: the cameraman in Quarantine, Scott, becomes much more of a presence. Whereas Pablo never even appears on-screen, Scott shows up several times, even using the camera as a weapon at one point. Somehow, his transformation from a witness to an active participant makes the film feel much more contrived. Though I understand the necessity of showing a rat, would he really film himself stomping the rat and then staring at rodent splatter on his shoes?

Quarantine also makes the mistake of introducing too many ancillary characters (also known as victims). The limited cast of [•Rec] keeps the tension lean, maintaining our focus on just a few individuals. Why should we be concerned with the drunk yuppie or the young, nubile opera student? On a positive note, in contrast to [•Rec]'s concern about immigration, Quarantine shows integration as somewhat of a fait accompli. The building's residents run the gamut of ethnicities and ages, including an immigrant Somali family (who only briefly get the blame for the illness) to the South Asian opera teacher (again coded as homosexual). But somehow, all their interactions feel staged, never quite achieving the same degree of naturalism that [•Rec] establishes.

But Quarantine does critique a uniquely American cultural anxiety -- namely, the idea of government as a malignant entity. Whereas the threat from the government in [•Rec] remains distant, the American government actively engages in propaganda (insisting that the building has already been evacuated) and terror (sniping an unlucky individual who tries to escape through a window). And, instead of demonic possession, Quarantine offers another uniquely American institution as the ultimate source of the outbreak: a doomsday cult.

The verdict: [•Rec] wins. Its more improvisational feel and tighter focus make for a more shocking experience.

Behind-The-Curve Trendwatch: Cinematic Déjà Vu

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a film in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a remake. Unfortunately, movie reviewers and fans alike, especially those who specialize in horror, bemoan the recent spate of American remakes of overseas hits, and, for the most part, they have ample reason to complain: something about the Hollywood system seems to drain the essence of what made those films exciting in their native tongue. After the messy cannibalization of J-horror, America now has its sights set on its own corpus, remaking American horror classics from the 70s and now 80s.

It'd be simplistic, however, to chalk this up to the commonly-heard excuse that Hollywood has no good ideas. That'd be like saying that there's no point to reading anything because there are only four different sources of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. fate, or man vs. himself. (Or, as John Gardner put it, there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.)

Instead of putting all the blame on Hollywood, part of the fault lies squarely with indiscriminate consumers of horror films. After all, if there weren't such an appetite for remakes (and/or sequels), then film studios would need new ideas or concepts to lure cash-oozing gorehounds back to the theater. But instead of clamoring for something startlingly fresh, we're content to wait for the latest iteration of Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street.

But I wonder if people flock to remakes simply because they are familiar. Terror is, at heart, all about being plunged into unfamiliarity, and to allow yourself to be immersed in that situation -- well, what sane human being would want that? Instead, if the horrific element is wrapped in a familiar frame, this minimizes the terror aspect, leaving the audience free to be entertained, rather than terrorized.

While that certainly holds true for sequels, what about remakes? I'd argue that the original wave J-horror films were popular mainly because they were dislocating: there was no pre-set pattern on which audiences could rely. (Later, of course, this would change.) And perhaps bringing in some of these destabilizing elements is a good thing for the proto-typical Hollywood horror film, which has relied too long to serial killers, vampires, and now zombies.

But people charge that remakes (particularly American ones) flatten out the more intriguing aspects of foreign films, instead of injecting new blood into a moribund industry. And while this is a valid criticism, I think this gloss can sometimes be used as a cover to ignore what Hollywood can offer to their remakes. Namely: nudity, loud soundtracks, and big-name stars.

So, as a matter of research, I've added a new feature -- Remake Rumble -- in which I compare an original film to either its foreign counterpart or its fabled forebearer.

Let the games begin!