What J-Horror Loses When It Crosses the Pacific

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The Ring and Ringu. Photo: Dreamworks, Basara Pictures

In the scary-movie business, the most reliable formula for success is someone else’s formula for success. Every time a resourceful, original horror picture spins a massive payday from a shoestring budget, legions of imitators will swarm in to get a piece of the pie. Micro-trends flare up and die down more quickly in the horror genre than any other: Scream begat a generation of self-reflexive smart alecks, The Blair Witch Project ignited a found-footage craze, and Saw cleared the way for the genre now fondly known as torture porn. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also sounds pretty safe in a pitch meeting.

The most curious of these developments in recent memory was the brief J-horror wave of the mid-2000s, during which a handful of Japan’s most popular and fearsome releases were imported to our fair shores for Americanized remakes. Everyone sat up and took notice when Gore Verbinski raked in nearly $250 million with The Ring, his take on Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, and studio eyes quickly turned to Japan in search of the next big thing. The mini-trend sputtered out near the tail end of the decade, but still hasn’t been extinguished completely — this month sees Rings arrive 12 years after its predecessor, the 2005 sequel The Ring Two.

In anticipation of that film’s release on Friday, we’ve assembled a little primer on the major films of America’s J-horror phase and what’s been lost — or found — in translation. Read on, and may your days be free of dead-eyed, pallid-skinned demon children.

Ringu (1998) vs. The Ring (2002)

If any of these American remakes could be argued to have surpassed the predecessors, it’s Gore Verbinski’s imaginative rework of Nakata’s slow-burn chiller. Both films center on the memorable hook of a cursed VHS tape that instantly shortens the viewer’s lifespan to one week, but Verbinski straightened out the untethered lunacy of Nakata’s film a touch. No American studio would have ponied up a budget for a film as alienating or amorphous as Ringu, so Verbinski drew up a slightly more straightforward plot and changed the heroine’s psychic husband into a supernaturally gifted son, perhaps as a bid to latch onto the lingering popularity of The Sixth Sense. But as Verbinksi’s version proved, simplifying is not the same thing as watering down.

This particular movement in Asian horror cinema relied on suggestion and atmosphere, rather than the gutbucket gore of American slasher flicks. Both screen adaptations of Koji Suzuki’s best-selling novel had a distinct approach to the sudden stabs of terror that break the free-floating tension, and Verbinski’s scares tend to land with a greater impact. Instead of petrifying victim’s faces as Nakata did, he twists them into ghastly distortions, and he mines more disturbing imagery from the contents of the evil tape. The resulting segment looks like a Nine Inch Nails music video as directed by Luis Buñuel.

Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) vs. The Grudge (2004)

Stateside producers were so impressed with Takashi Shimizu’s third installment in his staggering franchise of Ju-on films that they offered him a ticket to the U.S. to helm the remake and its sequel. He kept the original’s multi-plot structure, and the core premise of a curse that spreads like a virus when someone dies while extremely pissed off. He also kept Toshio, the creepy boy with the bowl-cut who skitters around the haunted house that lends the film its setting. He even kept some shots, with a few scenes from the remake playing like a whitened-up photo negative of the original.

Shimizu’s skill as a craftsman of jerry-rigged shocks is still apparent in The Grudge, but just about every other aspect seems to have been spoiled at customs. Sarah Michelle Gellar, fresh off of Buffy, appears to be more confused and frightened by her own presence in the film than the ill-tempered spirit terrorizing her. The script, too, struggles to spin the many narrative plates that Shimizu kept aloft so gracefully two years prior. The director doesn’t bring much new material to the table, and the narrative changes to make the film more American only weaken what begins as a solid film. But any quibbles were covered up by the movie’s healthy grosses, and The Grudge wound up getting two sequels.

Honogurai Mizu no soko kara (2002) vs. Dark Water (2005)

Hollywood’s next bid at a crossover hit was based on another Suzuki novel, a dark psychological ghost story about a newly divorced mother moving into a decrepit apartment building with her young daughter. In both films, a malevolent spirit leaks into the building via discolored water that seeps eerily out of every corner. Ringu director Hideo Nakata claimed dominion over the J-horror scene with Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, a finely shaded — at times, verging on delicate — depiction of the bond between mother and child. Remake director Walter Salles doesn’t have such a deft hand, gracelessly foisting a backstory of abuse onto tormented mother Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly, doing her best).

To its credit, the remake employs a strong ensemble of supporting actors including John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, and Pete Postlethwaite, all of whom enliven matters between turgid scares. As Dahlia’s attorney, Roth in particular gets a few outstanding moments during the custody-battle scenes, shown only fleetingly in the original. But a lack of subtlety hobbles Salles’s take. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is uncharacteristically overbearing, a fitting match to the overdone CGI that floods the frame with tsunamis of spooky leakage, instead of the surgical liquid strikes of Nakata’s film. Never mind the water, Connelly has enough trouble wading through the lumpy script. When breaking down while questioning her right to her daughter, she shrieks, “I can’t be her mother. I don’t know how to be myself!”

Kairo (2001) vs. Pulse (2006)

The motif of technology as conduit for unnatural energy pops up all over the J-horror canon, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s cult film Kairo brings a thoughtful depth to its treatment of the then-enigmatic internet. The concept of cyber-ghosts afflicting unwitting web surfers sounds like a hard sell, but Kurosawa’s film conveys the experience of being online with a rare accuracy. When he isn’t turning audiences’ blood to ice water with hazy apparitions worthy of comparison to David Lynch, he captures the abiding loneliness of life on the internet without going Luddite. If it’s not the high-water mark of the subgenre, the film definitely contains its most affecting sequence, the spine-tingling “Forbidden Room” scene.

And accordingly, the greatest gap of quality separates Kurosawa’s film from Jim Sonzero’s bastardized remake. None of Kurosawa’s insight about the psychological effects of technology, none of the artistry in his hellacious horror scenes — basically nothing worthwhile — makes the voyage from Japan. Slasher-flick god Wes Craven helped draw up the script, but doesn’t seem to understand how Kairo’s densely cerebral (maybe even deliberately obtuse) writing contributed to the feeling of unknowability that gave the movie such fearsome power. Instead, a sadly misused Kristen Bell goes through the motions in a pale imitation of the original.

Chakushin ari (2003) vs. One Missed Call (2008)

There’s a good reason that One Missed Call marked Hollywood’s last foray into J-horror for some time afterward. It failed under every possible metric: Critics dealt it a pristine zero-percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and the box-office windfall that greeted previous remakes had all but dried up — America had gotten its fill of tech-savvy specters. Journeyman director Eric Valette regurgitates the same scare tactics that had grown stale over the previous five years, and it doesn’t do him any favors that Takashi Miike’s original bit plenty of style from Ringu. A watered-down version of an already diluted product makes this the regrettable nadir of the J-horror remake trend.

Take The Ring, swap out the videotape for a life-ending cell-phone call (and while you’re at it, swap out the feeling of novelty for total creative exhaustion), and you’re pretty much there. Not even Miike’s most lively set piece, a live televised exorcism, can earn a jolt of excitement in this derivative and uninspired rehashing. Every fad must eventually fade; One Missed Call just happened to be the canary that needed to die to let Hollywood know the time had come to vacate this particular coal mine. Rings represents Hollywood’s tentative first steps back, but unless the creators of this new chapter learn from the triumphs and failures of their past, it’s likely they will be the ones who end up cursed.

What J-Horror Loses When It Comes to America