By Desmond Reddick
16 July 2007 — In the late 1990s and early and 2000s, the best the American horror machine had to offer as far as popular cinema was formulaic redundancy. Sure, there were bright moments but for every American Psycho there were two dozen Scream ripoffs. It seemed Hollywood discovered that they could take a teenage actress (or a 30 year old playing a teen) from a popular television show, put her in a thin tank top and painted-on jeans and they had a hit. But across the Pacific, there was an entirely different scene going on. Japan's horror output was filled with horror masterpieces boasting ingenuity and style unmatched anywhere else. But this is not just a column about those films. This is a column about the influence those films had on the Hollywood zeitgeist.
The films I will discuss in this column go beyond being individualistically devoured by a cult American audience as I examined in the last column; they contain elements that have transposed themselves into American genre cinema and have transcended influence into a kind of cinematic assimilation. In other words, Japanese cinema has in a way been consumed by American cinema and, regardless of what you may think, we are all the better for it.
Despite a tendency for relying on technological aspects of culture, Japanese horror cinema (J-Horror as it is called) has brought the creepy back into America horror. Gone are the days when the cat jumping out of the garbage can and the "dead" killer grabbing the victim's leg "unexpectedly" are the only scares one gets. Japanese horror — the kind that has transferred into America anyway — generally has the quality of a slow metamorphosis from the banal and mundane to the unbearably skin-crawlingly creepy.
Then, in 2002, something very interesting happened. There was the undercurrent of a Japanese influence found in American horror cinema like no other year beforehand. The Ring (Gore Verbinski's remake of the 1998 Hideo Nakata film Ringu) was the highest grossing horror film of that year and resides still at number 16 on the all-time list — ahead of the two Scream sequels and the original Halloween, I thought I'd mention — among the distinguished company of Jaws, The Omen and Alien. It's also number 254 on the all-time box office list worldwide! Now, I'll be the first to shoot down that bit of reasoning by saying that high box office results don't necessarily precipitate a good film. This is clearly evident by other entries on that same list: What Lies Beneath, Van Helsing and The Mummy Returns. But, I'm not here to argue whether Verbinski's remake is a good film or not (it is, by the way); I'm here to discuss its cultural importance.
Remaking Japanese horror films was almost a novel idea in 2002. Today, the very mention that a film is a remake of a foreign offering gets a universal eye roll from genre fans. I have to admit my complicity in this, but I will say that the idea of a remake is not entirely out of bounds as far as I'm concerned. I just don't like it being a prevailing feature of the year's major horror releases.
Soon after The Ring was released a very interesting queue of films followed with stylistic qualities so similar to it, and several Asian films released the year before (2001 was a very good year for Japanese genre film), it's almost impossible to deny its influence. Ghost Ship, My Little Eye, FeardotCom, Darkness Falls, Cold Creek Manor, Dead End: all films with very clear ties to J-Horror. In fact, the only film I could find with such a direct tie to the aesthetics of Japanese / Asian cinema is the 1997 Canadian sci-fi / horror flick: Cube. It being some bizarre mixture between Oldboy, Saw and the Japanese aspect of technological anarchy, combines all of these aspects in a way that is ingenious and far better than all others while pre-dating all of these by years. Of course, we all know that the Canadians are very far ahead of their time in many areas...
I would argue for The Ring being a better horror film than its source material. While Ringu is a much better film as far as pacing and character development, The Ring is most definitely scarier. This is due, almost certainly, to a better effects budget and delivery. Practical effects at that! The film within a film in The Ring had me on edge for days afterwards. Ringu director Hideo Nakata came to America to direct The Ring Two which was not a remake of any sequels in the Ringu series but was an entirely different beast altogether. A shitty, decidedly piss poor beast at that. Nakata succeeded in creating a sequel that was almost entirely free of Japanese sensibilities in creating the American psych-out. It was dumb to say the least. Most importantly, what The Ring did was open the door for more and more remakes of Japanese films: Dark Water, The Grudge, Premonition, Pulse and several upcoming 2008 releases.
There are those that shout from the hillsides that the Japanese remake is only one example of why the genre is stilted and dying. But, as we are seeing, there is currently a resurgence in the genre and Japanese influence is found throughout. Planet Terror, Hostel, 1408 and Bug are among several recent critically lauded American horror films saturated thoroughly with Japanese influence. Eli Roth, director of Hostel, even wears this influence on his sleeve by petitioning a cameo from his idol Takashi Miike. There are even more films not critically lauded that have this heavy influence. Most of these are ghost stories: The Messengers, The Reaping, Silent Hill, The Amityville Horror (a remake of an American film that came out looking more like a remake of a Japanese film). The list goes on and on.
Whether you like this list of recent American films or not you have to admit that they're better fare than the WB sponsored bullshit of the mid-90s, and you have the Japanese to thank for that. So it's time to quit whining and realize that the damage was done long ago. Maybe then you'll be able to enjoy some of these for what they are: some of the best horror films of the past decade.