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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 9, 2006

The horror

By Kristin Uyemura
Special to The Advertiser

Jennifer Connelly and Ariel Gade star in the American version of "Dark Water," a story of a haunted wife's struggle through a divorce.

Touchstone Pictures

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Standing in line with a hundred other horror fanatics outside the Dole Cannery Theatre, I waited to enter the realm of "The Grudge" (2004). As I watched the theater slowly fill to the brim, I wondered why I continued to go to these 10 p.m. showings, knowing they get ridiculously crowded.

The answer: Along with many other young Americans, I love J-horror. Japanese horror films, that is or the American remakes that use Japanese themes of mystery and supernatural dread to create a similarly captivating experience.

"I go to see the J-horror movies with my friends late-night," says Tim Pollard, a University of Hawai'i computer graphics major. Pollard enjoys watching late Friday-night showings. He doesn't want to wait until the DVD comes out, and neither do I. I love the anticipation I feel in the room, right before a creepy figure glances across the screen.

As recent horror duds like "Jeepers Creepers" and "Halloween: Resurrection," illustrate, American audiences thirst for a different kind of terror. We're tired of undeveloped stories about flying creatures that eat your brain, or hockey-masked murderers who never seem to die.

"American horror films today are all sensationalism; gore, violence," says Glenn Man, an English professor at UH-Manoa who specializes in film studies.

In contrast, Japanese horror films often feature a complex story line, and their psychological mind games give the viewer an entirely different kind of thrill.

Characters don't run from place to place, trying to escape a murderer. Instead, the audience follows the protagonist along a gradual, dread-filled path of mystery and self-discovery. The main character, usually a woman, often has a disturbing past that affects the present story.

Since the release of Gore Verbinski's "The Ring" (2002), which earned nearly $129 million in the box office, Japanese horror cinema has had a growing influence on Hollywood's horror flicks. Remade from J-horror master Hideo Nakata's film "Ringu" (1998), the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, "The Ring" was the catalyst for a string of American remakes adapted from Japanese horror flicks.

Abel Siu-Ho, a UH mechanical engineering graduate student, says American horror films use the same formula from years ago. "So now, when something foreign comes from another country ... it just grasps the people's attention."

Hollywood horror films often have weak plots, emphasizing blood and guts. American directors think their audience will lose interest if a character isn't brutally slashed within the first 10 minutes of the film. But now, with horror flicks as impatient as the audience, horror fans have grown bored of this predictable formula.

"If it's just a regular American horror film, I don't think it's going to be that good," says Glenn Liu, who serves on the board of directors for the Hawaii International Film Festival. "I don't have faith in American horror films."

And Liu has perspective: In preparation for HIFF last year, he viewed more than 30 international films in 10 days.

Asian films are generally more atmospheric and moody. Japanese director Nakata has called them "quiet horror movies."

Although American audiences may not have cared for these kind of films before, they are becoming more open to them now.

A BURGEONING GENRE

Asian-American producer Roy Lee has more than 20 films in development, most of which are remakes of Asian films. After "The Ring," Lee released "The Grudge," a remake of a Japanese film starring vampire-slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar. Then in early 2005, "Ring 2" was released, grossing $35 million its first weekend. Lee's latest production was director Walter Salles' "Dark Water" (2005), starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly, adapted from a 2002 film by Nakata and based on a novel by Koji Suzuki (the writer of "Ringu").

At the moment, Hollywood has chosen to remake Japanese horror films only about the avenging spirit, or obake. Usually portrayed as a female entity, the avenging spirit returns to the world of the living to wreak vengeance upon those who harmed her. Films like "Ringu" and "Dark Water" relate this tale of a "wronged" spirit.

"(The avenging spirit horror films) are the ones that are the most popular," says Man, "and also the ones that Americans tend to remake, like 'The Ring,' 'Dark Water' the little-girl revenging spirit."

The look of the avenging spirit is much like it was in original Japanese horror films, dating back to the 1950s. "It's usually a girl with long black hair," says Pollard. "Usually a child ... that was brutally murdered and comes back and wants revenge on someone."

And these avenging-spirit stories may be what attract American viewers. The ghost stories can be scarier than serial killers, because ghosts are inescapable and viewers notice the difference. "All the Japanese (horror films) have to do with spirits. All the (American horror films) are real people killing," says Kristine Ito, a biology major at UH.

"It's scarier, because if a ghost wants to kill you, there's nothing you can do about it," says Pollard. "You can't do anything to fight off a ghost."

These Japanese ghost stories are popular because "it's the fear of the unknown," says Siu-Ho, who is also a student member of HIFF. Raised in Venezuela, Siu-Ho has a great appreciation for Asian films, as well as American features.

SUPERNATURAL ALLURE

Spirits fascinate Asians and Americans alike. The avenging-spirit concept is rooted in various religions, including Shintoism and Christianity, which audiences from Hawai'i can relate to.

"The Japanese-American population, the Asian-American population (watch these horror films) because ghost stories are very popular among the Asians," says Man.

In Japanese-American homes, there are often Buddhist shrines to the family's ancestors. And the traditional bon dances held every year commemorate ancestral spirits while they briefly return to the land of the living.

These Asian religions influence the culture of Hawai'i, whether one is Japanese or another ethnicity. As a result, people from Hawai'i naturally have an interest in Asian films, including stories about spirits.

Asians "respect the dead people, the ancestors, and we respect the perspective or visions of the dead world," writer/director Nakata told MTV.com.

UH sophomore Orlando Layugan says horror movies based on a religious belief can make the story even scarier for some people. "If you believe in that religion and the movie's involved in that religion, you will believe that (the phenomenon) actually exists," he says.

Japanese horror stories also are compelling because they are based on psychological themes. Their American remakes are also psychological. Both the Japanese and American versions of "Dark Water" tell a disturbing story of Connelly's character, Dahlia. While Dahlia struggles through a divorce, her history of mental illness is revealed in a custody battle over her daughter, Ceci. At the same time, Dahlia experiences her own fears of abandonment since her mother left her as a child.

Because of the success of these remakes, it looks as if Hollywood will continue to adapt Asian horror films for years to come. In the works is a remake of another Hideo Nakata film, "Chaos" (1999) about a Japanese businessman's wife who is kidnapped, and the story of betrayal that lies underneath.

And Wes Craven has co-written a remake of "Kairo" (2001), aka "Pulse," a horror story about the Internet, paralleling the emptiness of the Internet with one's own mortality. Directed by first-timer Jim Sonzero, it's expected out in March.

Salles' "Dark Water" (2005) was released on DVD on Dec. 26.


'Freeze me' (2000)

American remake:

none

What it’s about:

Three men rape a woman and videotape the act. Five years later, one of the rapists mistreats her again and she takes revenge.

On DVD?

Yes







'Dark Water’ (2002)

American remake:

"Dark Water" (2005)

What it’s about:

A wife struggles through a difficult divorce while being haunted by the ghost of a girl in her new apartment.

On DVD?

Yes, both versions







'Ringu’ (1998)

American remake:

"The Ring" (2002)

What it’s about:

A mysterious video kills anyone who watches it unless that person can solve the mystery behind it.

On DVD?

Yes, both versions







'Audition’ (1999)

American remake:

none

What it’s about:

A lonely widower attempts to find his next wife by setting up a fake audition, but then realizes his love interest is not what she seems.

On DVD?


Yes







"Ghost actress" (1999)

American remake:

none

What it’s about:

A first-time director is trying to complete his debut film, but strange events continue to interrupt him on the set.

On DVD?

No







"Ringu 2" (1999)

American remake:

"The Ring 2" (2005)

What it’s about:

A female ghost continues to kill her victims after they view a videotape that illustrates her worst nightmare.

On DVD?

Yes, both versions







"Kaosu" (1999)

American remake:

"Chaos" (expected this year)

What it’s about:

A man gets involved in a kidnapping scheme with the wife of a wealthy businessman, but matters get out of hand when she is unexpectedly murdered.

On DVD?

Yes, Japanese version







"Ju-on" (2000)

American remake:

"The Grudge" (2004)

What it’s about:

Anyone who enters the house where someone died in the grip of a powerful rage is cursed forever.

On DVD?

Yes, both versions







"Ju-on: The Grudge 2" (2003)

American remake:

"The Grudge 2" (expected 2006)

What it’s about:

A haunted house is popular for exploitation when a TV variety show decides to film there. Then the cast and crew experience a terrible fate.

On DVD?

Yes, the J-horror version







"One Missed Call" (2003)

American remake:

"One Missed Call" (expected 2006)

What it’s about:

People receive mysterious cell-phone calls that appear to be sent by themselves as they die three days in the future.

On DVD?

Yes, the J-horror version