Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween: don't grudge horror from Japan

The UninvitedThe first really scary film I remember watching with my Mum on TV was Lewis Allen's 1944 The Uninvited, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. It reproduced the feeling of the hairs on the back of your head standing up when you're convinced somebody - something? - is following you, even though you've looked behind you repeatedly and seen nothing there, only strengthening the feeling that something is hiding.

I spent decades trying to find a film as scary. I watched many horror films, from the set-pieces of Hammer to Clive Barker's Hellraiser series. The genre, like any other, wasn't static: the Hammer films became ever more sexualised and realistically violent, occasioning Christopher Lee's disgusted departure from the company; and the Hellraiser franchise drifted into formulaic blandness.

 the film of the book - CarrieEventually I stopped watching horror films, because the genre came to the point where "horror" was no longer interpreted as rising tension leading to a macabre catharsis (as in Brian de Palma's 1976 interpretation of Stephen King's Carrie), but rather what Takashi Shimizu, director of The Grudge and The Grudge II, called a "splatter-boom". I can sympathise with him - from Romero's Night of the Living Dead through The Evil Dead to Thirteen Ghosts (I refuse to write THIR13EN unless imprisoned in parentheses), cinema-goers have been robbed of horror by self-aggrandising directors and tantrum-prone stars.

The ultimate in theatrical presence - Takako FujiWhich is where Takashi Shimizu comes into his own. His story starts with a three-minute horror film starring Takako Fuji as a "ghost"; this developed into a Japanese film series called Juon, the first of which - uniquely - was remade in Japan using the same crew, much of the original script and some of the original actors starring with American players, as The Grudge.

The GrudgeShimizu eschews special effects, except where he cannot but employ them. For example, in The Grudge there's a scene where a detective is watching a corridor on CCTV; progresively, lights fail as a spectral figure advances until the screeen goes dark, and suddenly a pair of eyes appears on the screen. To achieve the effect, Shimizu had painted Fuji's face black, so that when she opens her eyes to reveal her trademark huge globes, you are scared because you know this is no SFX: you're looking at the real thing. Similarly, when she hobbles hands-first down a flight of stairs as if her joints are set at obscene angles, it's really her moving - she's a woman of many talents. Most of The Grudge and The Grudge 2 could have been made by the team behind The Uninvited.

The Grudge 2The Grudge, like The Grudge 2, terrifies because it is more cerebral than visceral. There are references to an old Japanese myth where a king plays chess with a servant, who beats him: he has the servant, his wife, their son and his cat killed. The latter two combine into a demon and travel over the land. Although it's a Japanese tale, Shimizu hits home worldwide because he knows how to film the international iconography of irrational fear.

Both films also set up a dissonance from the onset as they start in the middle of the story, then progress forward and backward, until we are faced with the gruesome initiation of the murder of Kayako, her son and his cat against the ghastly consequences of her shade's rage at its treatment upon anybody who has been unlucky enough to step inside the cursed house.

Crime and punishment: Sherlock holmesIt's not fair, and in a sense that's the point. Classic horror stories and classic detective stories have something in common in that they're about breaking a natural law and the subsequent retribution, be that at the hands of Scotland Yard's finest or the ethereal forces patrolling fictional firmaments - so that there's a similarity in that sense between The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Hound of the Baskervilles, while the tale of Jack the Ripper, who was unfortunately all too real, slips between them into a disturbing space that is too crowded today. I'm reminded of Tom Clancy's remark about the difference between fact and fiction - "Fiction has to make sense". Draw your own conclusions.

The Grudge and its sequel, on the other hand, do not give us any safe Cerebral terror: Juon 2spaces where narrative can be expanded. It's a staccatto stream of disturbing images that leaves you too scared to scream in case you miss something that might calm you down. And yet...out of both films I can only recall one scene where blood flows. Like other Japanese horror - which is becoming so well-known in the West that it's called J-horror - it is fuelled by the fears of the beholder. Was that a flash of light on the window, or a face? Are strangers looking out at me from photographs? What is it that I'm running from when I belt out of my front door?

Have a frightful Halloween, and a holy All Saints' Day.


  1. The Uninvited is my favorite. My mother says she remembers seeing it in the theater with her own Mum.. perhaps her first?
    I watched it several times with her, then my own daughter. My neice, who only knew gross modern bloody horror films was impressed and perfectly frightened with it when I showed it to her.
    My 19 yr old would be interested in the Grudge movies as she is fascinated with the Japanese art, film etc.

  2. I don't do horror anymore, for personal reasons, but in my younger days I read so much of it I was almost inured to it. Except for Edith Wharton's Ghost Stories. (To anyone interested in reading ghost stories - I strongly recommend them. They're the best.)

    Never was much of one for film (or TV) - since childhood, I've had trouble sitting still in front of a screen, even when I really like what I'm watching. Don't know why.

  3. Linda - I'm glad your niece enjoyed The Uninvited; to see that sort of intellinent horror is a relief from modern slash-fests.

    Pam - I find I'm coming to the same place; I watched so much TV with my Mum that the medium annoys me unless what's on it is very good or very annoying. Increasingly, like Linda, we find ourselves watching DVDs. But I do like a good, well-done scare - and for me one of the creepiest scenes ever is when the baddie in Disney's Sleeping Beauty turns into a demon.


Please feel free to leave a comment - Frugal Dougal.