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From Eastern horror to Western dollar
Hollywood Plunders 2: The Decline of the American Horror Film by Slarek

What have the following names got in common: George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, William Friedkin, David Lynch, Jeff Lieberman and Larry Cohen? The answer will be obvious to any even half-aware genre fan: they made great American horror movies in the 1970s. Some of them made horror masterpieces. In the 1970s, the US was the epicentre of cinematic horror, with many new young directors using it as a calling card to demonstrate their talents, rarely letting low budgets get in the way of creativity. This level of determination and invention gave birth to films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Martin, Dawn of the Dead, It's Alive!, Blue Sunshine, Halloween and Eraserhead, all terrific genre films, and all, I would argue, essentially American. Here the horrors sprang not from East European folk tales, but from urban terror, from untrained remnants of the American West, from the deadening power of consumerism, from the oppressive industrial landscape, from the drug experimentation of the 60s, from fears surrounding modern parenthood, from a decline in faith in organised religion, from the rise of the urban serial killer. Young, visionary American directors were drawing on their own experiences, their own fears and, most crucially, their own culture and history to explore a particularly American notion of horror, universal terrors with a specific cultural identity. These were great days for the genre.

But as we moved into 80s, the most important definition of what made an successful film was not vision of the writer, director or even studio, but how much it made in its opening weekend. Drive-in screens, once a ready-made market for low-budget horror film makers looking to break in to the business, began to lose their appeal as a movie venue, and the deadly influence of post-modernism ensured that scaring an audience became secondary to joking with them about the process of doing so. It all started soundly enough – John Landis most effectively blended comedy with horror with the experiences of young Americans abroad in An American Werewolf in London, and although Joe Dante named the characters in The Howling after directors of previous werewolf movies and peppered the film with ho-ho in-jokes, he still remembered to serve up a few imaginative scares and turn in a decent monster movie. But by the time we got to The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher 1988), scaring the audience had become secondary repeatedly winking at them and selling them the tie-in rock soundtrack album. Shouting "Boo!" every now and again stood in for genuinely unsettling or disturbing the viewer, and no would-be horror film was complete without a tiresome collection of unfunny wisecracks, usually referencing other and better films. All of this reached its peak in 1996 with Scream, a film that made no pretence about its post-modernist measles, but directed as it was by the erratic but sporadically brilliant Wes Craven, it also delivered on its horror credentials. But it sewed some tiresome seeds, as scary gave way to funny and scary, and funny and scary gave way to Scary Movie and its ilk. The subtle, atmospheric, fear-driven horror movie appeared to have had its day.

Meanwhile over in Japan, a new breed of film-makers not obsessed with that opening weekend or with trying to be lamely funny were drawing on their own horror literature and cinematic past to create a new breed of genre film, one that did not spell everything out for the audience and which thrived as much on atmosphere as on plot mechanics and sudden scares. In 1997 rising star Kurosawa Kiyoshi made Kyua (Cure), a genuinely disturbing study of a seemingly emotionless young man who acts as a catalyst for the release of dark thoughts in others. It did little business beyond its native shores, but was clearly pointing the way to what was to follow. The following year, second-time director Nakata Hideo adapted a short story by Suzuki Koji and made Ringu. The film was a home-grown phenomenon and went on to become the most successful horror film in Japanese history. As it toured the festivals, word started to get out that a horror film from the East was more frightening than anything Hollywood had put out in years, and that it achieved its aim without showing a single violent act, without spilling a drop of blood, and without referencing half-a-dozen other films in the process. Hollywood may not initially have taken notice, but they were about to be given reason to.

In 1999, two cinematic events were to have a direct impact on the floundering American horror genre, waking the studios from their daze. A pair of enterprising young film graduates, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, took their knowledge of the immediacy and realism of cínema vérité and created a hoax horror documentary in The Blair Witch Project, and a young first-time feature director in Hollywood named M. Night Samaylan wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, an effectively low-key chiller with no jokey referencing, no real violence and no gore. Both were huge box-office hits, signalling to Hollywood that actually scaring an audience was back in vogue, and – crucially – that there was big money to be made here. Blair Witch in particular was little short of a phenomenon, made for a paltry $35,000 but grossing almost $30 million in its opening weekend alone, going on to be the most profitable horror movie ever made.

For some of the enterprising producers of the 1970s, such a success would have sent them in search of other new and inventive young film-makers with imaginative genre projects to sell – after all, look at the profit margin for such a small outlay. But in modern-day Hollywood the response was to fund a series of slapdash and derivative horror tales set in woodlands or old shacks, none of which came close to igniting at the box office. Worse still, The Blair Witch Project became the subject of a seemingly endless stream of tiresome satires, while cinematically lazy film students the world over began making their own universally terrible versions of the film, driving lecturers and examiners to distraction and filling them with despair for the next generation of would-be film-makers. This thankfully short-lived trend was brought to a resounding close by Myrick and Sánchez themselves when they produced a sequel, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, which was so universally disliked that serious attempts to emulate their original project ground to a thundering and much appreciated halt.

Having really dropped the ball on Blair Witch, which was made completely outside of the studio system, there seemed a determination not to do likewise with The Sixth Sense. Initially, the signs were good – in 2001 Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, whose 1997 thriller Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) was being remade as Vanilla Sky, was hired to direct The Others, another classy, atmospheric chiller with a well timed twist in its tail, and one also devoid of the excesses and distractions of the more teen-targeted American horrors of the 80s and 90s. It too made money, suggesting that a hunt for new scripts and exciting new directorial talent to produce a new wave of intelligent, original horror movies would soon be under way. Well, no. That would mean taking risks, and that is something modern Hollywood is not too fond of doing. Rather than taking inspiration from its recent successes, it seemed to regard them as pleasant flukes, strokes of good luck. What was needed now was another favourable roll of the dice.

I can't be the only one who believes that Hollywood functions a lot like the Microsoft, a giant international corporation that all too often watches others do the innovating, then repackages the idea as its own and markets it to death as the finest thing since the bagel, knowing that the majority of potential customers also like to play safe and stick with the brand name.* What Hollywood needed now was the film equivalent of Apple or Google or Sony to come up with something that they could rebrand and recycle as original products for an audience too young, ignorant or lazy to hunt out the originals. Which, of course, brings us back to Ringu.

Ten years earlier, Ringu would probably have remained a particularly Japanese success, but a rising interest in Eastern cinema was ensuring that such films were being seen more widely in the West, and with the new interest in scary horror over ha-ha horror, Ringu was finding an audience far beyond its home shores. Thanks in part to the rise of the internet, something that Myrick and Sánchez had used so effectively to pre-sell Blair Witch, the strong word-of-mouth on Ringu was circulating around the film-watching world and connoisseurs were actively hunting it out, in cinemas, on video, on imported DVD.

It's not hard to imagine the thought process that followed at Dreamworks. The original is a genuinely scary film with highly marketable qualities, any film exec could see that, but it has three main problems for a mainstream western audience:

    1. It's a little too low-key in places – no big action bangs;
    2. It's in the Japanese language and thus has subtitles;
    3. There are no western characters in the cast and no famous faces to stick on the poster.

After all, The Sixth Sense had Bruce Willis and The Others starred Nicole Kidman – what American audience is going to rush out and see a film starring Matsushima Nanako? The mainstream audience want the actors to be idealisations of themselves, and the cast here not only don't look American, they don't speak the lingo, meaning that there are subtitles to read, something almost no mainstream audience will tolerate for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Well there's only one answer for any enterprising American studio, and that's to Microsoft it – buy the rights and do their own version. They can make it bigger, more marketable and can push it to a far larger audience than the original. Behold, The Ring – it stars Naomi Watts, who is making a name for herself as an actor and getting in all the right magazines, it's directed by a man who's made films the target audience will have heard of (erm... Mouse Hunt) and, thank the Lord, it's set in America, has a white faced American cast and they talk in ENGLISH. It also has a big advertising campaign, so that that popcorn brigade can feel secure going to see a film that all of their friends will have heard of. That this remake never comes close to matching the creepy effectiveness of Nakata's original, that it all too often shouts where the first film whispered, that if feels the need to explain things that were best left suggested, and that it completely botches one of the most genuinely frightening climactic scenes in modern horror is, of course, beside the point. At least they're not speaking in foreign tongues.

One of the key advantages of such a project, of course, is that the original has not been widely seen within the remake's demographic. Sure, a fair number of critics will make a damaging comparison, but not the ones who feed the popular press, whose enthusiastic gushings the advertisers will be able to lift compact sound bites from to stick on the poster, which is the nearest a good proportion of the potential audience will come to reading a review. And if someone does point out that the original was far better, just mention that it was Japanese and watch the communication shutters come down. To the mass audience there is only one version of The Ring, and with Nakata's film effectively consigned to the art house, the remake almost manages to pass itself of as an American original, especially given the sorry state of many of its English language generic contemporaries. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of all this is that thanks to the power of the Hollywood Marketing Machine and Japan's own fascination with all things American, Dreamworks were able to profitably sell the remake back to the country that had spawned and so enthusiastically embraced the original.

But The Ring made a lot of money, and ultimately that's what it's all about in La-La Land. What Hollywood needed now was another product they could reprocess as their own, especially as there was so little to shout about with the home-grown product – Samaylan was heading down a creative cul-de-sac and reprocessing the same ideas in different skins, Myrick and Sánchez were still looking for a way to right the wrongs of Blair Witch 2 (and still are, as it happens), and the surviving old hands of the 70s were either no longer working in the horror genre or undergoing creative self-destruction. But wait a minute, what's that happening across the Pacific? More horror films? More GOOD horror films? Aha...

But something was about to change, something rather odd. The Remake Machine not only wanted the cash, it wanted critical respectability. This is an aspect of Hollywood we more cynical observers often choose to ignore, but it's actually true. They want the money, sure, and they want the power of course, but they also want people to tell them they are wonderful. A LOT of people. I forget which who it was who first made this observation, but it has been calculated that if you took the annual production budget of any major Hollywood studio and simply stuck it in the bank then you would make far more money than you would by sinking it into feature films. Sure, there's the hope that one of those films might be another Titanic, but if you want to gamble then the stock market is still a safer bet. No, they don't want to be seen just as greedy venture capitalists, they want to be regarded as artistic visionaries. So every now and then it's good politics to fund a small movie that stands a good chance of achieving critical respectability and maybe launch a promising indie director on a Hollywood career. It doesn't cost too much and can pay for itself many times over in good PR and awards. This is the Prestige Project. And you don't get successful Prestige Projects by giving them to the director of Mouse Hunt, no offence intended. Which brings us back, for a second time, to Ringu.

They must love Nakata Hideo in Hollywood. Not only did he give them the raw material for their version of The Ring, but he had made a couple of other movies that the studio executives clearly believed could be Microsofted into American products. First up there was Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara 2002), his gripping tale of motherly love in horror movie clothing, an easy sell in the US through its association with The Ring (it was based on a story by the same author, Suzuki Koji, something that curiously handicapped the original a little when people went expecting a retread of Ringu). Although this had clear potential as a commercial rather than a prestige project, the studio clearly saw no harm in attempting to combine the two and hired respected Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, he of Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries (whose widespread success and acclaim must have had the remake producers hugging themselves with joy at their good fortune) to direct. A cynical view would see this as an attempt to quieten those critical of the whole remake process by placing someone of artistic standing in charge of the project. You may have even heard the conversation:

"Have you heard? They doing a remake of Dark Water! Can you believe it?"

"Yeah, but Walter Salles is directing it! At least you know it won't be the usual crap with him in charge!"

A more generous (and perhaps accurate) view would see Salles given the project in the hope that he would bring an outsider's sensibilities to the project and deliver something more that just a hack job, which should, well, quieten those critical of the whole remake process. Oh do you think so?

Keen to eat all things Nakata, his 1999 Chaos, a brain batteringly complex tale of kidnapping and deception, was also bought up for an American remake. But even in English and with American stars, this is a film that would likely bemuse the multiplex crowd, at least without a considerable rewrite and a large dose of dumbing down. Given that the film's structural complexity, as with Christopher Nolan's Memento and Shane Curruth's Primer, is what makes it special in the first place, this would seem to be a pointless exercise. But wait a minute, the studio has been looking for that ideal Prestige Project and here it is. All they need now is the right director, someone who has had a big art-house hit in the US, and they may have a potential award winner on their hands. Enter Jonathan Glazer, the talented young director of Sexy Beast, the very man to give the story a few coats of class, tease out some fine performances from a doubtless respectable cast, and clarify a few of the more obscure plot points, while just keeping it clever enough to get it talked about at all the right dinners. That's prestige taken care of, let's get back to the dosh.

Fortunately there were other Eastern projects that were soon swallowed up by the Remake Machine, including the Pang Brother's unnerving The Eye and Shimizu Takashi's super-creepy Ju-On: The Grudge, both of which had already proved hits on their home markets and developed their own fervent cult followings. In the case of the latter film the absorption process was stepped up a gear, with Shimizu invited to helm the remake himself. Now although this at least keeps the original filmmaker firmly in the loop, it's no guarantee of continued quality, as anyone who was creeped out by George Sluizer's 1988 The Vanishing (Spooloos) but gobsmacked by the tackiness of his 1993 US remake will testify.

All that aside, the whole process of the Ju-On remake, at least from an artistic viewpoint, always struck me as peculiar. The man who kicked off the remake was none other than Sam Raimi, a very talented director in his own right and a huge fan of the original, a film he reckoned was one of the scariest he'd seen in years. He liked it so much, in fact, that he asked Shimizu to come to America and give it another try. Now hang on a minute. If the original was as good as Raimi clearly believed, why exactly did he feel it needed redoing? Oh, wait a minute, what language is the original in again? Or more to the point, what language is it NOT in? Precisely. In Hollywood, a film is not really a film until it's in English.

Of course, this whole remake issue is one of the many reasons that some commentators still will not take film seriously as an art form – can you imagine the likes of Leonardo da Vinci being commissioned to have a second bash at the Mona Lisa, maybe tart her up a bit this time, show a tad more cleavage and even put her in an Adidas sports shirt? And it tends to be a one-way process, the global dominance of Hollywood acting like a creative black hole, sucking in all it sees and making it part of its whole, then going supernova and blasting its product back out into the world on which it feeds.

As this process of absorption and regurgitation continues, the American horror film is not only losing its hard fought-for artistic and generic credibility, but also the very cultural identity that made the 1970s films so distinctive and effective. Almost none of the remakes have any specific cultural resonance, in part because the stories they're based on originated outside of the USA.** Even when the industry does try to reclaim the American horror film as its own, the process is a predictably and depressingly cannibalistic one, as technically proficient but heartless remakes are trotted out of its own past generic successes – Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Fog, House of Wax, The Amityville Horror, The House on Haunted Hill and The Hills Have Eyes to name a few, with The Omen, Piranha, Friday the 13th and When a Stranger Calls still to come. Elsewhere releases both borrow from past generic successes and use them as touchstones for audience recognition, e.g. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (anything with 'exorcism' in the title is guaranteed a connection by association with Friedkin's masterpiece), Saw (borrows from Se7en, promises to shock and has a title that remembers Tobe Hooper at his best), The Cave (big blokes take on dangerous monsters – Aliens anyone?), Cabin Fever (trapped in a cabin in the woods à la Evil Dead), Final Destination (a series of prophecy-driven grisly deaths that apes The Omen), and so on. Even the rare films that have risen above the mire appear to have done their share of plundering, with Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects lifting from a whole number of the director's favourite films, and the trailer for the soon to be released (and, by horror fans, enthusiastically celebrated) Slither playing like Shivers meets Squirm meets Night of the Creeps.

Despite hopes to the contrary, it does seem likely that these films and their inevitable, seemingly endless sequels are where Hollywood horror is now set to trudge, at least for the foreseeable future, while the J-horror cycle, the fuel for a fair number of the remakes, appears to be caught in a self-destructive spiral of repetition and sub-standard imitation. On top of that, two of its key directors now fully absorbed into the Hollywood Remake Machine – Takashi Shimizu is hard at work on the next two Grudge sequels, and Hideo Nakata, having directed the remake of his own Ring sequel, is helming remakes of both The Eye and Sidney J. Furie's The Entity. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, meanwhile, has dropped the ball a bit with Doppleganger, which displays little of the subtextual subtlety of his previous films, and the Pang Brothers have made one Eye sequel too many and are no longer commanding the attention of discerning genre fans.

As for the remake of Nakata's Chaos, the Prestige Project that was more about about the film than the money? Well it would seem that Jonathan Glazer, and just about everyone else associated with the project, has found better things to do.

* Favourite examples include the X-Box, which would never have happened without the phenomenal success of the Playstation, the upcoming all-dancing Zune media player, the result of rival Apple's storming sales with their iconic iPod, the very vocal determination to stomp all over Google with MSN Search, and of course the whole Windows operating system, which was a response to Apple's designer-friendly graphic user interface (which itself was heavily influenced by work done at Xerox).
** Curiously, only Shimizu's own remake of The Grudge includes a specifically cultural element, built as it is around the experience of Americans working in Japan, and it is largely these Americans that fall foul of a curse that was first triggered by an illicit interracial relationship, casting them, somewhat unexpectedly, as unwelcome outsiders.

aticle posted
4 Apri 2006