Ring around J-Horror
by David Kalat
J-Horror don’t get no respect. The long-haired ghosts have become a cliché to be ridiculed, and the tragedy of it is that the audiences perhaps best attuned to appreciate what J-Horror had to offer in its heyday are those least inclined to give it a chance. I know—I speak from experience. My love affair with J-Horror began, as all the best movie love affairs do, with opposition.
I grew up on horror movies—but to grow up on horror movies in the 1970s meant to grow up on a diet of gothic chillers. It’s an extinct animal these days, hounded off the earth and replaced by a coarser, ruder, more grisly genre that has changed what “horror” means.
The horror movies I fell in love with as a child were films about dread, free-floating fear, and abstract ideas. Fear of sex, fear that science was reaching hubristically too far, fear of the foreign, fear of one’s own inner demons—these were the themes underlying the best of the gothic chillers. Modern horror movies reduce it all down to the simplest element: fear of being killed.
The change in horror movies is not necessarily a bad thing—just because my tastes run one direction doesn’t mean my tastes are right. The gothic chillers I cut my teeth on were crafted in a different, more innocent age. Horror had to change, because the world in which the audience lived changed. In Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, Boris Karloff plays himself, more or less, an aging star of monster movies whose personal appearance at a drive-in coincides with the arrival of a gun-toting madman who takes to killing the audience for no clear reason. In the 1960s and 70s, the real-life horrors of assassinations and riots and wars made it impossible to feel the same shivers from monsters of a more innocent age.
The summer after September 11, 2001 I was at a monster movie convention. The attendees, all of them fans of gothic chillers and creepy monsters, shared a dazed bewilderment at the unutterable horror the real world had too recently become. If the traumas of the late 1960s had rendered Frankenstein and Dracula obsolete, then how could Jason and Freddy and Leatherface possibly compete with real-life madmen who could vaporize thousands of innocent people in an instant?
It was at this event in 2001 that I was first introduced to The Ring.
A colleague was running a booth selling Japanese horror imports, and he tried to get me to watch Hideo Nakata’s The Ring—but I kept resisting. The problem for me was that the guy trying to convince me was running a stall selling bootlegs of various Japanese shockers such as the Guinea Pig films, and Guts of a Virgin. If you don’t recognize those titles, then you’re a happy lucky person. These are sadistic exercises in video cruelty that even gorehounds find extreme. In my mind, that’s what Japanese horror was: everything that was wrong with modern American horror films, but even more vicious, misogynistic, and depressing.
I wrongly pre-judged Ring to be something gaudy and rough. I almost missed the fact that, halfway around the world, the suspense-driven gothic thriller had been brought back from extinction.
Meanwhile, the Ring spread. At that point, Hideo Nakata’s 1998 motion picture had not yet been officially released in the United States. So it circulated instead through an underground subculture of fans who made copies for each other. “Here, ya gotta see this.” Ironically, that’s the same thing that happens in the movie: people make copies of a scary video for each other. Reportedly, if you watch this cursed videotape, exactly seven days later you drop dead. When a group of teenagers simultaneously die of unknown causes at different places around Tokyo, an investigative reporter traces their lives back to a common point when they watched a scary video together. She watches it herself, and realizes in horror she now has just one week to solve the mystery of the tape and save her own life.
One of the underground copies wound up in the hands of a man named Roy Lee, whose destiny was soon to become intertwined with Hideo Nakata’s. Lee was overwhelmed by the movie—no surprise, really, since everybody who saw it responded by a) loving the movie; b) recommending it to a friend; c) trying to make their own version; or d) some combination of the above. Since Lee worked in Hollywood, his ability to take action was substantially more advanced than the average fan. He made a copy for a development executive at Dreamworks Pictures, Mark Sourian. “Here, ya gotta see this.”
Sourian immediately phoned producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald: “Here, ya gotta see this.” Sourian copied the tape and sent it along to his producers. They watched it, and had the same reaction. They then copied the tape and mailed it to up-and-coming director Gore Verbinski (whose major credit at that time was Mousehunt).
And so, Dreamworks hired Verbinski to render Nakata’s film into English, with an explicit agenda of maintaining as much of Nakata’s atmosphere as possible. It arrived in theaters around Halloween-time 2002, and sported a decidedly low-key marketing campaign. Whatever I had mis-expected of the original, the remake was obviously aimed at—and attracting—a crowd of serious adults, who didn’t come out talking about the splatter FX but instead made comparisons to the early films of Luis Buñuel. My interest was piqued, and off to the theater I went.
I kept my expectations low—but as the film unspooled, I was enthralled, mystified, intrigued, and genuinely scared.
There is a moment towards the end when the entire cramped auditorium erupted in simultaneous shrieking. It’s been a long time since was genuinely shaken by a movie, and it set me out on a project of researching its history and coming to some kind of understanding of the genre.
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