Why American J-Horror Remakes Fail


Please note this editorial does contain some spoilers! Everyone has their own sets of fears.  In our pasts, everyone has certain people or events that scare and frighten them and will stay with them throughout their lives.  Some fears are extremely personal such as maybe a fear of spiders or a fear of snakes while some reach the level of the national consciousness.  Worldwide events, whether they are scientific breakthroughs or extreme tragedies all work to create a sort of shared fear that lurks within everyone in that specific society at that point in time.  Some of the best horror films in history notice this and use it as a metaphor to scare you by using the dread and fear that was already within you.  The Night of the Living Dead gave us the same dread and terror with its newsreel presentation of zombies taking over the country as a metaphor for the repercussions of the American civil rights struggle. 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a metaphor for communism taking over the freewheeling capitalists and Godzilla was the physical manifestation of the horrors of nuclear weapons research and application.  These are important horror films that focus on the issues and fears everyone had and presented them in beautiful productions as strong metaphors.  More often than not however, the people who have the power look at a high grossing film as a commodity rather than a searing piece of social commentary.  They figure that these scary movies from these weird and foreign lands and think "wouldn't it be great if we set it in America and puts some big name in it?" This is the thinking that makes every American J-Horror remake remarkably fail.

Ever since The Ring got remade for the English speaking western world (to the tune of 129 Million domestic Box Office) Hollywood has snatched up every popular Japanese horror film in recent years and simultaneously and fundamental broke them down for us ignorant Westerners.  By using these high profile actors to fill the voids we have come up with some recent rejects of modern cinema such as The Eye, Shutter, Pulse, One Missed Call, and The Grudge have all be remade for the English speaking world that doesn't want to put forth the effort of reading those pesky subtitles.   Aside from obvious shortcomings of these garbage films, something else more profound is going on here.  It's definitely not like they are succeeding as horror films.  These movies aren't scaring us, and they sure as hell aren't interesting us.  I feel that this is because these deeply personal J-horror films were tailor made for their home audience, showcasing the horrors and societal fears that modern day Japanese's citizens would have an easier time relating to than another foreign culture (kind of like the same way American comedies traditionally don't do that well over seas, different society, different idea of humor).  By looking specifically at the American remake of Shutter (2008) and the entirely American production Poltergeist (1982), the presence of the ghosts and their roles in each film show us two clear motivations of their originating countries and their impact on society.

Poltergeist revolves around a family living in cookie cutter suburbia who are bombarded and attacked by angry poltergeists who appear to be former Native Americans that have had their final resting place disturbed.  As the dead, they abduct the family's youngest daughter in order to feel more alive (I was never really clear on this either).  Now in Shutter, the ghost is a woman who was raped by a group of guys, and then she couldn't take the emotional distress and subsequently killed herself.  She comes back as a ghost to act out her vengeance on these fellas (who do deserve it) and warn the innocent bystanders. 

So in Poltergeist the ghosts are undoubtedly evil, taking things that aren't theirs and terrorizing a family (my family?) that I have already clearly identified with.  In Shutter however the ghost appears to be creepy and hidden in pictures (for some reason) and is more of a tortured soul than a ruthless killer.  The ghost in Shutter represents something completely different to us than the ghosts that we are used to seeing in American contemporary cinema.  No longer are the ghosts evil and vindictive, but they exist to find and take out previous sinners. They remind us of a past that is hopefully forgotten, but we may never recover from.  In Poltergeist, the ghost is clearly the enemy that is angry about their disturbance, while in Shutter, the ghost is a harbinger of a time past, revealing to us that we have a history of ugly events will undoubtedly rear their head in the future.

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Shutter is not a good film and I am in no way saying that it is.  In fact, the ghosts that are the mystical representation of a time past are not even new to us in the recent blur of J-horror remakes.  The Ring and The Grudge both did better service to the idea of the ghost as a vengeful, but yet necessary prophet.  In Japan, this is an amazing piece of their history's self reflection where as the citizens may (I am speculating at this point, I have no first hand of Japan and its culture and draw these conclusions through cinema, which young readers, is not the way to go) feel as if something in past generations haunt them.  Maybe it's their involvement in the Axis of Evil in World War II, maybe it's something else entirely, but regardless of their reasons, its clearly an event of the past that will not be ignored till all is made right.  In an American film however, the ghost is the manifestation of evil, an enemy to be overtaken like so many others in its past.

America loves to be the hero.  America will always perceive themselves as the country that came in and saved the world from the human crimes of Hitler, the threat of communist thought, and the purveyor of the terrorist exterminator.  The checkered and less than stellar past is there, but it is an after thought to progression.  In Poltergeist it is interesting to see that we, as the society created these ghosts by disturbing their final resting place.  All of that is ignored like a past we are ashamed of and in order to fix the problem (saving the family) and look forward unwaveringly to the future (get the family safely out of that house).  We recognize the events of the past and hope to learn from them, but in Japan, a country with such a long and proud tradition, the events that changed national consciousness are more prevalent and earth shattering.  In the young country of American, it's all taken as a learning process.  It's the mistakes of a stupid child that we see as a progression of society and part of the learning process.  In Japan, these large societal impacting events (whatever they may be, I'm not pretending to know them or understand them on the level of a Japanese citizen) are something to be studied as more of a tarnish on a perfect record.  In these Japanese horror films the issues of societal analysis, their personal stories of the past, and their personal feelings of events as they look back on them on their specific people.   As American film makers, producers, and studio shareholders, it's not ours to take and turn into a commodity.  It never will be and it will never work.

Do you agree with me?  Am I a shortsighted moron that is trying to sum of a nations worth of fears in 1000 words?  Am I on to something?  Am I mildly retarded? Can't wait for the Poltergeist remake in 2009?  Sound off below.

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