The early aughts were a weird time for American horror movies. Most of the industry was riding off the success of Wes Craven's Scream in an attempt to create something iconic. The result left audiences stuck between a handful of cheap imitations like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Wayans brothers' spoofs . Then came this urban legend about a strange, grainy VHS tape that features a child crawling out of a well. Those who watched the tape died in seven days.
It's been more than a decade since Gore Verbinski made VHS tapes evil with The Ring, a remake of a small Japanese horror film from 1998 called Ringu. Today marks the release of Rings. It's a new movie in The Ring series that hopes to rekindle North America's brief obsession with Japanese horror movie remakes.
Rings is a two-hour highlight reel of scenes from the other Ring movies. The new sequel follows a vapid lead (Matilda Lutz) who finds a hidden tape within the original haunted tape. During the course of her story, she meets a professor (The Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki) at the local university who's using the tape on his students to get "closer to god." Both of these stories amount to nothing. Seriously. The entire film is little more than a clunky reintroduction to the world of The Ring—two hours of weird dream sequences, an unhinged performance from Vincent D'onofrio as a blind/rapey priest, and a new tape of bankrupt horror imagery like maggots, upside down crosses, and bones.
Verbinski's 2002 remake, on the other hand, was a slow, carefully plotted film that made the condition of being haunted a deeply personal experience. Thanks to this, it was a critical and commercial success that no one saw coming. It made more than $250 million at the domestic box office, and the film industry wanted to cash in by quickly churning out J-horror remakes.
J-horror refers to the very specific type of Japanese horror movie that invaded America in the early-to-mid 00s. The Grudge (originally Ju-On), One Missed Call, and Pulse (originally Kairo) were all J-horror remakes. They were pretty much all alike: They featured vengeful ghosts (usually children), smoky photography, and made hauntings deeply personal by doing away with the haunted house. Most of theses films had the same message: If you cross a ghost, you're fucked.
After the Second World War, Japan put its faith in technology rather than individuals. This left a generation of Japanese people feeling aloof and dangerously vulnerable. In the late 90s, a small group of Asian filmmakers took notice. They began making inventive horror movies that were unique in their approach to structure, story, and themes.
J-horror remakes followed suit by taking liberties with the conventions of American cinema. They borrowed the inventive uses of sound design, narrative structure, and theme. These common elements presented North American audiences with something irresistibly new and strange.
Remember the croaky death sound from The Grudge? It turns out that one of the big reasons J-horror films are so effective is their fantastic use of sound design. This is something that Western horror films typically neglected at the time. Now it's commonplace. Just think of the horrifying sound of The Babadook or the sublime sound design in NBC's Hannibal. J-horror films understood this delicate art and tended to pair a sound effect with an entity. They reversed the famous Hitchcock quote, "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."
Now the ringtone from One Missed Call or the static sound of the tape sputtering to life in The Ring brought terror on their own. These sound effects are used in the films to precede the arrival of the ghost. Because they were diegetic sound effects (meaning the characters in the film can hear them) this gave audiences a constant state of suspense just by the telegraph of a sound.
This allowed J-horror films to play with their structure in very interesting ways. They often did away with the simple jump scare (Rings has terrible jump scares ) that was so popular in American film. Instead, they forgo clunky setup, misdirection, and simply cue up the story immediately. The Ring does this phenomenally in its eight-minute opening scene. By the time we're at the ten-minute mark, we already know the viewer of the tape only has seven days to live. The rest of the story operates under a ticking clock, and each passing day reminds you of the stakes. It's intense as hell.
The Grudge experiments with non-linear storytelling and gives audiences a complex assortment of sub-plots. It works but to a lesser degree. The rest of the J-horror remakes didn't bother to experiment and had bland themes that focused too much on creating fear with already tired tropes. This is a misstep best described by the man who reinvented the horror genre twice, Wes Craven: "Horror films don't create fear. They release it."
The Ring's success can be attributed to making us rethink our relationship to media. It explored the harmful effects of media at a time when lawyer Jack Thompson was suing the makers of Grand Theft Auto for perpetuating violence. It worked for both American and Japanese audiences because violence and media is something both cultures have in common. While The Grudge ultimately connected with American audiences, the themes of domestic abuse and sorrow were general enough to have roots in both cultures but didn't resonate with North American audiences in an iconic way.
By 2005, the J-horror trend was three years old and already dying. The Ring Two struggled with audiences due to stale imagery and a failure to deepen the mythology of the original (it preferred bat-shit insanity instead). Subsequently, films like One Missed Call and Pulse shared too many similarities to Western counterparts like Final Destination and Scream. The J-horror genre was growing too fast too quickly, and American audiences lost their taste for repetitive Japanese ghost stories.
At the same time as the J-horror phenomenon was happening, a tiny horror film called Saw was released in 2004. Audiences flocked to the theater for almost a decade chasing this new genre of "torture porn." This new subgenre was easy replacement for J-horror. By 2007, J-horror was dead. That year alone, we had Saw IV, Hostel II, and another game changer in Paranormal Activity. Torture porn and found footage were the new kings of North American horror.
Japanese audiences, on the other hand, are still passionately consuming Ringu and Ju-On films. Now, both series are more popular than ever. Just last year, Ringu and Ju-On had a crossover film in Japan touting the ultimate grudge match: Sadako vs. Kayako. That's right, Samara from The Ring and the little boy from The Grudge had a showdown last year. Although it sounds crazy, Japan is clearly into these characters. Hell, Kayako has his own Instagram account. So it should come as no surprise that the film was a box office success. It was the ninth film in The Ringu series, and the 12th film in the Ju-On series. Japanese audiences are in for the long haul. American audiences, not so much.
The horror genre often chases its tail. A big breakout success only really paves the way for cheap imitations. The Ring was a smart response to meta-horror that gave audiences a refreshing reprieve from recycled ideas, but it too gave birth to cheap imitations.
J-horror favored immersion above all else when it came to scares. By making hauntings more personal, viewers were able to relate to the deconstructionist narrative choices. However, if Rings is any indication, the genre is likely dead again.
We're far beyond the days of analog video horror, but the lesson remains the same: For a movie to be truly scary, it needs to overwhelm us with the great distressing subjects of our own lives and the aspects of our own personality that we are repulsed by. For a brief moment J-horror did just that: It made terror personal.
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