Horror: Made in Japan

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What's Hollywood doing knocking off Japanese horror films? Isn't East Asia supposed to make tatty copies of U.S. products? Maybe handbags and CDs, but Japanese horror is getting the starlet treatment in parts of Los Angeles these days. With reason: its recent, smartly shivery movies are the best. So much so that two young Japanese directors have now gone west to show Hollywood how scary is done.

It was in 1998, a year before The Sixth Sense, that Ringu (The Ring) became an Asia-wide smash. Hideo Nakata's movie had a surefire opening (a killer videocassette) and a double climax (our heroine confronts death down a well, and then her boyfriend is murdered when the dead girl in the video crawls out of a TV set). But Nakata, like all good dread auteurs, did more. He created a mood that informed every scene and adhered to the viewer long after the film ended.

Ringu spawned a sequel and a prequel in Japan and remakes in South Korea and the U.S. It also generated a genre, whose motto might have been "I see dead people, and they want me to join them." The stories of implacable ghosts developed their own cliches — closets full of ghosts and corpses, girls with long hair hiding their malevolent faces, dotty old ladies, child zombies caked in white — all of which you can expect to see in the Hollywood remakes.

The sharpest post-Ring cycle is Ju-on, two features on video and two on film written and directed by Takashi Shimizu. They detail the mischief that awaits anyone entering a house haunted by the ghosts of a man, his murdered wife and his son Toshio. The Ju-on series is a superbly orchestrated symphony of fear. A girl crawls under bedsheets to escape the wraiths and feels a tug on her leg; she lifts the covers to see a grimacing ghoul, climbing closer.

Hollywood studios often remake foreign films but rarely with the original directors. Yet Nakata is directing The Ring 2 and Shimizu is remaking Ju-on (as The Grudge). They may well be the first Japanese directors to make major studio films in America. Another Nakata film — Dark Water, his best — is being remade by Walter Salles, with Jennifer Connelly as a mother who gets traumatized and very wet in a haunted apartment building.

It's nice that studio bosses recognize that there are not only scenarios but auteurs worth gambling on. We'll know soon enough whether Nakata and Shimizu flourish or perish in Tinseltown. But two changes can be expected. The U.S. remakes will streamline the original films' perplexing (and beguiling) ambiguity. And the heroines, who in Japan often accept their fate passively, will be morphed into righteous fighters.

But why wait for remakes? All of Nakata's and Shimizu's films are available online or at the more adventurous video stores. Check them out to see how Japan's new blood can revive Hollywood's old blood and make your blood run cold.