Saturday, 14 June 2008
Scary picture about scary pictures
What is it with Hollywood and good Asian horror movies? The Eye, The Grudge and Ring have all been remade for the benefit of people too stoopid to read subtitles. And the remakes are pants, apparently. I did try to watch The Grudge remake, as it starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, and as an old Buffoid I felt I owed her something. But not that much. Maybe I'll get round to watching Jessica Alba earn her nice big paycheck for The Eye, but not just yet.
But despite audiences staying away in droves, the Tinseltown dumbness just keeps coming. This year saw the release, to general apathy, of the American version of Shutter. The original Thai movie is, IMHO, one of the best ghost story films of recent years. Don't let the remake fool you. Go for the original and enjoy it.
The film is fairly typical in that it focuses on the ghost as vengeful spirit. M.R. James rightly observed that ghosts can kill people, drive them barmy, or do nothing of any great interest. In Shutter, the ghost has a very clear motive for its behaviour, and indeed it is difficult not to sympathise with the spirit, Natre. Not quite 'Alas! Poor ghost,' but very nearly.
The film takes as its central premise the quaint gimmick of spirit photography. It acknowledges early on that photos of ghosts are ludicrously easy to fake. In one telling scene a hack is shown doing just that, in fact. The editor of the magazine explains, with disarming honesty, that 'people want scary pictures'. But he also argues that, on a few occasions, such pictures are not fakes.
The film begins with a photographer, Tun (Ananda Everingham) returning home late from a party with his girlfriend Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee, and yes I did cut and paste it). Jane is driving and is understandably distraught when, after a slight distraction, she hits a young woman who walks out into the road. Jane wants to get out and help, but Tun tells her to drive away. So far, so prosaic.
Soon Tun and Jane are having nightmares about the young woman. More oddly, Tun's photographs of college graduates are marred by strange blurred images. Why should a ghost manifest itself as a photographic image? Impressively, Shutter eventually reveals a very solid reason why it should happen in this case. But it takes a while. The plot, while not exactly labyrinthine, is way beyond the usual 'chase, slash, argh' of the modern horror movie. In its complexity and emotional realism, Shutter is on a par with some of the best examples of the genre.
Yes, it is somewhat derivative. But that's not a bad thing when your influences are the best movies of their kind. Most obvious is the debt the writers and directors owe to The Eye. (In the case of the soundtrack composer the debt might almost be legally problematic, if you catch my drift. Very, very similar music at some points.) Japanese/Korean horror is also referenced by the lighting and cinematography. Sunny Thailand is made to seem rather bleak and washed out by day, and much of the action takes place at night.
The central premise - the raison d'etre for the ghost - is well-worked out. It is foreshadowed in a number of ways, but the careful unfolding of the plot allows the astute viewer to try to work out just what happened in the past and why it is impinging on the present. Or you could just ignore the logic of it all and enjoy a series of good - if sometimes cliched - set piece scenes. There's the spook rising out of the water, the spook rattling the doorknob, and the spook putting its hand on the character's shoulder. All present and correct. But what might have been a rather tired repertoire is handled with great panache. One or two scenes, notably an encounter in Tun's studio, are real shockers, while an interlude in a public lavatory provides a bit of humour.
Considered as a whole, Shutter is one of the most satisfying ghost movies of recent years. It's not especially horrific, it does make sense, and it even has a satisfying - if somewhat downbeat - ending. While I think I prefer The Eye, this runs it a close second.