Monday, 10 January 2011

The 100 Best Horror Films #4

The 90s were a cultural reaction to the 80s: Nelson Mandela strode out of prison with a clenched fist and ended apartheid. Boris Yeltsin rode a tank to the Kremlin and ended the Cold War. The Americans voted Democrat. The British ruling Conservative Party succeeded in a putsch to oust Margaret Thatcher.

Hollywood stopped making horror films.

It was due to the success of Scream 1996 that the industry decided to resurrect the genre. While Hollywood was busy greenlighting a new wave of horror movies the Japanese were watching Ringu 1998.

First word arrived from journalists at foreign film festivals; they had never seen anything like it. The solitary art house in my hometown booked it. Film 4 broadcast it. By the time Hollywood had announced its intent to remake the wonders of J-Horror were in full bloom. Ringu had earned its legend.

Horror works best when based in reality and the reality of horror is mythology. These are the stories of old – the stories told to children to keep them in check.  They are The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood. Ringu is based on the eponymous novel inspired by (Japanese) folklore1.

This is a film about an invented legend a la Candyman 1992. Where the latter uses the curtain raiser to introduce the legend Ringu uses it to both introduce legend and serve as catalyst to kick start the plot:

Teenager Masami is over at Tomoko’s house. The girls are alone – no parents. Masami tells Tomoko the story of a cursed videotape. It turns out Masami has seen said tape. As soon as Masami leaves the room the curse comes to claim Tomoko.
Every story needs a hero. In horror it is invariably the final girl2. This character is germane to the successful telling of any horror film thus the casting is critical. Wes Craven said of Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984 “I wanted to cast someone intelligent looking”3.

Quick wits, fortitude and attractiveness (as opposed to beauty) are traits fundamental in the horror hero for this is the character the male audience has to empathise with. It has to be played by an actor the audience will desire and also respect.

Actress Nanako Matsushima was in her mid 20s during filming. She towers like an elder above the schoolgirls in the cast. Her character Reiko is a working woman so the teens respect her. Her attire throughout the movie is professional and modest. No cleavage. The audience can accept her without her flicking her hair.

To raise the stakes she’s also a (single) mother. She has a straight forward relationship with her ex-husband. She’s very feminine. So much so that when an infatuated student of her ex meets her Reiko is amused at the young girl’s suspicion. For the latter half of the film Reiko is trying to save her son from the monster.

The worker seeks employment for a pay cheque and the audience seeks out horror films for their monsters. This monster is called Sadako. She is a ghost – a ghoul. She was once of the living but not quite one of us. Now she is of the dead and is full of hatred for us. She is mute in her malice. She is unforgiving. She will not be resolved. Her reveal is the most dramatic moment in horror of the decade.

The bonus of this story is the slow build and detail. Reiko and her ex investigate the folklore and the audience discover the resonance of the curse as they do. The viewer is bathed in eerie narrative flux and the dutiful payoff defies morality to the point of disbelief.
original Japanese one-sheet
Ringu went on to become Japan’s most successful horror film4. It inspired a multitude of copycats in Japan and Korea and is solely responsible for the J-Horror phenomenon late of last decade. Don’t blame it for the risible remakes. The Ring 2002 was incomprehensible nonsense but a box office smash5. There is irony in Sadako’s use of video technology: Paramount has announced The Ring 3D coming soon6.

Disregard the cynicism of the marketplace and the unfortunate legacy of cinematic success. Surrender to the story telling of Ringu. It does what every horror film is supposed to do – it creeps into the memory.

It never leaves.

Read more Thrill Fiction: The 100 Best Horror Films #3
1 Japanese folklore – Bancho Sarayashiki
2 Final Girl – Ax Wound
3 Wes Craven – Never Sleep Again Youtube
4 Japan’s most successful horror film – IMDb
5 The Ring 2002 – Box Office Mojo
6 The Ring 3D - SlashFilm
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