"The answer is not in the avoidance of remakes. The plain fact is that remakes of very good original films sometimes fail because they have not been remade by people as talented as those who made the first versions." -- David O. Selznick, 1956.
The famed producer of Gone With the Wind and Rebecca was on a downward slide when he wrote the above in a memo to the president of 20th Century Fox. Selznick spent much of the 1950s repackaging and selling his earlier productions to studios, pocketing tidy fees for his efforts. The modern-day equivalent is Roy Lee. As explained in a profile in The New Yorker: "What Lee does for a living sounds simple enough, but no one in Hollywood had thought of it before. He watches videos of every Asian movie ever made, picks the biggest hits, and then, on behalf of their Asian distributors, sells the 'remake rights' of those films to studios here, so that they can be turned into big-budget American spectacles."
That article was published in June 2003, on the heels of the financial success of The Ring in the fall of 2002 but before the coming horror onslaught that included The Grudge, The Grudge 2, Dark Water and The Ring Two (all involving Lee), plus Pulse and others. Lee quickly expanded into other countries and other genres, but the most appealing remake target for Hollywood remains Asian horror, with The Echo (the Philippines), Shutter (Thailand), The Eye (Hong Kong/Thailand), A Tale of Two Sisters (South Korea), Alone (Thailand), The Ring 3 and The Grudge 3 all listed in various stages of production on Lee's upcoming slate alone.
Lee has an eye for good films -- the titles include several of my recent Asian horror faves -- and some of the remakes have involved the original creative talent, but horror needs a strong personality at the helm, and too often the Hollywood studio machinery has softened and homogenized what made the originals so distinctive. So why not go back and watch the originals? Or try others I've written about before (Audition, Freeze Me, Koma, Memento Mori, Alone), or seek out the ones I've gathered below. Some are harder to find than others, but all represent dangerous visions that are carried out with flare. Why not share your favorites in the comments section?
1. Rahtree: Flower of the Night (2004)
When this Thai film played at AFI Fest in 2004, I wrote: "Horror and black comedy collide in this unique blend of the mirthful and macabre. Shy university student Buphan Rahtree succumbs to the charms of a rich and handsome playboy, who promptly abandons her when she gets pregnant. She resolves to exact revenge, even if she has to die to get it." That doesn't entirely convey the full flavor of this daring film that may give you whiplash as it ricochets from the darkest sort of comedy -- featuring a series of inept and increasingly spooked exorcists -- to the depths of romantic loss and melancholy. Perhaps the extremely talented, genre-mashing writer/director Yuthlert Sippapak said it best in one of the post-screenings Q&As: "F*** convention!" (Not available on Region 1 DVD.)
2. Cure (1997)
I can still recall how the opening scenes sucked all the oxygen out of the collective lungs of the audience when it played at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas in 2002. Everyone was holding their breath until one woman softly gasped. Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film ties together a series of gruesome murders with a bloody "X" carved into the necks of the victims. It's not so much the material, though, as the way that Kurosawa stages certain scenes -- horrifying things happen in the background or at the edges of the screen and the tension slowly builds until ... (Available on Region 1 DVD.)
3. Suicide Club (2002)
My sensibilities tend toward psychological horror rather than explicit gore, but Sion Sono's shocker starts with a sensational scene of senseless violence -- a huge group of Japanese schoolgirls step off a subway platform into the path of a train, committing splattery mass suicide -- and if that doesn't cause you to hit "eject" on your DVD player, then you're ready for a quasi-serious examination of a huge social problem that afflicts so many teens. There's a string of suicides ahead for the kids of Japan as a police detective races to find out the cause, and the Internet may be to blame. The film eventually shoots off into utter strangeness, but if you care to go beyond the provocative imagery, Suicide Club offers a perverse, if ultimately unsatisfying, trip into twisted adolescence. (Available on Region 1 DVD.)
4. Dorm (2006)
When I saw this at the most recent Asian Film Festival of Dallas, I wrote: "It's immediately captivating, relating the tale of a boy sent away to a private school where things go bump in the night. While the thrills and chills are not entirely original -- the premise is reminiscent of The Devil's Backbone -- the filmmakers do a great job of making you feel for the lost little kid. And there are just enough original touches to keep you off balance. Dorm was a pleasant surprise." I'll add that the film has a striking color scheme, leaning heavily on the greens and blues, an original musical score, and a story that gracefully dips back into childhood nostalgia and fears and arches forward into adult anxieties and nightmares. The mixture is intoxicating. (Available on Region 1 DVD.)
5. My Scary Girl (2006)
The easy thing would be to call this a horror-comedy-romance, but My Scary Girl (AKA My Sweet, Yet Brutal Sweetheart) defies easy categorization. Shot in HD on a low budget, writer/director Son Jae-gon presents a meek 30 year old man who finally starts dating. His new girlfriend, though, has dark secrets that gradually impinge on the romance. Most of the humorous elements are conveyed in the dialogue, so it's lost if you're like me and stuck reading the English subtitles, but there's some physical comedy along the way, and the fine, emotive performances by Park Yong-woo and Choi Gang-hee are strong enough to carry the day. This barely squeezes by as a "horror" film, but I think genre fans with a taste for foreign fare may enjoy it as much as I did -- you're more likely to recognize the conventions and appreciate how they're subverted here. (Not available on Region 1 DVD.)
6. Inner Senses (2002)
Ah, Leslie. A sad pall hangs over Inner Senses, the last film completed by the great Leslie Cheung, best known to American audiences for his role in Farewell, My Concubine. Cheung plays psychiatrist Dr. Jim Law. He doesn't believe in God and doesn't believe in ghosts, which seems to make him the most qualified to try and help Yan (Karena Lam, who would later appear in the director's Koma). Yan has been seeing ghosts for years and all past efforts by doctors -- including the husband (Waise Lee) of her cousin (Valerie Chow) -- to help her have failed. Dr. Law eventually gets to the bottom of Yan's problems, only to have his own issues with the past take center stage. Cheung committed suicide about a year after the film was released; he had been suffering from severe depression for a very long time, and the manner of his death makes the concluding scenes of Inner Senses almost unbearably painful to watch. Still, it's such a well-made, quietly effective film by director Law Chi-Leung that it would be a shame to avoid it. (Available on Region 1 DVD.)
7. A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
To end with a more upbeat, fantastical selection may seem a strange choice for an article on horror, but horror means different things to different people, so let's not fall into the trap of reductive generalizations, shall we? A Chinese Ghost Story features Leslie Cheung in presumably much happier days. He plays a tax collector who unexpectedly finds refuge in an abandoned temple. He also encounters a beautiful but deadly ghost (Joey Wong) and a powerful priest (Wu Ma). For more information, I point you to a fine review by Peter Nepstad at The Illuminated Lantern; he concluded: "From a haunted temple to a flying Taoist swordsman, crawling zombies to a gigantic vicious tongue, chanting sutras to harrowing Hell itself, this is exciting, kinetic, outrageous Hong Kong cinema at its best." I couldn't agree more. (Available on Region 1 DVD.)