Has anyone kept track of all the remakes of Asian horror films? It fairly numbs the mind to even begin counting, as soulless and derivative as they are. I know I've had to slog out to the Cineplex many an opening Friday to catch the latest one that was withheld from press screenings. Even the originals begin to blur together, following the same formula of a wronged spirit -- usually a ghostly girl with stringy black hair and hollow eyes -- entering into the lives of unsuspecting people, often through technology. Usually the heroes think they've solved the riddle at some point, but there's always one more overlooked step at the climax. Very often in the middle the heroes find themselves someplace like a library or an office building that's supposed to be brightly lit, but instead is illuminated only by a few buzzing gray lights. The original Shutter (2004) is different only because it originated in Thailand -- and is set in Bangkok -- rather than Japan. The new American remake squashes even that one unique factor by turning right around and setting the story among Americans in Tokyo.
Ben Shaw (Joshua Jackson) is a professional photographer newly married to blonde hottie Jane (Rachael Taylor), who apparently works as a 6th grade teacher and not a photographer's model. (Um... yeah. How did they meet again?) Just after their honeymoon, they land in Tokyo so that Ben can start his amazing new job, shooting colorful layouts of geisha girls. On the road, their car strikes a girl, though no evidence of her body is ever found. More strange things begin happening. White streaks appear in Ben's photos and Jane begins seeing the girl all over the place. With a little detective work, Jane discovers that Ben actually knew her. She was Megumi Tanaka (Megumi Okina), a shy, uncertain translator. Ben may have been her first love, but he didn't love her quite the same and things ended badly. So why, then, are Ben's buddies Bruno (David Denman) and Adam (John Hensley) suddenly dying?
The original Shutter, co-directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, is no work of genius, but it contains several effective set-pieces, many of which are re-created here. There's one in which a fuzzy, indistinct face in a photo suddenly moves. In the original, it's a quick twitch, but here, it moves more slowly; I have to admit the original made me jump a bit more. The best scene has our photographer alone in his studio when the lights suddenly go out. Someone, or something, begins triggering the camera's flashblub, and so we get sudden, half-second bursts of blinding white light. Each burst takes place in a different corner of the room, from a different angle, and in each Megumi seems to be getting closer. Of course, it's amplified with a screaming, terror-filled soundtrack. It's real David Lynch-like stuff, and though it doesn't exactly send chills up the spine, it's certainly disorienting and it works with the "photography" theme.
To its credit, the new film runs a bit smoother and leaner, clocking in a few minutes shorter than the original and excising a few stupid scenes -- like one in a truckstop bathroom -- that just don't work. This one also tightens up the plot strings a bit; when the photographer has a pain in his neck, it now logically comes from the car crash. In the original, it just comes up for no reason. The new film also gives the Jane character bit more to do; she's more actively involved and more curious than the casual girlfriend from the original. The remake is also competently made, clearly directed by Masayuki Ochiai, with gorgeous cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishima, who shot most of Takeshi Kitano's films in Japan. (We get many a tourist's view of Tokyo's cityscape.) The original film apparently used a few "real" spirit photos -- pictures with the white streaks or other ghostly images -- as well as faked ones, and the filmmakers claim that a spirit photo was snapped on set. I'm not sure if the new film makes the same claim, but some of the photos shown are certainly intriguing.
But, really, what's the point? It's a hugely cynical and callous ploy to get teenagers into the theaters for one week before the bad word of mouth spreads. It's specifically aimed at people too lazy to read the subtitles on the original (not that the original is any picnic either). It's a business deal rather than a movie, and the good work is the result of busy drones hoping for a promotion to something more interesting. This lack of connection comes through emotionally: Ben and Jane never really seem like they're married or that they even know each other, nor is there any chemistry between any of the other characters. I love horror films and I can usually find something to like, even in bad ones like this or last January's One Missed Call. But how much more often will viewers take being treated like this?