The best toy of my young childhood was Tomy’s Mighty Men and Monster Maker. Kind of like an identikit for drawing, er, mighty men and monsters, this was the perfect thing for a kid who either couldn’t draw or was too young to really make like Rob Liefeld. (And it let you ‘draw’ feet!) The kit contained a collection of plates for different heads, torsos and legs that could be rearranged and traced over to produce a relatively wide range of crazy little bastards.
I mention this in part so I can have something positive to write about for a moment while I ponder the flatline experience of watching Shutter, but also because the identikit approach seems to be the current method of creating J-horror. Whether the film is an Asian original or American remake doesn’t much matter. Each new flick seems to be content rearranging the same elements. The genre is bankrupt.
Shutter is a remake of a Thai film from 2004, and this version is nominally quite similar. Ben (Joshua Jackson) and Jane (Rachael Taylor), a newlywed couple transplanted to Japan, are driving late at night when Jane believes she collides with a woman standing in the middle of the road. Though there’s no evidence the woman was ever there, Ben, a photographer, starts to see strange light patterns in his photos. Jane sees the same thing in her tourist snaps and things get predictably freaky as the ghost apparently haunting their photos starts taking action in the ‘real’ world.
Shutter is marginally better than One Missed Call, the last j-horror remake I subjected myself to. There are a couple of creepy sequences; I tensed up when Ben is menaced by the dead woman as strobe lights punctuate an otherwise pitch-black room. And while the idea of assembling a series of ghostly photos into a flip book that reveals the location of some prime evidence sounds utterly silly on paper, onscreen it works better than almost anything else in the movie around it.
I don’t want to be too generous with praise. Made for TV movies have more punch. Shutter‘s aspirations seem to be limited to standing shoulder to shoulder with the CW Network’s Thursday night lineup. Still, I feel most charitable to this story than usual because the ghost’s actions are based on something tangible and actually rather awful. Maybe I’ve become too literal with my approach to horror, but I prefer a haunting set in motion by a character’s inhuman action to some of the relentless, unstoppable spooks we’ve seen in other recent remakes.
This is also a rare case where the remake arguably adds a layer to the story. Since the reveal is one of the scant pleasures in this film I don’t want to spoil it here. But having white American characters involved in the story’s central event adds a layer of culture and class conflict that gives the punch a bit of extra weight.
That doesn’t count as an endorsement of the movie, which is primarily bargain-basement filmmaking, from Jackson’s Dawson’s Creek chops to the unremarkable photography and design. The script is stuffed with scenes obviously added for padding; fifty-dollar breast implants would feel more organic. And while the reveal is pretty good, the final scene desperately wants to be a stinger but the only shock was that the Crypt Keeper never materialized to cackle some punny moral wisecrack.
I’ll probably never do this again, but if the ‘ghosts plus camera’ formula sounds appealing I’d suggest tracking down the second or third Fatal Frame games for the PlayStation2. That recommendation is almost ironic since director Masayuki Ochiai began his feature career with Parasite Eve, an adaptation of a novel which was simultaneously turned into a video game. But that’s where J-horror has gone: to a level of entertainment well below the geeked-out appeal of a video game sub-genre, assuming it was ever anywhere else in the first place.