There are two opposed approaches to horror films: restraint or revelation. Either keep the monster hidden (at the very least, obscured), or bring the worst the imagination can conjure up out in the open. The path of allusion is epitomized by the series of 1940s B movies produced by Val Lewton, of which I Walked With A Zombie (1943) is considered by many the masterpiece. In these elegantly photographed, black and white evocations of atmosphere, what the eye thinks it sees and the ear thinks it hears amount to something more disturbing than anything Lewton displays.
Many filmmakers with budgets as low as Lewton’s have chosen his method, convinced that if they could not afford to construct a believable menace, they might conjure one up out of the sheer will of their imagination. The drive-in classic Carnival of Souls (1962) pricked my gooseflesh when I saw it on television during high school.
And yet, the path of revelation has become, for better and for worse, the predominant mode of the horror film, certainly after Alfred Hitchcock eroded the sanctity of the shower in Psycho (1960). With bloody death on the evening news during the Viet Nam War, many directors felt the membrane between imagined horrors and those we commit in our daily lives had evaporated. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) started the viscera flying, though few gave thought, like him, to what the point of grossing out an audience might be. Too often, horror films since then have displayed gore for gore’s sake.
Of late, a middle road has emerged in the horror cinema of the Far East, particularly Japan, Hong Kong, and Korea. These pictures couple allusion with deliberate and disturbing revelations, and have sparked interest in U.S. producers, who buy up rights not to import the films but to remake them. A recent New Yorker article detailed the shark-like trawling of a young Korean-American executive, Roy Lee, amongst this array of Eastern films and subsequent marketing of them to domestic production companies. He made his initial mark by the purchase of the rights to Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (2001), produced in Japan for $.1.2 million. Transformed into The Ring (2002) and shot for some 30 times that budget, it earned $129 million domestically.
The disquieting thing about the New Yorker piece was the avariciousness exhibited by Lee as well as his lack of enthusiasm for the material he imports. Sadly, one has to concur with his self-assessment, “I’m young, I like commercial fare, and I get bored easily. I am the target audience.” His latest purchase is the Pang brothers’ The Eye for Tom Cruise’s production company. The film in its original form works on the senses largely through suggestion, albeit with an occasional deliberate shock or two. The special effects are simple and relatively low-tech, yet one can only imagine the probable creative overkill that will result when the material is re-cast for Western audiences.
The plot of The Eye bears some resemblance to M. Night Shyamalan’s wildly popular The Sixth Sense (1999), but only in the most rudimentary sense. A 20-year-old woman, Mun (Lee Sin-Je), blind since the age of two, is about to receive corneal implants. The operation goes off without an overt hitch, and Mun adjusts slowly to being able to see. At first, the fuzziness of the physical world perplexes her, as well it would. Simple objects and the faces of people remain altogether alien. Soon, however, Mun begins to see individuals others do not. Certain figures appear and re-appear, including a distraught young boy in the halls of her apartment house, who cannot find his report card. Like the young protagonist in Shyamalan’s movie, Mun realizes that she can detect dead people, and there are a considerable number all around her.
Eager to return to normal, if that is possible, Mun seeks help from the young psychologist, Dr. Wah (Lawrence Chou), assigned to help her adjust to her newly acute senses. At first, he dismisses Mun’s concerns, but soon becomes convinced of them after one of the film’s more creative scares. He shows Mun some photos taken of her, but the young woman fails to recognize the images as the one she sees when she looks in the mirror. Desperate, Dr. Wah consults with the eye surgeon who treated Mun, and who is also his uncle. Breaking with professional confidentiality yet recognizing familial solidarity, the older man releases medical documents that indicate the eye donor.
Such familial connection is important throughout the movie. Unlike most Western supernatural narratives, The Eye takes place in a culture that acknowledges and accepts the otherworldly. Mun’s grandmother does not become distraught when she turns into a recluse as a result of her visions. Instead, the older woman imports a Taoist shaman, who makes blessings in order to release the woman, and her surroundings, from visitations. Where Western protagonists disturbed by the unexplained receive little support from their family or peers, the degree of interaction among relatives and others in The Eye is considerable. The influence of blood kin and the customs of religion act as a fulcrum to balance the influence of the supernatural. If Mun’s visions powerfully elicit a world out of order, the day-to-day universe that the visitations disturb remains intact and dependable.
The question for fans of the genre, however, remains just how much gooseflesh is raised during the course of the picture. Some, but not enough for those who favor the mode of revelation. The Pang brothers’ control of the visual texture of The Eye is considerable, and they rely more upon what the eye sees, or thinks it sees, than what the ear receives. Dialogue is ancillary, and much of the impact comes through Lee Sin-Je’s reactions. At the same time, the narrative momentum lacks a certain dynamism. Suspense is elicited the first or second time Mun observes someone from another realm, but is diminished through repetition. The Pang brothers appear more inclined to conjure up Mun’s visions as an undesired part of daily life rather than something grotesque or revolting.
The Eye will, therefore, please those who like their scares to be of the allusive kind but fail to sway others who prefer their horror red-blooded. The picture haunts the imagination, but little about The Eye troubles the memory after the final credits roll. In fact, the last sequence reveals, as much as anything, that the gift of seeing the dead might be revered rather than reviled. While we many not wish to be reminded that we are in the midst of death even while we are surrounded by life, the recognition of this fact remains a matter of psychological maturity rather than a juvenile jolt of heebie jeebies.