Shutter (2008)

I thought I had finally given up on J-horror/K-horror/[insert Asian country initial here]-horror films and their inevitable American remakes. I thought I had finally grown tired of urban legends run amok, haunted technologies, and spooky young women with long veils of black hair and an unquenchable thirst for beyond-the-grave vengeance. I thought I had finally had my fill of senseless plots that go nowhere, gimmicky trick endings, and by now predictable gotcha moments that are more laughable than scary.

But here I am, watching Shutter, the American remake of a fairly popular Taiwanese (T-horror, at last!) film of the same name. Ever since the sleeper success of Gore Verbinski’s superior remake of The Ring, these retreads have been rolling down the pike at a clip of two or three a year, usually a good three or four years after the original, to ever diminishing returns and ever increasing unintentional comedy.

As unstoppable and relentless as the ghosts that inhabit them, they just won’t stop coming, even though the sub-genre exhausted itself of any originality and genuine terror years ago. Is there such a demand, or are we riding out one of those low ebbs in horror, waiting for the next injection of creativity and wit?

So then, Shutter. Or is this One Missed Call? Or The Eye? Wait, which machine is the ghost in here? Oh, cameras, right. Okay, it must be Shutter then (though it could be The Eye).

So the husband (Joshua Jackson) of our young American newlywed couple is a professional photographer. He once worked in Japan, and immediately after the wedding, he and his new bride fly back for his new gig on a fashion set. Soon after touching down, things take a turn for the spooky when…

Wait, hold on. First, it occurs to me, re: the whole setting an American remake back in Asia — I can see where keeping these remakes on the original soil might work. There’s some promise in semi-ignorant Americans adrift in a strange land, beset by strange customs and an impenetrable language. There’s free floating discomfort and fear of the foreign, the unsure footing, the idea of literally being lost, which could lead to easy susceptibility to supernatural suggestion.

Except this is not the angle Shutter chooses to take, nor have previous films that tried a similar trick — the ridiculous remake of Ju-on did the same thing and did nothing with it. If you are going to make a point of keeping these films in Japan, shouldn’t there be, in the end, a point, some greater purpose that setting it in, say, New York, would not fulfill?

I just don’t get it. In the end, the entire hinge upon which the story swings really has nothing to do with Japan at all, and could have been localized anywhere, probably to better effect. (Compare with the remake of The Ring, a large part of its success being its transplantation to a color drained, rotted-out Seattle, a near perfect complement to its story).

So, there’s a car accident on a back country road, caused by the couple in the car accidentally running down a young woman who pops up in front of their car out of nowhere, but then vanishes without a trace (the girl, not the road). Subsequently, the wife (Rachael Taylor) starts noticing weird images — white swooshes, inexplicable shadows — showing up on her husband’s photos. I think he might notice them too, but he just attributes them to a cracked lens or something.

She is more suspicious, and takes them to the editor of a magazine that specializes in spirit photography. There’s some mumbo-jumbo and a parade of spooky old sepia-toned photos purportedly of restless ghosts. A spiritualist is freaked out when the wife brings the photos to him. He won’t say why, just yells in horror.

Spooky occurrences begin to escalate — lights go out, things go bump, the wife is trapped in a room with a flitting shadow. These things, all of them, must be pointing to something, right? There’s a message, for the wife, she’s being warned, or there’s something she must do to right a wrong? I guess.

It might have to do with her husband, and some past sin he committed when he was in Japan. It might have to do with the waif like woman with long black hair they ran down, who keeps popping up all over the place. There’s some connection, right?

I keep thinking of connection while Shutterlopes along its soporific path, and I cannot find a lick of it anywhere. These films can, and do, succeed when they follow some sort of consistent internal logic, when everything makes sense within its own hermetically sealed universe. Again, I point to The Ring, or, even better, the apocalyptically nihilistic Pulse (the original — the remake is simply an abomination), both of which channeled nightmare logic into such palpable dread, that they actually worried me into thinking that the films themselves were going to leak through the screen into our world.

Shutter, on the other hand, lurches and trips along blindly between scenes which seem shot and assembled from innumerable other films, different bad J-horror remakes, all shuffled together with no real care for cause or sense. In fact, it sort of resembles a flip-book of drawings or photographs, you know the ones, where if you flip fast enough it resembles movement, except here the sequence and subjects of the photos change randomly and indiscriminately throughout, out of sequence, the illusion vanishing in continual interruption of photos which aren’t where they belong. That’s the problem — nothing belongs here, nothing is where it should be, and it all goes nowhere.

But in the end, Shutter fails because it’s simply not scary. We’ve seen this same film now, dozens of times, done in much the same way (though much stupider here), and they all pretty much place their scares in the same spots, and wrap up the same way. Something is exposed, the same thing is avenged, there’s a final gotcha moment, and then credits roll, as do eyes.

A few more things that bothered me and kept me happily diverted while watching Shutter wind down to its inevitably idiotic conclusion: This is an American remake of a film from Taiwan, yet the director is in fact Japanese, with several J-horror films under his belt. There’s some weird sort of intercontinental cultural loop going on here — Americans steal a successful film, Americanize the script, but then entrust it back to Asia for finishing. I think it goes along with the setting of it in Asia, which of course then begs the questions, why the remake it at all? And of course the answer, as always, is that the target audience is too lazy, stupid or xenophobic to read subtitles.

But that’s too easy. Maybe westerners want to retain the foreignness of these films, the enticement and fear of the unknown — they want the exotic and creepiness of the East, but keep some familiar footing with white Anglo leads. But it doesn’t work, or hasn’t worked yet. Maybe they should retain the setting in Asia, but have a Western director, someone as unfamiliar with the material. Or, best, just pick it up and move it to America. See if the story itself has integrity outside its Asian context.

Okay, and why do all these ghosts pick the most inconvenient and unnecessarily circuitous channels to get their message out? They want to be heard, right? They are sticking around for a reason, and the sooner someone hears and takes care of whatever it is that’s keeping them around, the better, right? And why do they seem to always go for outmoded or soon to be obsolete technology? VCR tapes? Polaroid cameras? At least in a few I’ve seen lately they are keeping up with the times, haunting cell phones and the internet? But what’s next? Typewriters? Telegraphs? Abacuses?

Shutter lurches (in fine Kabuki manner) on to DVD with a good chunk of extras, none of them particularly illuminating. Six shortish features, none more than ten minutes in length, examine various aspects of the film, from the difficulties for the actors in shooting in Japan, to the adaptation of the script (screenwriter Luke Dawson hilariously introduces his segment by trying to figure out exactly what his role on the film was, which I think is telling, and apt).

I learned from the director about J-horror’s tenuous connection to Kabuki theater, especially as represented in the herky-jerky movement of the signature ghosts, which I learned are called “Yurei” in Japanese folklore. Nice to able to put a name to a face, finally. A handful of deleted and alternate scenes add nothing, nor does the woeful commentary track, excepting Rachael Taylor’s rather sexy Australian accent.

My absolute favorite extra (perhaps my favorite from any DVD ever) was a two-minute scrolling list of matter-of-fact ghost hunting tips, presented (one hopes) with tongue firmly placed in cheek. But, you know, in case, you wanted to actually bring the haunting on to the ghosts’ turf, I’m sure they come in handy. And I was very excited to learn that while location and timing play a large part in hunting successfully down and photographing ghosts, having a Electro Magnetic Field recorder (!!!) is also integral — you know, if you just happen to have one lying around. Happy hunting!

RATING 2 / 10