I’ve been a fan of horror movies my whole life, and for much of that time the best of the genre invariably came from the US and, to a lesser degree, the UK. The likes of George Romero, John Carpenter and Wes Craven defined the genre through much of the 70s and 80s. However, over the last decade Western horror seems to have lost its way, becoming mired in an endless cycle of torture porn or tedious remakes of old classics, with only the occasional standout moment of success.
It’s no accident, then, that a large portion of US horror movies are also remakes of films from a part of the world that seems to have cornered the market in accomplished, well-executed and downright scary entries into the genre. Hollywood is looking across the pacific toward Asia, and this is where all dedicated horror fans should be looking, too. Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong. This is where Horror’s new home is.
Often heavily influenced by the ‘J-Horror’ of Japan, with its vengeful, lank-haired, Onryō ghosts, Asian cinema produces horror movies the way they should be; creepy, brooding, psychological, extremely atmospheric and devoid of comfortable outcomes.
Here are Celluloid Zombie’s Top Ten from the continent that’s putting the horror back into horror movies.
10. Kairo (Pulse)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Japan -2001
A solemn, moribund study of isolation and loneliness in the technological age, Kairo sees spirits from the other side use the internet to manipulate the living into disconnection and suicide. Those that do not kill themselves simply fall so into hopelessness that they become nothing more than shadows on the wall. We are the ghosts in Kairo.
What Kairo obviously lacks in laughs it more than makes up for in depth and mood. There are some chilling moments but Kairo is more effective when simply crawling under your skin and dragging you into its apocalyptic world.
Hollywood Remake: Remade in 2005 as Pulse, with the original’s ponderous atmosphere replaced with more direct horror. Not a bad movie, but lacks Kairo’s sense of despair.
9. Noroi: The Curse
Kôji Shiraishi – Japan – 2005
One of the few ‘mockumentary’ style movies to come out of the Asian horror wave, Noroi is a movie that rewards patience and attention span. Mostly revolving around paranormal investigator Masafumi Kobayashi’s attempts to solve a series of unexplained events, a host of seemingly unrelated characters and occurrances are gradually drawn together to an unforgettable conclusion.
Noroi has a remarkably unsettling atmosphere throughout, which is all the more remarkable given that for much of the movie very little happens. However, as the truth behind Kobayashi’s investigation becomes clear, there are moments of bone-chilling horror and an ending which will stay with you for a very long time.
Hollywood Remake: No, and not very likely either. Too weird.
Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom – Thailand – 2007
Thai woman Pim lives in Korea with her boyfriend Wee. Pim was separated from her conjoined twin Ploy when they were teenagers and Ploy died as a result of the operation. When her mother falls ill, Pim and Wee return to Thailand and to Pim’s family home, where she finds herself haunted by her dead, vengeful, sister. Is it real, is it guilt or is there something else?
The second movie from writer/director team Pisanthanakun & Wongpoom is probably the most Western-influenced horror movie in this list, but don’t let that put you off. Crammed full of great shock moments, a particularly mean ghost and a neat twist in the tale, Alone is scary and a lot of fun.
Hollywood Remake: The rights have been bought so expect the US version soon.
7. Creepy Hide and Seek
Masafumi Yamada – Japan – 2009
After a series of bizarre disappearances involving students and colleagues, schoolteacher Ryoko discovers they had all been playing a ritualistic game called ‘creepy hide and seek’. The game involves all the same rules as normal hide and seek, except that what comes looking for you isn’t quite human.
Crap title, great movie. A little known gem, Creepy Hide and Seek has everything you could want from a good J-horror. The action is slow, deliberate and extremely atmospheric, helped in no small part by a very unsettling soundtrack and expert camerawork. At least it lives up to that title.
Hollywood Remake: Not yet, but this is exactly the kind of movie that American filmmakers like to assume they can do just as well. Expect one soon.
Takashi Miike – Japan – 2000
When middle-aged widower Aoyama decides to look for a new partner, he holds fake auditions for a movie role to meet women. He is immediately taken with the young, seemingly shy Asami and begins a relationship with her. However, he soon discovers that cute little Asami has some really strange hobbies. And she wants to share.
The movie that made everyone sit up and take notice of unique filmmaker Takashi Miike, Audition is the kind of story that could put you off dating forever. Featuring a truly terrifying performance from Eihi Shiina, Audition is a horror movie with an emphasis on the horror.
Hollywood Remake: No. And with its mixture of torture, abuse and vomit-eating, there’s not likely to be one anytime soon.
5. A Tale of Two Sisters
Jee-woon Kim – South Korea – 2003
Jee-woon Kim’s highly acclaimed story of two sisters enduring an unstable, abusive step-mother and seemingly indifferent father is an intelligent, layered, unsettling film which reveals its secrets slowly and keeps you guessing right up until the end.
Quite possibly one of the most beautifully shot horror movies in recent memory, A Tale of Two Sisters marked out its director as a talent to watch and he hasn’t disappointed since. This one has a brand of horror for everyone, ranging from the supernatural, through the psychological, to the purely physical. Jung-ah Yum, as the step-mother, is at once appalling and sympathetic. No mean feat.
Hollywood Remake: Remade in 2009 as The Uninvited, which gave us a lot more teenage flesh and a lot less atmosphere.
4. The Eye
Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang – Hong Kong – 2002
Blind violinist Wong Kar Mun has a successful cornea transplant and begins seeing ghosts wherever she goes, some friendly and some otherwise. Together with her doctor, she determines to find out the identity of her eye donor.
The Eye starts off as an effectively spooky ghost story, but deepens into something more heartbreaking as the mystery behind Wong Kar Mun’s new eyes is uncovered. The ghostly encounters make the hair stand up on the back of the neck, and just when you think the story is resolved, The Eye throws in a surprise ending.
Hollywood Remake: Remade in 2008 as The Eye. Jessica Alba, while easy on the eye (did you see what I did there), just doesn’t have Angelica Lee’s sympathetic appeal.
3. Ju-on (The Grudge)
Takashi Shimizu – Japan – 2003
The third in Shimizu’s Ju-on series, but the first to get an international theatrical release, The Grudge centres on a cursed house and the characters who come into contact with it over varying timelines, usually to their extreme detriment.
Complex, layered and disturbing, The Grudge is also very, very creepy. This one will definitely make you feel less safe under your covers, which is traditionally where you are supposed to feel safe. Neat trick. The movie spawned further sequels, and while Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge 2 was also very good, this remains the finest of the series.
Hollywood Remake: Yes, by the exact same director and starring Buffy, no less. Shimizu also directed the American sequel. Not awful, but neither matched his homeland efforts.
Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom – Thailand – 2004
Photographer Tun and his girlfriend, Jane, hit a girl with their car as they are driving home from a party. Tun insists that they flee rather than aid the girl, much to Jane’s consternation. From that point on, they are subjected to a series of spooky occurrances from which secrets begin to emerge.
The debut feature from Alone’s collaborative writer/director team. Shutter is a sleek and well-oiled machine of a movie. While it doesn’t exactly break new ground, it takes the elements that had made Asian horror so successful before it and weaves a well-paced, twisting tale around a series of consistently spooky scenes. Great ending, too.
Hollywood remake: Remade in 2008 with the same title but far from the same result.
Hideo Nakata – Japan – 1998
Journalist Reiko’s niece dies, one week after viewing a mysterious video tape. Reiko views the tape and is warned, by a phone call, that she now has only one week to live. After her son watches the tape, Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji, try to discover the secret behind the cursed video.
The Granddaddy of all J-Horror and a hugely influential movie, Ring is heavy on atmosphere from the outset. Rather than subject the viewer to a series of shocks (although there are one or two) Ring slowly builds itself up to a single, extremely scary, moment.
Hollywood Remake: Remade in 2002 as The Ring. Overcooks what the original leaves simmering. You only get one chance to see this for the first time so choose wisely. Go Japanese.