I see dumb movie
People talk about new laws for Hollywood movies, some way of reforming the American rating system, for example--that rarely coherent, fairly irrational and at times politically motivated method they have of slapping "PG 13" on some titles, "R" or even "NC 17" on others (they should complain; we've been saddled with the MTRCB (Movie and Television Ratings and Classification Board) for decades). No one talks about actually banning projects outright, though--stupid high-concept comedies; even stupider high-concept romantic comedies; torture porn; sequels and prequels of tiresome franchises; remakes of TV shows, Hollywood classics, international successes--Asian horror in particular. I can think of dozens of other laws that should be passed, even ratified by the United Nations and enforced on a worldwide scale, but these would make a good start.
David Moreau and Xavier Palud's The Eye (2008) is the latest and easily most eloquent argument for said law. A remake of the Pang Brother's 2002 hit Gin gwai, the picture tells the story of a beautiful blind violinist (Jessica Alba) who receives corneal transplants then starts seeing "dead people," as her skeptical psychologist (Alessandro Nivola) puts it (at least scriptwriter Sebastian Gutierrez had the smarts to turn the picture's obvious debt to M. Night Shaymalan's The Sixth Sense (1999--which in turn stole its gimmick from Herk Harvey's great cult film Carnival of Souls (1962))--into a throwaway gag). We are treated to Alba recoiling from a traffic jam of the spiritually restless, speeding this way or that down half-lit corridors (Why do hospital corridors in horror pictures always have to be half-lit? Why don't directors realize that the surest sign of an unconfident filmmaker is the use of hoary, blatantly unrealistic scare tactics?). Sometimes the dead stand and stare at her, which may be even worse--you're not sure if they want to frighten or sexually harass her, maybe both.
It's not as if the original material was worth reprising anyway. Was not a big fan of the Pang Brothers' movie; thought it tried too hard, that it had the Hong Kong drive to keep its audience riveted without enough Hong Kong style to make it memorable, that it used too much of the music-video filmmaking so beloved by American horror filmmakers. And it isn't as if the Pangs are geniuses at terror--that famous elevator sequence (faithfully reproduced in this remake) seemed more hilarious than horrifying, the floating corpse like a moth-eaten suit on string, wobbling out of the elevator to scare the kiddies (much better is the elevator sequence that climaxes Hideo Nakata's Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, also '02)--at least that was more persuasively staged (no skeletons on string, thank you), made more narrative sense, and packed a dramatic power that went far beyond its ostensibly simple plot twist).
Comparing Nakata to this sorry lot the difference is so dramatic it's not even funny. Nakata knows how to use silence, stillness, long pauses, and subtly but brilliantly angled shots to unsettle and at times terrify his audience. The Pangs--and for that matter Moreau and Palud--need to sit down and study Nakata's work frame-by-frame, maybe stay away from filmmaking till they learn to at least approximate it (Perhaps even give up directing altogether, which would be unlikely but nice). They opt for a hysterical filmmaking style and soundtrack to match, not realizing what Nakata must have realized long ago, that ghosts are far more effective set against a recognizably realistic background (with all the shrieks and hoots and chop-suey editing in this picture, everyone looks half-dead; the more supernatural characters need to overact to get noticed at all). The Pangs, Moreau, and Palud (they sound like a U.S. immigration law firm) seem to subscribe to the philosophy that if they make a loud noise you'll feel fear; if they make a louder noise you'll feel more fear (What I'm really afraid of is going deaf from the busy soundtrack, perhaps feel nauseous from the even busier camerawork).
As for Jessica Alba--well, she's no Angelica Lee (who made much of the silliness in the original halfway persuasive); she's definitely no Madeline Stowe, who in Michael Apted's 1994 thriller Blink also played a blind woman regaining her sight (as you see, there are few if any truly new ideas in cinema). Lee was an angel of a sufferer, and you felt for her and felt she didn't deserve any part of the ordeal she went through; Stowe played an earthier, sexier woman, and her combination of sensual confidence and vulnerability is refreshing. Alba looks as if she'd just been invited to the junior prom, and never recovered from the initial joy; she's got a cheerfully inane smile stapled across her mug that's impossible to wipe off--her face suggests that smile whether she's paralyzed with fear or crushed by despair (I'm guessing those are the emotions her character is supposed to feel--can't go by her acting alone). She's easily the most inept beautiful actress working in Hollywood at the moment, with one bad performance after another adorning a string of even worse movies; this one is probably the crown jewel of her career--the one that ends it, I mean. Well, one can always hope.
First published in Businessworld (2/8/08)