It’s that time of year again, the time for the actual best holiday season. Where mankind embraces fear rather than rejects it, celebrates our relationship with it.
It’s time for more horror cinema to be covered, with most coming from the 80s. Two entries are not from that decade but rather a highly influential 90s Japanese film that inspired an American remake that didn’t suck if you can believe it. But first, a return to a collaboration between Stephen King and George Romero.
Creepshow 2 (1987)
I held back from Creepshow 2 due to it having not as strong a reputation as the original classic anthology feature. Despite still having King and Romero’s involvement, it just hasn’t gotten the same positive rap as the first. It wasn’t so much bad as not needed. I took that perspective and had it off my horror watch-list from the 1980s for a long time.
And yet, I was pulled back in by hearing individual anecdotes from those who have seen it and liked it. My godfather once saw the film while on tour in the Navy and others I follow online have expressed support for this movie, often bundling it alongside their viewing of the first.
I was also very curious to see where if any Creepshow 2 failed to be as good as the original and so made it part of my 2022 Halloween watchlist at the last moment. It’s….fine. Just fine.
It’s not as fun, it’s not as spooky, it’s not as pulpy as the first movie, but it’s not a waste of your time. It has impressive practical effects, especially with the first story’s leading figure and a couple of moments did actually make me jump in my sofa seat.
The first Creepshow had five stories to tell, all framed from a young boy reading his comic of the same name on Halloween night. This Creepshow goes down to three stories, framed again with a young boy receiving a copy by the ghoulish host of the comic, portrayed physically by practical effects legend Tom Savini and voiced to gravelly perfection by Joe Silver in one of his last roles. After getting the comic, he is harassed by bullies until eventually they’re eaten by a bunch of giant Venus flytraps the boy had ordered from the comic. Stephen King and bullies, man.
The first story is the best and most memorable, featuring a general store’s wooden Indian Chief coming to life to avenge both the store’s murdered owners and reclaim some Native jewelry that was loaned to the owners before the robbery. George Kennedy plays the ill-fated store owner and Dorothy Lamour his wife.
Kennedy as the store owner is a kind, elderly man who always tries his best to maintain both his business and Old Chief Wood’nhead, the mascot on display outside the store. The Arizona town they live in is basically dead, no future in it. Three young men who also know that town’s future is sealed decide to express their aimlessness in the best way possible: hold up the store for any valuables and use what they steal to afford living in L.A.
The leader of the three is the son of the nearby Native chief, not caring whatsoever for his tribe’s tradition or honor. He kills the couple and takes the necklace that was graciously given by his Father to the couple. Can you guess where this going, seeing as how this is a Creepshow movie?
You’re also probably aware of the Native American curse that is awakened when anyone disrespects the Tribe’s people customs or land. Oh, if those curses were remotely real, the nature of the United States would be vastly different. The best variant of the curse is building anything, knowingly or unknowingly, under an “ancient Indian burial ground”, as best seen in Poltergeist and The Simpsons.
The curse or ancient power, is that the Wooden Chief comes to life and the effects are incredible in mixing a real life actor while convincingly making his motion relate to being, well, wooden. It’s an effect that has to be seen to be believed and holds up tremendously. It lends an (intentionally) predictable story an effective creepiness that befits the film it’s part of. Almost certain that Chief Wood’nhead’s effects would be CG done today.
The Chief basically becomes a slasher in hunting down the three delinquents though unlike Jason or Michael, his goal is tangible and even relatable, even with the supernatural slaying and whatnot.
The next two stories while having some decent elements aren’t as rewarding as either the first or most of the stories from Creepshow 1. It’s the “ehness” that comes with 2/3rds of the movie that makes this entry feel like a lesser result. The Raft is about 4 teens going on a day-trip to a lake to engage in typical 80s’ teen frivolities, but on a titular wooden raft in the middle of the lake. Once they get there, they spot this mysterious black substance on the water.
Turns out, this black stuff is unsurprisingly dangerous and one of the teens gets in contact with it and well the header image shows the result, not unlike the fate of anyone who gets caught by the 80s’ Blob except that take went much further with the details. Eventually, only two remain, one male and one female and a combination of fatigue, heat from the sun and lust becomes their undoing.
While this concept certainly screams the short story concept it is, I think it could’ve benefited from a slightly longer length as the result is over too soon, even if again you can see or sense the result as soon as they reach the lake of doom. The weakest of the three stories.
The third involves a woman played by Lois Chiles, who you might know as the lead Bond girl from Moonraker, which is if nothing else the most entertaining Roger Moore film. After leaving the home of a man she’s having an affair with, on the drive back she hits a guy hitchhiking. In what seems like a precursor to I know what you did last Summer, she panics, realizes she killed a guy then drives off trying to put her mind off her manslaughter.
Being Creepshow, it turns out to be “I know what you did 20 minutes ago”, as the hitchhiker in an undead form keeps appearing as the woman tries to get home, constantly saying “Thanks for the ride, Lady!” This obviously freaks out the woman as the consistent return of the hitchhiker obviously drives home her guilt. Eventually guilt and horror turns to frustration and rage as she tries over and over again to kill the hitchhiker revenant for good. The face of the hitchhiker getting more and more mangled from the damage but never changing its tone of voice.
Again, I won’t spoil how it ends though I had inferred from the first two stories that you could figure out already its conclusion. This one is possibly the least predictable, with your only compass guiding you is that something macabre is going to be involved by the end.
Unlike the original, I don’t recommend watching Creepshow 2 in its entirety.
If you can find it for free or find scenes on YouTube, sate your curiosity that way. The effects, namely for the Wooden Chief and the Hitchhiker are highlights no doubt, there’s a cute cameo by Stephen King in the third story and I forgot to mention that the framing device segments with the boy and bullies are all animated and very well at that.
It’s not as fun maybe because there’s not as much of it, like there being two stories more in the original. Many of my complaints actually echo many of the critic complaints so I dunno. If there is any real takeaway more I can give you other than what I’ve already said, it’s don’t watch Creepshow 3, which was a decades later cash-grab that from all accounts is hollow and horrible. There’s a new anthology show on Shudder that continues the Creepshow legacy and I guess some episodes of Black Mirror would fit the bill for those hungry for more anthology horror fun.
Ringu (1998) (Japan)
One of the defining examples of not just J-horror but horror from the last 30 years is from a 1998 Japanese horror movie adapted from a 1991 Japanese novel. You already should know the gist of what Ringu or “Ring” is about. It’s one of those pieces of media where not having experienced it doesn’t mean you don’t know it. You know about the Japanese girl with white dress and inky black hair. You know it is not what so ever good for one’s health.
This image of the long haired, white dressed girl or woman is so ubiquitous that other horror media has taken from it including other J-Horror like the just as well known Grudge. I’ve played video games where this archetype appears as a threat or the main threat like Alma of the F.E.A.R. series, Laura from the first Evil Within (now with multiple appendages and long-ass fingernails) or Eveline from Resident Evil 7.
It even shows up as a joke in Nintendo’s Luigi’s Mansion 3. The ubiquity of this girl and her often supernatural ways can keep from the recognition of how horrifyingly fresh and startling this girl was upon Japanese and eventually international audiences. It wasn’t just a 20th century update on a Japanese ghost tale, that of the onryo, a vengeful often female spirit who will get a wrong righted after death, it was a commentary on our anxieties over technology’s unending spread as the 21st century neared. How old fears can manifest in the new.
I saw both this and the American remake released 4 years later and will cover it right after. Let me get this out of the way: surprise, the original is better. Gasp! However, that is not to say that Gore Verbinski’s take is bad, it’s possibly the only good remake Hollywood has yet made of this side of horror.
Ringu does a supreme job of stringing you along with a genuine mystery, one that you want to know the answer to, even if in truth, it would be entirely better even necessary for this mystery to go unanswered.
One of the key factors in the original movie’s success is the score by Kenji Kawai and it does almost better than the visuals and the implications of putting you in a constantly unsettled place while watching. The standout track is a repeated one, that plays whenever a new day is shown through onscreen titling. I couldn’t find a soundbite or track from YouTube but it instills a sense of dread better than almost anything I can think of.
Of course, knowing what the ghostly girl named Sadako does is well known. I had an inkling like you probably do of how it ends. Of course, the timetable of how it proceeds and when the scene occurs was not known to me. It actually spoiled to me what is revealed to be a fake resolution where our leads think the nightmare is over or has been prevented for them. Instead of feeling cheated, it left me with a big “OH S**T” feeling because the scene hadn’t happened.
What makes Ringu rewarding is that so many of the details, the why, the what and the how are not as well known. That other details no less discomforting were still fresh for me to discover for the first time.
Now, you could be wondering why I’m covering a 90s followed by an oughts movie instead of the expected, promised 80s fare. Well, I saw a video about Ringu from Accented Cinema, one of my subscribed YT channels and without giving away the conclusion, his video essay hooked me on wanting to accelerate my viewing of Ringu and The Ring. He titled it “How Ringu eases you into the horror”. Much like the characters of the movie, you want to know the truth. But this truth will not set you free.
The film also gives an understandable reason for why someone would watch a cursed videotape, other than incredulity that supernatural curses exist, of course. The lead character, Reiko, is a journalist investigating a case which hits home for her when her niece Tomoko is among the latest victims. What makes it all the more enticing a mystery is that three other people, all Tomoko’s friends who also watched the tape, all died as well, on the same day, at the same time.
Again, like Reiko and as posited buy Accented Cinema, it’s not really figuring out a series of deaths, it’s knowing just what is even happening. Humanity as a species has a compulsion to know stuff, to uncover the unknown, instinctively perhaps so we no longer fear it. Ringu twists that instinct on its head deliciously.
Reiko heads to the holiday cabin in the woods where Tomoko and friends watched the tape. Along the way, she receives in her investigation a photo of the four and here was a detail I didn’t know about the curse’s power: everyone who is marked for death by Sadako has their face distort in images. The American version would expand this to most forms of capturing people’s faces such as a security camera at a convenience store.
She then of course selects the unmarked tape from the visitor’s center for the campground and watches it. Both versions of the video from the East and West versions have a genuine creepiness, though again the original edges out. There is no dialogue, just strange vaguely melodic sounds and noises that would be welcome in any given Silent Hill game. The imagery at first seems random, without meaning. It’s a puzzle that Reiko and her divorced husband Ryuji have to solve.
Ryuji is played by an actor that Westerners might be familiar with, Hiroyuki Sanada. You might remember him as the Yakuza boss that Clint Barton as Ronin slays in Avengers: Endgame. He most recently played Scorpion in the latest live action Mortal Kombat movie. The interplay between Reiko and Ryuji as mostly amicable divorcees plays on a contemporary theme for Japan: the nature of the modern Japanese family. It’s takeaways might leave a mixed taste in some mouths.
They had a son, Yoichi, and after their separation, Yoichi lives as a latchkey kid. Reiko is often too busy at work, whether it’s at the office or out investigating. Ryuji no longer lives with his family. It’s pretty clear what the message here is supposed to be and to Ringu’s credit, there is no one way you’re meant to feel, save that Yoichi should have more attention from a parental figure at least. Rest assured, the predicament Reiko places herself in reaffirms she loves her son.
I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Ringu, among it’s many visual inspirations overtime, actually inspired of all things, one noteworthy episode of Doctor Who. The episode which introduced the Doctor’s most terrifying enemy the Weeping Angels. Their debut episode in 2007 is itself a mystery with a young female journalist investigating the mystery of both an abandoned house deep in the English woods and a DVD featuring David Tennant’s 10th Doctor.
Unlike the cursed video tape having a net negative (to put it the lightest) effect on the viewer, the journalist Sally Sparrow watching the doctor’s DVD is the only reason she survives encountering the Angels. He gives direct instructions to Sally on how to stop the Angels from killing her. Solving the mystery here saves her and quite a few others. There’s a sense of time running out for Sally to both solve the mystery to survive, not unlike Reiko and Ryuji having exactly 7 days from them first watching the video to find a way around Sadako’s doom.
That’s all the more ironic considering that the Doctor put Sally through what is ultimately a stable time loop, much like how the Terminator going back in time to kill Sarah Connor in the first movie guaranteed that the father of the Resistance leader that fights the genocidal machines comes into contact with Sarah, impregnates her, thus assuring humanity’s survival by the T-800’s travel back in time.
Much like that stable time loop twist in the episode “Blink” of Doctor Who, Ringu reveals its more nefarious side by giving no easy answer to overcoming Sadako. In that in truth, there really isn’t one. To help better sell the idea that Sadako will win no matter what, we of course get to learn her background as a psychic girl who got scorned by the people of her time not just for her powers, but in protecting the honor of her also psychic mother.
When her mother is accused of fraud when successfully reading out cards while blindfolded, the critic is then suddenly killed in the manner that you the viewer have become accustomed to: Their face stricken in a face of utter horror, as if you have been frightened to death. Sadako, possibly not even ten years old does not recognize the dire scope of her powers despite her loving mother.
This otherwise innocent girl is then killed by the doctor who was going to use the mother and child for profit and she is dropped down a well after getting whacked on the head. She doesn’t die. She spends, you guessed it, seven miserable days trying to escape the well, losing her fingernails in the process. She never escapes. Well, not in the way you and I could.
Sadako’s ESP powers tap into a concept unique to Japan: the concept of thoughtograpy, where an individual with such power can burn her essence into an object, leaving off a mark of sorts. It’s never fully explained in either version how Sadako decided that a videotape would be the channel for her indiscriminate vengeance but it’s ultimately not important that we find out that.
Now, for the crime of being murdered, leaving her mother in utter despair so much that she threw herself into a volcano, and for being stuck in the dark for the last 7 days of her life, anyone no matter how good or bad they may be will suffer. Those who recognize they have been cursed like Reiko and Ryuji must spend 7 days realizing they are about to die, like how Sadako came to realize her own fate down in the well.
Her punishment is indiscriminate because she was already given reason as an impressionable young girl to hate all humanity. For her freakish powers, she was shunned, feared, taken advantage of in experiments. The only person she didn’t hate was of course her Mom. Even the horror element of never seeing her face through her deep, long hair represents how she didn’t want anyone to even see her, due to her treatment.
Now, on the seventh day, when she takes out the person who sated their curiosity and watched her video, she gets not just revenge but a really sorrowful sense of wish fulfillment she never got when alive. The iconic scene of her crawling out of a well and approaching the camera isn’t just because it’s freaky to look at, it represents her desperate unfulfilled desire to escape the well that was her tomb. It’s both horrifying and sad. No matter how cruel it seems for Sadako to prey on total strangers, she wasn’t given any reason to be empathetic to anyone, it’s a poor young girl endlessly lashing out at a world which deserves nothing but punishment.
It ties into a familiar strain of thought in horror that many of the terrors we make in the real world are the consequence of our past mistakes. Had we shown kindness, the better angels of our nature, a benevolent curiosity to Sadako and her mother’s powers, maybe things would be different. Maybe Sadako wouldn’t have become the monster society automatically deemed her if they weren’t dismissing her.
What really seals the deal on Ringu and the story itself regardless of the adaptation being a modern classic is that the secret of how you “defeat” Sadako is delightfully twisted and plays into the movie’s anxious viewpoint on technological spread, not unlike a virus. I won’t spoil what the twist is, because that curiosity I hope will be enough for you to check Ringu out if you haven’t already.
The Ring (2002)
Gore Verbinski and future Transformers sequel writer Ehren Kruger do a remarkable even commendable job translating this Japanese-at-heart tale of nigh inescapable horror and giving it an American expression. There are some cute references to the Japanese roots, with even an implication that part of this ghostly girl’s origins, that of her father, might actually be from the land of the rising sun. Otherwise, the transplant other to Washington State, USA is complete and total.
Naomi Watts’ Rachel replaces Reiko, Martin Henderson’s Noah replaces Ryuji, David Dorfman replaces Yoichi and the Ring Girl goes from Sadako to Samara. The biggest change is the atmosphere.
Befitting perhaps the new setting of the tale of the Ring, in and around Seattle, there is an absolutely oppressive feel to the world we see on film. The look of the movie has this bluish-greenish sheen that feels washed out and gloomy, with the rain that Seattle’s known for making Rachel, Noah and Aidan’s world feel like it’s off its meds. And that’s before any of our leads have watched the tape.
Instead of being depressing, it helps set up the tone in a fresh way from the original, which once the tape is viewed and Rachel and Noah know what they’re in for, it makes the impending seven days more stressful, as they and the audience can see let alone feel a sense of doom in the air. The sound that plays when a new date is presented is gone which I really miss. Sometimes, the film’s intense faith to the original can rob that sense of curiosity mixed with apprehension. You push instead to how much more different this experience could ultimately be, barring the obvious change of country.
Once it gets to exploring Samara’s background over Sadako’s, that’s where the changes feel most apparent. Rather than her mother sharing some of her daughter’s ESP power, it is just Samara’s. Instead of the dark side of her powers manifesting in suddenly killing someone, her powers cause the horses on the farm she lives on to go wild and die. The mother has more of a part to play in her daughter’s descent into misanthropic fury.
Are these changes better? Not necessarily though they don’t detract. If nothing else, it makes Samara’s desire for vengeance even more understandable as she had no one in the end that cared for her this go around.
Rachel’s kid Aidan has more involvement in the events of the movie and even in some scenes actually converses with both her mother and father on the nature of the curse more than Yoichi. Another interesting change, perhaps to denote this as an American story over an Japanese one is that Rachel and Noah never married and had their son out of wedlock. Noah has barely even seen Aidan in his life. Because marriage and having kids through wedlock is a more expected and I imagine carried through on thing in Japan, having the parents be divorced was the Japanese way of expressing trouble with relationships. Having kids out of wedlock must’ve been the American distinction Kruger and Verbinski decided on.
Watching Ehren Kruger write a distinctive yet reverent take on a Japanese classic changes my perspective on his writing of three horrible Transformers movies. In that he had even less of an excuse to be as lazy, juvenile and mindless with his handling of the concept of the Transformers and their war as he was. Now, obviously, Michael’s Bay anarchic even mean-spirited cinematic lens affected the writing process. That same “Bay” feel is present in every film in the series save Bumblebee, the movie he only was a producer of. So, it was not Kruger entirely, but seeing the respect he gave towards a Japanese property proves he has talent that he decided three times to squander. Don’t worry, he would in time do a disservice to an influential Japanese title when adapting Ghost in the Shell later on.
Again, I can’t say I enjoyed or found as unsettling the American Ring as I did the original though some re-imaginings of some scenes did work well. Katie, Rachel’s niece like Tomoko for Reiko, has a more startling discovery of her body after her 7 days were up. The discovery of Tomoko hiding dead in her closet was scary enough, with the closeup of her contorted face forever open-mouthed in terror was scary. But the scare chord composed by Hans Zimmer along with showing Katie’s body in her closet has a more jolting feel. What’s great about both scenes is that the jump-scare occurs after a soft fakeout.
In the lead up to that moment, we have Reiko/Rachel looking through Tomoko/ Katie’s room following their funeral. They both turn towards the camera and you in turn expect something scary or creepy to be shown after. Instead, it’s just the departed girl’s grieving mother. They then start talking about Tomoko and Katie’s fate, and both turn toward the closet. THEN, the jump cut to discovering the body with the accompanying chord.
The scare serves a purpose which both frightens the viewer while also invoking sympathy to what befell Tomoko and Katie. It also serves to demonstrate what will happen to everyone who watches the tape. Another moment unique to the original also serves to potentially fool the audience for a jumpscare. Tomoko in the original shortly before the TV turns on is using a refrigerator and the camera is aimed at the fridge door from the side. You expect once she closes the door for something spooky like Sadako to be there. Nope, nothing. Because there’s no reason yet for there to be something spooky.
In spite of the scare chord I mentioned earlier, Hans Zimmer’s scoring is actually understated going for a more melancholic feel. While Kawai’s score was meant to keep you permanently on edge, Zimmer goes for a piano-like morose feel which represents the gloom that complements the either inevitable or potential doom coming down the road. It reminds me of some of the music, namely in the end credits for The Babadook released 12 years later though that film certainly has many unnerving, scary compositions included.
Perhaps it’s Zimmer deciding to emphasize the mystery and the tragedy of Samara more than the horror as the horror can largely speak for itself. It might even accommodate those who have already seen the original and want something different enough a second time.
Either way, I do recommend seeing these movies back to back and deciding for yourself what were changes meant to help along an American audience and be rather pleased at all the things that weren’t changed. As mentioned before, it actually builds in parts on what Samara’s curse does leading up to the seven days being completed. While on a ferry heading towards the island Samara lived on, there’s a horse in a trailer. Rachel going up to the horse causes it to panic eventually breaking out of its trailer, rampaging throughout the boat until eventually it falls over the side to its doom. Just like the horses Samara knowingly or unknowingly drove crazy.
That’s a nice expansion which shows the effect a cursed person can possibly have on the world for their seven allotted days. Again, not necessary really, but shows that this take can strive to be more than a carbon copy.
Give it a watch, maybe even marathon the both of them. Try to keep mental notes whenever you can as both movies really want you to think through the details, realize how the dots connect the disturbing picture. It’s also a horror story that thrives on the implications that Sadako/Samara’s power contains. Later movies, such as the recent American sequel Rings has tried to expand the concept and on paper the conceits of that movie are sound. I am aware of one scenario where Samara’s tape in played on seat TVs on an airplane.
In spite of it building on the idea, Rings is quite bad from what I’ve heard. To be fair, even the Japanese sequels have struggled to make their own continuations of the story. They did their own Godzilla vs. Kong with pitting Sadako versus the boy from the Grudge.
It’s yet a miracle that two different sides of the world could do justice for a story all about a girl meting out her own pitiless “justice” on everyone else.
In part two, I tackle two movies, one that is a dark journey back to a world you wouldn’t generally consider scary at least on celluloid and the first of many flicks involving to some extent werewolves.