Here's something I don't write about all that much: Horror. Horror is a favorite genre of mine, but for some reason I often find it difficult to be impressed by them in recent times. Classics like The Exorcist still stay with me to this day, but more modern flicks like Ouija and however many Paranormal Activity films there are just fail to hold my interest. There are a few standouts like The Witch and The Babadook (which, OK, the latter is Australian), but I admit that I have some catching up to do when it comes to American horrors of this year.
My growing love and interest in film led me to look elsewhere, and I started delving into foreign films of all genres from all continents. I already knew about Asian horror thanks to the American remakes of J-horror classics The Grudge (Ju-on: The Grudge) and The Ring (Ringu). Being stubborn in my younger years, I was often deterred by the thought of reading subtitles, and by my fear of ghosts and the paranormal (which still kind of exists, but nowadays it's more of a fascination).
The difference between J-horror in particular and Western #horror struck me very quickly (as I'm sure it does with most). I often find myself much more engrossed and on edge with J-horror. It's probably something to do with the cultural differences and just how they see things compared to how we do. It's something we aren't exposed to — not just in horror, but films and life in general.
Japan, South Korea, Thailand all like to push boundaries further than we do, and the mythology behind the stories is utilized more so than Western horror. They can be as crazy and outrageous as they want and somehow have it work, but when Western cinema tries to make a monster horror that involves a girl with a giant monster mouth on her crotch, It's ridiculous and cringe-worthy (it's Tokyo Gore Police, for those of you who are utterly intrigued).
The People And The Paranormal
Though the idea of possession is once again becoming the most prominent aspect of A-horror (American horror), a lot of the time, the focus is on people. Usually, this is a psycho killer (or something of the sort) and a group of very unrealistically curious teens in some desolate house in the middle of nowhere. They all seem to initially find the whole prospect rather exciting — until they start getting slaughtered one by one.
A-horror focuses on humans and society and the ugliness of people. So when it comes to "the bad guy," often he's just that — a guy, a human. Humans are killable, and that takes away a certain element of the fear. They also often get their reactions by way of jump scares, cheap thrills and a lot of gore.
Compare that to East Asian horror that doesn't use too much gore and focuses more on suspense and slow-burn psychological effects by using a lot of folklore and ghosts. The "bad guy" in Asian horror — particularly movies such as Ju-on and Ringu — is a kind of abstract representation of a killer. This theme goes a step further with the biblical undertones and mystery-thriller style of South Korean brilliance The Wailing.
These scenes often take place in a house and have the entity pop up in familiar places such as the bathroom or the bed — places that are closer to us and therefore create a more lasting impression. East Asian horror has also created its own distinct image of villains through girls with white faces and long, black hair, seemingly borrowing from Eastern Asia's ideal of beauty, particularly the Geisha look. That image has become iconic in all horror, and not just its native lands.
"You’re not in control. It is in control."
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Speaking of people and the paranormal, let's talk about paranormal people! Specifically the good ones ('good') and the role that they play in A-horror. American horror a lot of the time seems to have an eventual solution to the problem, by way of an exorcist or a mysterious old lady that clearly never washes her hair. These people are often present in the more supernatural stories and always somehow know how to handle the entity or possessed being.
East Asia tend to opt for a more conventional approach to 'evil' through the deep roots in folklore and mythology. When we think of 'evil', demons and ghouls is probably what first springs to mind rather than men with masks. Going back to the idea that humans are killable. The antagonists in Asian horror aren't really identified, it is unknown who-or what-they are. It taps into the actual idea of evil and it's persistence and how it doesn't always go away; how an old lady that lives in the woods with her crystal ball is probably just a con.
The Sound Of Silence
Another distinct element of J-horror is the use of sound to further create atmosphere. American horror prefers the use of silence and then a loud bang, J-horror utilizes the use of growing sound to symbolize the inevitable fate as it gets closer.
The same sort of approach is also prominent in visuals, as killers in American flicks are often fully exposed during the film, whereas characters like Kayako appear only in glimpses. These films choose to build the suspense right in front of you as opposed to making you wait for it unknowingly. Both approaches can be effective.
What Has Been Seen
As far as originality goes, modern American horrors often feel very samey samey. There's the one with the teens trapped with a psycho killer, the one with the possessed child and the one with both. Originality in American horror hasn't been very prominent since the '80s. I'm generalizing, of course — there have been some hidden gems.
As for great Asian horrors, there's the Thai horror Shutter, about a ghost appearing in photographs, the Korean A Tale of Two Sisters, about family complications spun out of control, The Wailing, about strange occurrences in a small village, the Japanese Exte, about killer hair extensions (yes, hair extensions); there's also Tag, that focuses on the idea of destiny. I could go on and on — all of them have differing themes and ways of building dread. Shutter you may recognize by name. It was remade by Hollywood in 2008, which was pretty bad.
Both Eastern and Western cinema continue to produce great chill-fests, and while East Asian cinema seems more consistent in their track record of good horror films, it all comes down to your personal tastes and your own fears. Some people find the paranormal to be more frightening than real people and vice-versa.
Films like these have a lot to do with the East Asian filmmaking scene rising to prominence in the rest of the world. I'm not sure if it's that the films are better or just very different. I mean, they probably feel the same way about American horror.
While on the subject, check out the trailer for the upcoming horror A Cure for Wellness, the new horror by Academy Award winning director of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Ring, Gore Verbinski.
Also, have you ever noticed this one cool aspect of horror films The Ring Two and Orphan:
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What do you think about these different approaches to horror? Let us know!