Eyes on the Prize

You can learn something about the American economy by watching horror movies. It’s true: when times are good and Hollywood is less risk-averse, we are treated to subtle, interesting, and original horror movies. When the economy is shitty (I hate the word “downturn,” it’s so saccharin), Hollywood responds by reverting to tried-and-true vehicles for turning a profit from teenage audiences (read: whatever worked before; usually sex and gore). During these times the penny-pinchers are looking for “sure bets,” films that they can count on to make a profit, even if that profit isn’t ultra blockbuster. I think that there is probably enough historical evidence to make a Horror Film Quality economic index at this point.

Where such an index to exist, it would be (correctly) indicating that the American economy is in the toilet right now. Take the up-and-coming release of The Eye, a remake of a Hong Kong film from 2003, this time starring white people speaking English. The thing is, the original film wasn’t all that great (at least, I didn’t think so), and by all accounts the remake is even worse.

The concept for the film is interesting enough (a woman undergoes eye surgery to restore her vision and subsequently can see ghosts), but the reason that Hollywood decided to remake it not because it is a good film but rather because it is safe. All the risk was taken back in 2003 when the film was originally made, so all Hollywood has to do is reshoot it with some white actors, throw in some superfluous CG, and call it a day. The whole endeavor is really cheap, so profit is almost guaranteed.

How does this process anger me? Let me count the ways.

First of all, I’m constantly incensed by Hollywood’s need to “sanitize” foreign films for American audiences by inserting white actors and changing the script into English. God forbid we have a movie with an asian (or Indian, or Middle Eastern, etc) protagonist, who could even (blasphemy of blasphemies) speak a different language. Heaven help us if the details of the plot are not explained to us in such excruciating detail that we actually have to think about the film on our own. And it’s a well known fact that no movie with subtitles could possibly be enjoyed by American audiences (oh how quickly we forget).

Secondly, for all of its cash Hollywood is almost totally unable to innovate in this genre because films are treated as a business rather than an art. There’s nothing wrong with business–you need money to fund art, after all–but good art requires risk, and business is the process of removing risk in order to maintain profitability over the long term. So instead Hollywood remakes like The Eye, The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water (not to mention non-horror films like Shall we Dance) are made on the backs of the people who took the risk and made something interesting for a change. These are usually minor film makers with almost no budget, working without the aid of high-end special effects teams or multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. Once they’ve proven that a new idea might actually be something that viewers want to see, Hollywood can just pluck up the rights, discharge a remake, and take all the credit (and profit) for somebody else’s hard work. That doesn’t help the genre progress, it doesn’t expand the size of the audience, and it certainly doesn’t encourage the propagation of original films. It’s a one-sided business weighted entirely in Hollywood’s favor.

Finally, films like The Eye are hardly worth remaking! If they enjoyed the original, why not just re-release it here with English subtitles and a small marketing blitz? That’d be far cheaper than reshooting the whole thing, and they have a chance of creating an instant cult classic. Besides, the critics prefer the original versions of these films almost every single time–it’s not like improvements are being made by Hollywood. The original Eye isn’t such a great film, but it’s better than the American rendition.

Hollywood remakes are like Bizarro versions of real films: flakey and nonsensical. The industry and its audience would be far better off if the original films were just released verbatim in this country. Maybe when the economy corrects itself there will be a return to interesting American films (or even better, a surge of foreign imports), but for the moment the pickings are pretty slim.

11 thoughts on “Eyes on the Prize

  1. Don’t forget the One Missed Call trilogy.
    By all accounts the recent American remake
    was awful.

    The Japanese original had its problems in the
    last half but the premise and build up were

  2. I really dug the hell out of the original eye. Even though it meandered in the end, its scares were fearless and all well done….
    Now lets hope they do not remake the sequel
    which to me was one of the worse asian films I have ever seen. I haven’t seen the rema..ke of the eye yet and proabbly just wait for it to hit dvd shelves

    I Also have to note, that I hated the original ju-on(the grudge) and was blown away that Sam Raima director of Evil Dead produced the piece of crap.


  3. I agree, Chris, that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt. I agree that Hollywood remakes are usually worse than the original movies. Where we disagree is in the perception of foreign films in the eyes of Walmart America, who by the way all paid to see Independence Day in the theater(and loved it). I’m just saying.

    For every Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you have five Pan’s Labyrinths, three Princess Mononokes, and an Old Boy: limited runs in big cities with substantial movie buff populations resulted in ticket sales that doomed these movies to DVD only releases. Sad but true.

    When I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the theater, no less than ten people walked out because they had to read; I know this because they were complaining about it as they left. I appreciate that you are an intelligent, well read, educated individual. What the entertainment habits of the average American should tell you is that you’re in a significant minority. Watch an episode or two of any sitcom, or the revamped American Gladiators(which boasted some of the highest ratings of the season when it debuted) and try and tell me otherwise.

    I also think you’ve understated the overall importance of the original movies creators when it comes to doling out credit. True, Joe Q Public doesn’t know who Ang Lee is(unless of course he followed the Brokeback Mountain ‘controversy’), but the people who matter do. Critics, film students and appreciators, even the people in charge over there in Hollywood. Remember who wrote and directed the Ring 2(and nevermind the quality).

    People will forget about the truly fecal The Grudge eventually. People who love horror films will be talking about Ju On for a long time.

  4. > Geoff

    I guess the reason I don’t agree with you is that in the pretty recent past Hollywood was capable of turning out subtle, intelligent, and scary films, and people liked them. I’ve talked about Don’t Look Now here before (though that one might actually be British), but the The Shining, and even Alien are stunning examples of Hollywood getting it right.

    I think that what has changed is that Hollywood has realized that they can make a profit of $200 million on a movie like Spider-Man instead of the regular $10 or $20 million a “normal” flick might pull in. I agree that making something as mass-market as possible tends to dilute the content to such a degree that it’s often terrible, but I think that there is still room for shlock like Independence Day. The problem is that we get zero variety because Hollywood wants insanely huge returns every single time.

    I don’t think that Joe Q. Public is as uncultured and dense as you suggest, I think that they are just not given very much choice in the matter. They have to choose between Armageddon and Independence Day, and both choices suck! I think that if we had more films from more countries showing at the theaters the films we make in this country would in turn begin to improve because people’s standards would rise. Sure, these films might not make a hundred zillion dollars, but on the other hand they cost so little that there is very little risk. The 10 people who can’t deal with subtitles are free to leave while the remaining 90 of us enjoy the film.

    I think that the creative stagnation in Hollywood is the result of greed, plain and simple.

  5. “no less than ten people walked out because they had to read”

    Wow, I never thought it is that bad in USA. Even though I still think the reasons why they left were different and they simply had to explain somehow.

    And it’s very amazing why Americans don’t dub films. This is usually the case in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy.

  6. you know, ebert (or maybe it was siskel – he was alive back then) once said that they were pretty well sick of people doing remakes of great movies. said they have it all wrong – you shouldnt remake great movies, you should remake *bad* ones. if a movie’s great, it’s great, who needs to do it again? but a piece of trash – THAT could use a second go! especially if it’s a piece of trash that, nonetheless, had a good idea or two in it. take it again and make it work!

    about the only thing i support remakes of are with games, which often can use a good graphical update once they’ve become pretty old. and in certain cases, they add other considerably needed things… like, for instance – did you know that the PSP remake of Dracula X, which comes with Symphony of the Night, allows for japanese language? that’s right – english speakers can actually play SOTN in the original japanese now, with english text!

    but movie makers cant seem to figure this stuff out 🙁

  7. I agree with most of what you have to say Chris, except that I don’t think that good movies come out of Hollywood in certain economic periods. I don’t really think it’s linked to the economy so much as just rare spurious instances of good fortune where a decent horror movie is released. Also, the major barrier to good horror movies as I see it is that most Americans do not really understand what that means. This country is constantly exposed to really bad “americanized” horror, that when something comes along which breaks the barrier, even just a bit, people get confused, say the movie sucked, etc. I thought Cloverfield was a pretty good monster movie, and definitely knew its roots, as you said. But I can’t count the number of people yelling out that it sucks because the ending didn’t make sense to them. It wasn’t prepackaged and no one held their hand and explained everything.

    If you take a look at the Silent Hill movie, they got a good deal of the environment right, but seriously screwed up for the same reason. In order to appease the masses (and in their eyes make the movie worth its millions) they dumbed it down, and once again stuck in all these little explanations for what’s going on. When the little girl came on and started blabbing the whole story away I was not happy at all. A lot of the fun on the original game was just taking the horror at face value. Sure you didn’t understand the reason behind the sirens in the distance, but it didn’t matter. There was a complex plot that you could discern if you read between the lines. You just had to do a little thinking on your own, instead of the “American Way” where everything is told to you, just in case you didn’t want to think. Like in what you said about subtitles, I don’t think it would be a bad idea, but some people wouldn’t go and watch it (call it a “sucky” movie, etc) just because they had to read and use their brain a tiny bit more. It just shows you how backward our culture is getting really.

    Anyway, the other thing I wanted to point out is how different this situation is in relation to anime. A lot of good anime comes over here in its original form (albeit somewhat dubiously dubbed). They didn’t “remake” Princess Monoke or Spirited Away, unless you count the dubbing as remaking it. What’s more, the dvd releases (thankfully) include the original japanese audio and subtitles, so people can still get exposed to the original translation. While this country does have some original cartoon art forms, anime is a big seller here, despite the above problems. I think it’s interesting to note this anyway :p

    I actually liked the original Eye, and somewhat enjoyed even the Indian version released soon afterwards (I had rented it without even knowing it was a remake of The Eye). Now, this American version already looks bad and I haven’t even watched it. I saw the original japanese Dark Waters and Pulse and thought they were really great movies, but was confused why they had to release such crappy american versions. Since the originals did so well, why do we have to “sanitize” it? Like you, I think it’s pretty stupid, not to mention it wastes money and turns people off (in this country) to the much better original.

  8. I agree. I have yet to see an American horror movie with a foreign lead actor, albeit a GOOD American horror movie, aside from the M. Night Shamaylan (I hope I spelled that right) movies, and the original Night Of The Living Dead. I have, however, saw many FOREIGN horror movies that were pretty good, (sadly never saw The Eye, though). The Japanese can really do a good horror movie, and rely on VERY LITTLE gore to get the job done. But I guess out film people over here thinks that low budget and little gore equals crap, while big budget and Semi-trucks full of blood and guts equals instant box office smash. Too bad they’ll never figure out that it is the OTHER way around!

  9. Playing off what Geoff said, the US has an odd double-standard for subtitled (and or “foreign”) films.

    If the theme of the movie is predominantly European, as in “Passion of the Christ” or “The Pianist”, most people have no problem reading subs since it’s easy to pick up context of the dialogue from shared cultural cues.

    However, if these cues are subtracted, as in “The Princess Mononoke” or “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, general audiences are more likely to feel frustrated because the subject matter feels esoteric- using colloquialisms and symbolism not common in the west- and sometimes the meaning of dialogue cannot be grasped right away. o_0

    So really, I’m not entirely sure if Big Bad Corporations are entirely to blame.

    I like films in different languages and video games, too. But sometimes text dialogue feels a bit…sterile.

    The Eye wasn’t anything to write home about, but I thought the basic concept was pretty clever, considering that it was spawned in the Ringu-Era.
    I was unpleasantly surprised by the remake promos, too. 🙁

  10. http://bdaydnight.blogspot.com/
    If you pay attention, the horror movies genre is dead.
    They didn’t knew how to evolve and follow the new audiences, they are making movies as they would do in the 70’s and the 80’s, maybe early 90’s and they forget that their audience change, times change, and if they don’t re-invent themselves they are always going to be ranted.
    I can’t remember the last time I’ve saw a good horror movie…Maybe The Others, with Nicole Kidman.

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