September 30, 2009

DIAMONDS (1975) - terrific soundtrack, shame about the film

(1975, USA/Israel, Yahlumim)

High-calibre cast, rare locations and classy soundtrack all outweigh the movie.

This has so little love on IMDB that I've simply got to write it up, it was entertaining enough back in the seventies, and an enjoyable double-bill with Russian Roulette, which has actually aged far better. Ironically Diamonds has made it to DVD, while Russian Roulette hasn't.

This is the sort of mid-range production that Robert Shaw appeared in, even after excellent work in high-profile American hits as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and The Sting (1973). Both had failed to make him a megastar before he lucked into his next role: shark-killer Quint in Steven Spielberg's Jaws propelled him into A-list titles until his untimely death in 1978. He dominated young whippersnapper Nick Nolte in The Deep (author Peter Benchley's follow-up to Jaws), Harrison Ford in Force 10 From Navarone, and battled terrorists in the audacious Black Sunday. But Shaw's most famous role after Quint, is the stone killer 'Red' Grant in From Russia With Love (1963), outwitting the famous James Bond.

Here Shaw plays identical twins, thanks to some very basic split-screen trickery and a rather lumpy wig. One is a successful diamond merchant, the other a manufacturer of uncrackable security systems. Can you see where this is going? The wigless, diamond merchant Shaw hires two young criminals to help him crack his younger brother's most impenetrable safe - in the Tel Aviv Diamond Centre tower...

As the three arrive in Israel, the police are already alert to the fact that an ex-con is in their midst. Unable to shake police surveillance, they have to change the plans quickly and drastically. Plans that will involve national treasure, Mission Impossible tactics and of course a helicopter...

For decades, no heist movie has been able to resist the temptation to include pressure-sensitive floors. At least here we haven't got the cliched light beams as well. It's all gentle afternoon fun with a few minor twists that you'll never second guess.

The cast is constantly enlivened by Richard Roundtree (Shaft, Earthquake, and recently Heroes) who's never had nearly enough starring roles. Because of his character's take-no-shit attitude, and maybe his conspicuous shaggy fleece waistcoat and big hat, Diamonds was pushed on VHS as a fourth Shaft movie (retitled Diamond Shaft) which it most certainly isn't. John Shaft would never be caught dead driving an Austin Morris through London!

The third team member is played by Barbara Hershey, so good at baiting Steve Railsback in The Stuntman (1980). Back in 1975 she still appeared under the name Barbara Seagull, which regularly confused me until IMDB arrived. I thought they were different actresses! She is of course mainly the love interest here.

Shelley Winters is prominently featured in publicity and in many scenes, but is almost completely irrelevant to the story, purely along for some tired comedy relief. Though she looks better here than she does in Tentacles or The Poseidon Adventure. Viewers are of course reminded to check out her performance in Night of the Hunter (1955) for proof of her curvaceous appearance and serious acting abilities two decades earlier.

Another impressive aspect of Diamonds is the extensive filming of locations in Israel. I haven't seen Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Bethlehem (inside the Nativity Church) in any other film.

Best of all, Roy Budd (Get Carter) composed a soundtrack that's more memorable than the film. I bought it on cassette at the time and thankfully it was recently remastered on CD. I must have listened to it over a hundred times, even more than Budd's Fear Is The Key. The main theme is very loungey, with bags of sultry, jazzy sax. The car chase theme is a powerhouse, far more exciting than action on the screen. Then there are the Middle Eastern tracks, a memorable fusion of styles for the Israeli locations. Prince Charles favourites The Three Degrees provide an impeccable vocal to the main theme. Maybe you should listen to Diamonds before watching it?

I've not yet tracked down a copy of the anamorphically presented region 1, 2002 Anchor Bay DVD release, but at least it's out there. Maybe I'll stick with the old Channel 5 VHS...

A squeezed, but original, trailer is here on YouTube...

September 25, 2009

THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976) - outbreak on a train

(1976, West Germany, Italy, UK)
This just beat Silver Streak to being the first seventies disaster movie on a train, but the accent here was on suspense and doom, rather than comedy. Back then it certainly delivered, though the posters and publicity made me expect something more sci-fi, like The Andromeda Strain. I re-watched this just before a recent trip to Geneva, where the journey begins.

The opening titles lead into a spectacular helicopter shot descending from the clouds, swooping low over Lake Geneva (when the huge fountain was unfortunately switched off), down over the United Nations European Headquarters and up to the World Health Organisation building. Inside, several terrorists force their way into top secret laboratories and during a shoot-out with the guards, one gets splashed with a nasty virus...

This leads neatly to a simple movie premise - hundreds of passengers trapped on a train with a killer virus. Luckily there's an action-hero scientist onboard, his ex-wife and a host of disposal disaster movie stereotypes. There's an early lowpoint with a singsong in one compartment, but after the silly soap-opera interlude, it turns back into a tight thriller as the nightmare deepens.

Eventually the American military find out about the missing terrorist potentially infecting everyone on the train. The Colonel in charge orders the train not to stop and that no-one gets off. Just to make sure, the train takes on armed guards and has its windows boarded up, in an eerie nighttime scene with the soldiers dressed in bio-hazard suits. Anyone who tries to escape will be shot. The all-white outfits might be accurate, but they also reminded me of George Romero's own 'outbreak' horror The Crazies (1973). The following year, there was a similar-looking clean-up squad in David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977).

In these contagion movies the symptoms can go two ways - if it's a thriller then the virus simply kills, like The Andromeda Strain (1971) or Outbreak (1995). If it's a horror film then the infected turn into mindless killers, as in The Crazies, Rabid, right upto 28 Days Later.

Besides the spreading virus, there's the lengths the army will go to prevent the secret of their bio-weapon getting out. Either way, time is running out for the passengers as the train nears the end of the line, the rickety Cassandra Crossing...

With a simple premise, mounting complications and a memorably callous climax, this is also a movie full of familiar faces.
Sharing top-billing are Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren and Richard Harris, all bringing glamour to an endless string of seventies thrillers. Harris was an unlikely, thoughtful action hero throughout the seventies in Juggernaut, Orca - The Killer Whale and Golden Rendezvous... though today he seems mainly remembered for his curtain-call as Dumbledore. Personally, I'd rather see him battle Orca...
Ava Gardner bounces back from her disaster movie experience of Earthquake (1974), invigorated here by toyboy Martin Sheen, who's still in a rut of greasy villains, looking exactly as he does as the predatory paedo in The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (also 1976). If you ever wanted to see more of Martin doing half-naked yoga, like the opening of Apocalypse Now, this movie is for you...

In the tradition of disaster movies, there's too many characters set up, so that later they can be cruelly cut down... including a host of actors more famous from their European cult movies - John Philip Law (Barbarella), Alida Valli (Suspiria), Ingrid Thulin (Salon Kitty). Not to mention OJ Simpson
(The Towering Inferno) as a priest!

Ann Turkel is presumably here because her husband was Richard Harris. She's paired onscreen with Italian actor Ray Lovelock - yes, the star of Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue (1975), but without his beard! I didn't recognise him without the facial hair, wearing a woolly ski sweater!
Last but not least is the father of method acting, Lee Strasberg. His skimpy watch salesman character gains dramatic weight when he realises that the train is taking him back to the internment camp he was imprisoned in during the war. For a major proponent of stage acting, this is a rare movie role, his most acclaimed screen appearance being in The Godfather. Heaven only knows what made him do a European disaster movie.

The Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack certainly helps. He uses a few creepy virus sounds that he first used for The Satan Bug (1965).

All in all, a fast-paced thriller blended into the disaster movie genre.

I've been watching a VHS all this time and am looking for a decent version on DVD. I've got the Carlton DVD - it's widescreen but letterboxed, non-anamorphic, and the negative needs a little restoration work for dirt and scratches - but at least it's available. I'll keep lhoping for an anamorphic remastered version...

A widescreen YouTube trailer from TCM...

September 23, 2009

London Film Festival 2009 preview

Some suggestions from the forthcoming London Film Festival (14th to 29th October) and the BFI South Bank programme for November...

The 2009 London Film Festival includes some rare chances to see international cinema on the big screen and previews of forthcoming hits.

The new big budget CGI Astro Boy (Oct 17). This international production is looking good from the trailers I've seen. The characters don't look much like the manga or anime, but this movie could revive the character outside Japan for the first time since Astro's success on US TV in the sixties. The character has been regularly updated as an anime in Japan (most recently in 2003).

The new 3-D edition of the Pixar classic Toy Story 2 (Oct 25) is a ten year anniversary revival, this time re-rendered for 3-D presentation. It should later appear in local cinemas on a double-bill with Toy Story, also in 3D.

There's the new Japanese live-action ninja epic, a manga adaption called Kamui (Oct 22/23).

A new British documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story (Oct 23/26). I never tire of the comedy of the late Bill Hicks and miss his acidic attacks more than ever.

The City of Life and Death (Oct 28) - the latest dramatisation of the Nanking massacre - the worst atrocity during the 1937 Japanese invasion of China. This is a Hong Kong/Chinese co-production, focusing on three characters' stories within the six week 'Rape of Nanking'.

From the BFI archives there's a screening of J'Accuse (Oct 24). This is a full-length print of the silent 1919 version. A plea for peace from director Abel Gance, who remade the film under the same name just before World War 2. A soldier who narrowly avoids death in the trenches, pleas with politicians not to go to war again. As a last resort, he summons up the war dead, and they rise from their graves to march in protest and warn the living.

A restored print of Topper (Oct 15) is the 1937 Cary Grant comedy about two ghosts pestering a timid salaryman (Roland Young). It spawned two movie sequels and a TV series.

After the festival, the BFI Southbank continues with its November programme.

There's all the films of South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. From his early short films to his latest release. There's a rare screening of his first feature Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), the marvelous mystery Memories of Murder (2003), and of course the movie that made him internationally famous The Host (2006). He contributed one third of the segments of Tokyo (2008) and there's a preview of his new film Mother (2009). Hopefully it won't be long before we get to see The Host 2...

There's also a Michael Haneke season, including both versions of his brutal Funny Games, which I reviewed here.

September 19, 2009

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (2008) - an impressive catalogue of chaos

(2008, Germany, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex)

From the producer of Downfall, is this shocking recreation of ten years of terrorist activity in West Germany, between 1968 and 1978.

This was such a controversial subject that I mistakenly thought it was going to be a small-scale, low-budget affair. I didn't realise that, riding on the success of Downfall, producer Bernd Eichinger had teamed up with life-long friend, director Uli Edel, to make an impressive re-staging of real-life events, using many of the original locations.

The film is a powerful and astonishing reminder of the time, when popular ideals of left-wing politics were more influenced by revolutionary rebels such as Che Guevara. In Germany, a small group of middle-class radicals are spurred into direct action when a prominent voice of the left is gunned down in the street.

Another death, at the hands of a policeman during a public riot, further radicalises Ulrike Meinhof, a political journalist who gets drawn into the outlawed group, to become one of the masterminds and idealogists behind their tactics and targets.

I was overwhelmed by the scale of the havoc wrought by the RAF (Red Army Faction), also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. The story follows their lives from before their descent into violent extremism, to their eventual incarceration and public trial.

As the leaders of the RAF get arrested or killed, the remaining members vow revenge, and continue the chaos, linking up with Arab terrorists at a time when an international terrorist coalition was being established...

I sympathised with their initial ideals, which was partly a protest against the many Nazis still in local government at the time. But the unanswered mystery is how quickly they moved into armed robbery, assassination and bombing campaigns. A short journey from political ideals to terrorism, with an obvious parallel to today, though the film doesn't get heavy-handed with 'messages'. For instance, one of their targets is portrayed as a random innocent, yet it doesn't even mention that he was formerly a member of the SS, a hardline Nazi.

The whole film is an education, or the start of one, but without throwing too much information at you, like Oliver Stone's breathless JFK (1991). While detractors of the film complain about what the film has left out, it's up to the audience to learn more.

The Baader Meinhof Complex presents a fast-paced tour of the gangs' actions and many victims. There's also been criticism that it portrays them as quite a sexy bunch, attractively rebellious, mostly young women with a weakness for mini-skirts. I was briefly seduced by their cause, but then repeatedly repelled by their militaristic solutions. I found this no more problematic than the many gangster movies that equate guns, power, sex, and money. Considering the amount of guns and ammo out there, it's surprising that there hasn't been more mayhem like this.

The film has just come out in cinemas in the US, and is already on DVD in the UK. Two short documentaries illuminate the intentions and of the director and the producer, as well as showing the extensive nature of the making of the film.

This review on SFgate says it all much better than me.

Watch the trailer and you'll want to see the film...

September 16, 2009


(1987, Japan, Shoujo Commando Izumi)

After sampling the mad 1980s Japanese TV phenomenon of schoolgirl action heroes in Sukeban Deka (three series, two films and a recent remake), I looked around for more. Best of the bunch appeared to be Schoolgirl Commando Izumi, who carries around a rucksack of explosives and automatic weapons, bringing swift justice to whatever baddies are around. That is when she's not hanging around and doing girly things with her classmate buddies.

The premise predates James Cameron's Dark Angel. An innocent-looking teenager being re-programmed and re-trained as a government killing machine. Here the pseudo-science is called 'bio-feedback'. So, whenever she gets into a fix, she just stares into the camera, her hair blows up in the air, and then she defeats the villains in slow-motion.

What separates this schoolgirl martial arts chaos from all the rest, is the time and money lavished on the stuntwork and explosives. The action in many episodes is good enough for a Japanese movie from that time. The whole series is relatively short, at 15 half-hour episodes, far less padded out than the epic Sukeban Deka series. This would make it an ideal choice for a US release, which has been very sluggish to import any Japanese series that aren't anime, despite a treasure trove of choice.

Ignorance of these TV gems is of course a result of the lack of English language info. The series isn't even on IMDB. Especially in the wake crowd-pleasers like the recent Machine Girl and Saikano - The Ultimate Weapon. Japanese girls with guns is definitely a hot genre. Let's get a chance to see more of it.

I got my DVD set
from CDjapan (front cover artwork pictured at top) last year, but remember there are no English subtitles or voicetrack. No extras either, simply the entire series of 15 episodes over 3 DVDs.

Proof I'm not the only one in the world who's seen this series: check out
this review, with screengrabs.

Check out the explosive opening titles here on YouTube...

September 14, 2009


(2008, Japan, Akanbo shôjo)

There have been decades of adaptions of Kazuo Umezu's horror manga stories, but few very good ones. I persevere because I know the source material is good - traumatic nightmare stories aimed at children, usually with children as the main characters. I thought that the recent run of TV adaptions (Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater) would have bled him dry of stories, but no...

Tamami: The Baby's Curse begins on familiar ground, as Yoko returns to live with her parents after 15 years in an orphanage. But on arrival, her mother denies Yoko is her daughter, the housekeeper stongly advises her to go away and dad is hardly ever around. Mother thinks that Yoko died in the war and still cradles a teddy bear that reminds her of the lost baby. This spectacularly dysfunctional family live in a huge and remote mansion, surrounded by an electric fence, presumably to keep strangers out...

As Yoko explores her shadowy new home, she's frightened by strange noises in the night, something shuffling in the ceiling, and occasionally drops of blood falling on her as she sleeps...

Beginning identically to Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968), I thought this was going to be an update on the same story with similar spooky chills. But halfway through, Tamami: The Baby's Curse transforms into a monster movie, a cross between Basket Case and It's Alive, with special effects that appear to spoof Hollywood action films - slow-motion bullet-time moments, impossible physics, logic-defying character motives.

Considering that Yûdai Yamaguchi has directed offbeat horror comedy before, like Battlefield Baseball (2003) and The Great Horror Family (2004), I'd also expect it to be funny and more original. The monster looks like a CGI Belial (the monster from Basket Case), but moves like Spiderman, with super strength, super speed and the ability to defy space and time.

Some of the CGI isn't bad, and many close-ups are realised with prosthetics and puppets. But this results in a problem of scale - the creature appears to drastically alter size between scenes. There's a fair amount of blood, but gore-hounds will have to wait until the second half of the story to see any.

But with good acting, if not particularly complex characters, and solid shocks moments and gore, this is an above-average adaption of Umezu compared to the Horror Theater series. But it's still not as good as the similar thrills to be found in the old It's Alive and not as much fun as the Basket Case films or the scampering creature feature Hiruko The Goblin.

The Malaysian DVD I watched (pictured at top) is NTSC, all-region, anamorphic widescreen 2.35, and has very good English subtitles.

There's this subtitled trailer on YouTube...

September 12, 2009

BRIAN DE PALMA - 1970's master of horror

Life before Scarface - Brian De Palma's horror decade

It feels like movie blasphemy when I say that my admiration for Brian De Palma ended, and not began, with Scarface. It’s a cult film now, but at the time of release it meant to me that the director was no longer making superb horror films.

Scarface (1983) wasn’t as violent as some of his previous films and felt mainstream. Guys, guns, gals. I was disappointed. But in the ten years before that, I’d enjoyed seven of his films in a row. One of the original 'movie brats', alongside Spielberg and Lucas, 1970s De Palma films were a safe bet for a thrilling ride.

After some early, experimental films made in New York in the late sixties, discovering Robert De Niro in the process (Greetings and Hi Mom!), his first mainstream movie was a bizarre false start, a comedy co-starring Orson Welles, Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972). But De Palma caught critics' eyes and the attention of horror magazines with the shocker Sisters.His subsequent films also freely 'referenced' the work of Alfred Hitchcock plundering shots, sub-plots and musical phrases. But Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie felt new, creative and twists in the genre, with amazing camerawork and some purely visual storytelling. Obsession was inspired by Vertigo. The Fury was a tour-de-force extension of the telekinetic theme of Carrie. Dressed to Kill was a stylish but ultraviolent variant of Psycho, Blow Out a mixture of The Conversation and Blow Up. Then he made Scarface - Brian De Palma had left the genre.

But let's look on the bright side, um, the dark side, at these early thrillers:

SISTERS (1973)
CARRIE (1976)
THE FURY (1978)
BLOW OUT (1981)

Sisters (1973) was De Palma's first 'Hitchcock', starting off like a short parody of Psycho. Margot Kidder (before she starred in Black Christmas or Superman) plays a troubled young woman who can get very nasty, very quickly. There’s a bloody knife murder that can still make the guys wince, and an early taste of De Palma's trademark split-screen scenes, simultaneously showing key action from different viewpoints. While the story gets weirder and weirder, Kidder playing a good twin and a psychotic one, there's also more humour than in his later thrillers. It's also good to see Jennifer Salt outside the manic household of TVs long-running Soap. The excellent Charles Durning and William Finlay would shortly return to other De Palma films. One of Hitchcock's most famous collaborators, composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, North By Northwest), went way, way over the top with theramin-fuelled madness for the soundtrack.

At the time, I was hungry for horror and knew that Phantom of the Paradise was a new version of Phantom of the Opera, but revamped as a glam-rock musical! This was before the dire Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical that started a couple of years later. The film mixes a host of gothic horror film references with a fine set of songs by Paul Williams (Bugsy Malone). This is still highly thought of and has even been commemorated with reunion concerts in the US. It did well in the UK, primarily on double-bills with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the only film with which it could possibly be compatible. There's an extensive look at Phantom of the Paradise here.

I missed Obsession (1976) because it was hardly circulated in cinemas. I caught it five years later in a BFI retrospective release. A close riff on Vertigo, featuring a lush score from Herrmann (practically his last), it's a beautifully made mystery with a standout kidnap sequence. It's the first time De Palma used John Lithgow - Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold are also perfectly cast.

It was Carrie (1976) that launched both De Palma and Stephen King as household names in horror. One of my top ten horror films, it was one of the best movie experiences I've ever had, when a packed Saturday-night crowd were literally scared out of their seats. I’ve never heard so much screaming where a rollercoaster wasn’t involved. For the final shock, the whole building shook as everyone jumped! A grisly, chilling tale focussed on a teenage girl’s rite of passage at an all too recognisable high school, where bullying backfires big time. The director's trademark split-screen technique, roaming camerawork, use of slow-motion and storytelling without dialogue makes for an unforgettable horror film, made even more memorable for the high school setting that so many other slashers would soon use!

De Palma stayed in the world of deadly telekinesis with The Fury (1978) – a comparatively overlooked film which predated the very similar Firestarter and Scanners. It doesn’t have the humour of Carrie, but otherwise feels like a sequel, packed with bloody 'set-pieces', a tremendous and rare horror score from John Williams, and spectacular body horror effects from Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist). A fuller look at The Fury here.

Dressed to Kill (1980) was technically impressive, with more split-screen and long scenes with no dialogue, but caused a critical backlash against the director. At a time when feminism was successfully targeting slasher films, women's groups and critics focused on this big Hollywood thriller, where a killer sexually targets half-naked women with savage razor attacks. Expanding the use of nudity that barely caused comment in Carrie (despite opening with a shower scene in a schoolgirl's changing room), this riff on Psycho was preoccupied with women's sexual fantasies from a very male perspective. Several scenes were severely cut for TV and video releases for many years. It stars Angie Dickinson (Police Woman), Nancy Allen (by now, married to De Palma), Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge) and Keith Gordon (Christine).

He returned to suspense for Blow Out (1981) starring John Travolta in an early non-singing, non-dancing role (he'd also had a bit-part in Carrie). It's an enjoyable but under-rated thriller, where a guy collecting sounds for a low-budget horror film gets involved with the cover-up of a political assassination. Again with John Lithgow as the baddie – I didn’t think the actor would ever play good guys again, he was so good at nasty. Nancy Allen again played a prostitute - her later role in Robocop was a much needed change of image. Once again, De Palma uses Dennis Franz (Hill Street Blues) as an overweight cop. It's a favourite film of Tarantino, no doubt influencing his casting in Pulp Fiction.

In all, an impressive run to keep us horror hounds happy. But he'd peaked. Off he went to high-profile projects with the stars: Scarface (1983) with Al Pacino, Oscar success with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery in The Untouchables (1987), even a Vietnam movie trailing the pack with Casualties of War (1989). He took a critical and financial battering with the unfunny The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and lost his flare for horror, with Body Double (1984), Raising Cain (1992) and Femme Fatale (2002). I watched Snake Eyes (1998) and Mission Impossible (1996) hoping for a glimpse of his early genius and was bitterly disappointed.
After rewatching his seventies thrillers I'd love to talk about them at length - they're all great films to see in a cinema...

September 11, 2009

Blogaversary! Four years in the Black Hole...

Black Hole is exactly four years old today, having clocking up nearly 500 reviews. You're one of over 6,000 visitors that the site gets every week. The number continues to build slowly but steadily and I'm not even close to running out of movies to talk to you about.

You've probably noticed my recent parallel commitment to Twitter, also on the site in the window on the right. Snippets of DVD news, choice trivia and micro-reviews of movies that won't be getting full articles. The idea was originally to give you some perspective on what else I was watching. Somehow I've nearly 300 'followers' on Twitter, which seems a lot to me.

There's still a shelf of dozens of Asian DVDs that I haven't watched yet - including some Malaysian horrors that I picked up on holiday - that I'm looking forward to. As well as many more Japanese, Chinese and South Korean movies that I couldn't resist the look of. I was also watching Asian horror for a few years before I started the blog, so there's many early classics that I'd like to review for you some time. I just need to find the time to refresh my memory - I always re-watch them before writing a review.

Of course, there are many more guilty pleasures from the 1970s, my most intensive moviegoing period, and also an era which I find still 'works' very well today. I've also been looking for the movies that I missed out on back then, and again I'm filling up another shelf to watch. It's no coincidence that at a time when movie remakes are at a peak, I'm hardly visiting the cinema.

I worry that Black Hole Reviews isn't a site which can be easily labelled - like just Japanese Movies or Horror Films, and I'm tempted to fragment the site into various smaller blogs, each covering a genre. Then again, I think that anyone who spends all their time in one narrow genre should really get out more, and the Black Hole is all about helping you find good stuff that you might have missed. Including strange little films and whole new genres.

Thank you for reading. Keep watching the screens!

Mark Hodgson

September 02, 2009

THE RING VIRUS (1999) - Asian remake of an Asian horror film

(1999, South Korea)

Celebrating (very nearly) four years of Black Hole Reviews with a blogaversary look at another film from the Ring phenomenon.

There are very few successful American remakes of South-East Asian horror films, so how do you feel about an Asian remake of an asian horror? The year after the Japanese smash hit Ring, it was remade with a Korean cast but co-produced by Japan. I'm not entirely sure why - I think they wanted to cash into the horror cycle with a domestic hit of their own. In any case, it's yet another retelling of the original story, mixing elements from both Koji Suzuki's book and Hideo Nakata's 1998 film. It also anticipates scenes from the American remake, The Ring (2002).

It begins with a young girl home alone. Her TV keeps switching itself on. She's also unnerved by a phone call from one friend and a text from another. They both seem to be in trouble. Then she hears something coming upstairs...

Reporter Sun-joo starts investigating her niece's death, becoming suspicious when she learns that three of her friends died on the same evening. The only expert who has any clue as to a possible link is the eccentric Dr Choi, whose theories are seen as far-fetched.

But as Sun-joo visits the lodge where the four friends last met, she finds a videotape and makes the mistake of watching it. It tells her she's going to die in a week unless...

If you've seen Ring or The Ring, you might not want to see another version, but it's interesting to see an Asian remake. While it starts off much the same as Ring, the accent is far more on the sexual possibilities presented in the novel. Indeed, every early scene mentions sex. Though she's never met Dr Choi before, he starts asking personal questions. The teenagers who die in the car were about to 'arrive'. The ghost, here called Park Eun-soo, is portrayed as more alluring than frightening. Her flashbacks are about her sexuality, her history is swapped from being a drama student (in the novel) to working in a seedy nightclub - a marvellous, atmospheric scene that echoes Psycho with a twist... It's the only notably different scene in this version. An early hint of the sexual aspect of the film is in an art gallery at the start, where Sun-joo is interviewing a bisexual artist about her work. It's all much more 'liberated' about sex than the Japanese version.

While the movie starts well, with some solid scares, it turns more into a mystery than a horror, even missing an opportunity with the scary videotape itself. The images are more like memories, indistinct and fading into each other. This is more 'realistic' but harder to see. The lack of clear imagery makes subsequent discoveries less creepy. In Ring, it was always chilling to see something from The Tape appear in real life. Gone too is the progressive emergence of the figure from the well that creeped me out. The flashback to the press conference, another chance for a shock moment, is also curiously changed so that no deaths occur.

So less horror and more mystery. Fair enough. But even the thread of their investigation, which started off so carefully detailed and plotted, then skips several important discoveries until we arrive back at exactly the same ending as the others. Not quite sure of what their logic is or how the curse has spread.

The special effects are just as good, but the carefully set up chain of creepy realisations drain the key climactic scenes of their power. You might not even understand some of the logic towards the end, unless you've seen another version.

This is well-acted, though Dr Choi's introduction is rather too weird. While the cast are largely unfamiliar, famous for TV rather than film, you may recognise Bae Du-na (as Sadako/Park Eun-soo), the olympic archer in The Host (2006), or the girlfriend in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and action thriller Tube (2003). It's her face that graces The Ring Virus cover art in Korea (at the top).

Beautifully photographed, with some disorientating angles and fantastic island locations, it's well-directed by Kim Dong-bin. My main problem is with his script (like making the two leads no longer ex-husband and wife), the story structure in the middle, and the fewer scares. But it's an interesting early alternate take on the Sadako mythos, with some unique dramatisations of scenes from the novel. He also made Red Eye (2005), the South Korean ghost story set on a train, not the American thriller (also 2005) set on a plane.

The Ring Virus is available on DVD in the US and UK.

My overview of the many adaptions in
the Ring phenomenon is here.

A trailer for on YouTube...