The Echo (2008): Grudge-like Terror

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I’ve just fallen in love. Not with someone, but something; the film The Echo. Amazingly it is a re-make (not, if you’ve read many of my posts or seen my YouTube channel something I am too fond of) of a Filipino film titled Sigaw (second side note – which I am currently desperately searching for) which translates as Scream or Shout.

Directed by Yam Laranas and starring Jesse Bradford, Amelia WarnerKevin Durand , and Carlos Leon The Echo lives up to it’s billing on the cover. It boast’s that the film has been made by the producers of The Grudge and The Ring. The influence of both films is very evident in this spine tingling (yes, I know cliche time but damn it fits) and scary movie.

Ex-con Bobby (Bradford) has been released from prison, he was in for involuntary man-slaughter, and is on parole. He moves into his dead mother’s apartment and gets a job working for Hector Rodriguez (Leon) as a mechanic. He hunts down his ex-girlfriend Alyssa (Warner) and they attempt to restart their earlier romance.

Meanwhile, Bobby’s neighbour, a cop (Durand) is noisy and appears to be beating his wife and daughter. And there are some strange things going on in his dead mother’s flat, not to mention some really odd noises.

This is a cracking film very much in the land of The Grudge and The Ring. It was well paced and the reveal/twist was genuinely surprising and satisfying.

"From the producers who brought you..."
“From the producers who brought you…”

The performances were spot on and I was pleased to see Bradford again as the last thing I’ve seen him in was the 2002 film Swimfan.  His wounded countenance and perplexed disposition went a long way to convincing me that his character was someone who’d always toed the line until the manslaughter incident.

Warner was brilliant as his ex-girlfriend who initially does not want to start over with Bobby and then changes her mind.

I also loved Durand in this film. The first thing I ever saw him in was the 2007 film Wildhogs and he was incredibly funny as the half-witted biker thug. In this film, he is evil, tragic, and scary.

Durand. Did I also mention creepy?
Durand. Did I also mention creepy?

This film delivered the scares in spades and almost creeped me out so much that I wanted to leave the lights on when I went to bed. Not to mention that every little (or not so little) noise had me jumping and jerking like I had an electric lead attached to my body.

SPOILER TERRITORY IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM, DO NOT READ THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH!

The ending of the film was also brilliant. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive (along with the police) we know that Bobby is screwed. Despite the fact that he has managed to save (we hope) his girlfriend, he’s broken his parole so it’s back into the “Big House” for him. Somewhat of a downer after the brilliant twist just before in the film.

OKAY, SPOILER ALERT OVER, READ ON…

loved this film and because of that, I’m giving it a full 5 star rating. It took the lessons learned from The  Grudge and The Ring and it did not blatantly copy either film. There was no “jerky” movements from anyone and no, “A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-h,” noises either.

So, have you seen this film? What did you think about it? How about the original Filipino film? And on that note, if anyone has any idea where to find this film (the original) please, for the love of God, let me know?

The Echo 2004 aka Sigaw, anyone know of a subtitled copy, anyone??
The Echo 2004 aka Sigaw, anyone know of a subtitled copy, anyone??

Suicide Club/Suicide Circle (2001): Subtle Messages?

Suicide club (or Suicide Circle as it was known in Japan) was directed and written by Shion Sono and released in 2001. It stars Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Brother, The Grudge) as a detective trying to find out the common thread between a wave of suicides that is sweeping across Japan. With leads provided by a female hacker called “the Bat” the police try to track down who is responsible for all the deaths.

The film opened with a large amount of notoriety and controversy due to its subject and the amount of gore depicted on-screen. It quickly became a cult favourite and spawned a sequel called Noriko’s Dinner Table which shows events prior to and after the first film. The film takes place over a six-day period starting on May 27th.

The film starts in the Shinjuku train station at platform 8. Being in the Japan the platforms are packed with people. The camera focuses on a large group of school girls all talking animatedly and entering the platform via the stairs. The girls are wearing a variety of school uniforms that indicates they are not all from the same school.

As the Express train’s approach is announced on the loud speakers on the platform, the girls stop talking and laughing and all line up on the edge of the platform. Watching the Express train as it pulls up to the station the girls link hands and chant, “A-one, and a- two, and a three!” On three they all jump en masse in front of the speeding train.

A Lawrence Welk count down… A one and a two…

In true Takashi Miike style there are gallons of blood and body parts a plenty. The train and the waiting passengers are covered in blood and it runs across the platform in a small wave. When I first saw that scene I felt that Sono was paying a sort of homage to Takashi Miike who is well-known for his over-abundant use of blood and gore in his films.

This opening scene still shocks, even though I’ve seen the film at least three times now. It is one helluva opening to a film that both mesmerises you and continually shocks you as the movie plays out.

The next suicide takes place in a quiet hospital where two young nurses are working late. After they both kill themselves, the security guard finds a white satchel with a “roll” of human skin that has been stitched together. Oddly enough the exact same thing was found at the train station. The police have found their first thread.

Running through the entire film is the popularity of songs and music videos by a group of pre-teen (12 and a half years-old according to the detectives daughter) girls who promiscuously dance and sing about love and (it seems) death. When Detective Kuroda (Ishibashi) comes home, he calls a family meeting in the dining room. As his pre-teen son and daughter come into the room, his daughter turns on the television and the pre-teen music group instantly take the point of focus with the two kids.

Ryo Ishibashi as Detective Kuroda

The group is called Dessert (although throughout the film the name changes repeatedly to Dessart and Desert, part of the problem when dealing with an Independent film company) and the group’s biggest hit at the start of the film is called Mail me. A song about love via the internet with the lyric, “If you don’t mail me, I’ll just die.”

As the film progresses, the group’s hit song changes to Jigsaw Puzzle where the girls sing that “their piece doesn’t fit anyone.” Erotic suggestion aside, the song points out that if they cannot find someone to “fit” their piece, they’ll have to go away forever.

Of course the viewer is immediately suspicious (at least this viewer was) of this little Lolita group (in the westernized sense versus the eastern sense where Lolita’s dress in pinafores and ruffles as a sort of role play) and we begin to wonder if their songs and videos are transmitting subliminal messages telling kids to kill themselves.

Pop group Dessert or Desert or Dessart…adolescent death?

The body count begins to escalate. There are a few more “group” suicides but there are also single suicides. Like the mother who chops her fingers off while cutting what looks like a bread roll. Or the chap who throws himself off a building only to hit his girlfriend accidently, injuring her before he expires on the pavement. Of course this incident becomes a plot point that will crop up later.

While the computer hacker, the Bat, is trying to find out more information about who is behind the suicides, she and her sister are taken forcefully by a group of young men who make her to tell the police that she has been kidnapped by the “Suicide Club.” The Bat was the person who discovered a website that appeared to predict how many suicides were going to occur. White dots were girls and red dots were boys. When the 54 girls threw themselves under the train at the beginning of the film, there were 54 white dots. This was the information that she passed on at the beginning of the film.

The Bat, whose real name is Kiyoko (Yôko Kamon) and her sister are taken to what appears to be a small bowling alley that is full of live things tied up in sheets. The sheets are all moving and the smaller ones are making noises like animals in distress. Kiyoko and sis meet Genesis (J-pop performer Rolly) who looks like a cross between a Glam-rocker and a visual Kei performer. He informs the girls that this is his house of pleasure and kills a couple of the smaller covered objects by stamping on them.

He then serenades the girls with a song about “death shining” and has one of his minions rape and kill a girl in another sheet. Genesis wants to be famous and wants to take the credit for motivating all the suicides in Japan. After allowing Kiyoko to start emailing the police about where she actually is, Genesis knocks her away from the keyboard so he can tell the police himself where he is.

Rolly as Genesis…Gackt as Gary Glitter?

The police arrest Genesis, but find that he is not the perpetrator behind the suicides. Detective Kuroda loses the plot and then everything else. The film ends quite ambiguously and does not answer any real questions about what has been going on.

Watching the film for the third time tonight, I could not decide if Sono was inferring that the internet was dangerous to our children or if idolizing pre-teen girl bands was bad for you.

Considering the Japanese’s predilection of fancying the pants (literally) off of school girls it doesn’t seem too far-fetched an idea. Take into account that the internet was just starting to come into its own in 2001, it also makes sense that the people in charge would distrust its wide open access; especially now that the US government alone is pushing for world-wide internet control equal to that of suppressed countries like China and Iraq.

My final analysis, if it can be called that, is that Sono wanted to show how dehumanized people have become. Whether it is through increased use of the internet or the worship of “sexualized” urchins who writhe suggestively and wink knowingly while singing about love and ending it all, Sono appears to be saying that we need to not only wake up and smell the coffee, but, we need to get in touch with ourselves as well.

Not to mention the sub-message about craving fame so much that you perform inhuman acts to attain it. Is this yet another form of de-humanization? Is Sono also warning us of the deadly lure of fame? It could well be, Suicide Club seems full of messages both subtle and not so subtle and this is above the actual message the the film seems to be relating to its characters, or the “plot message.”

Where the plot’s message appears to be that death will get you back in touch with everything and that  it is only through this finality that you are able to really live. With my interest piqued even more after a third viewing, I have put the sequel, Noriko’s Dinner Table on my wish list; just to see if it adds anything to the mix that might clarify the film’s overall message, or messages.

A definite 5 star film that should not be missed and a perfect example of just how good independent J-horror can be, check it out. Just for the record, I watched the “uncut” version which has quite a bit of added gore.

Both prequel and sequel…

Ju-On: White Ghost and Ju-On: Black Ghost (2009): Grudge of a Different Colour

I have opted to review both these ‘films’ together as their total running time apiece is 61 minutes, hardly the length of your run-of-the-mill movie. Despite their title’s making use of the Ju-On phrase that had been developed by Film Auteur Takashi Shimzu, these films have nothing to do with the original films that shot Shimzu to such heights of popularity in the horror world.

The film’s credits do give a grudging (sorry) nod to Shimzu as the Ju-On creator with a ‘based on characters created by’ tag. Both the Ju-On’s were released simultaneously on the tenth anniversary of the original Ju-on’s as a sort of ‘honour’ to Shimzu and his films.

Ju-On: White Ghost (originally titled Ju-On Old Lady in White) is directed by Ryûta Miyake. I may be a bit obtuse, but after watching this film twice, I cannot for the life of me understand several things about the film. Why, for instance, is the ghost a ‘little old lady’ who carries a basketball with her everywhere? Why is that considered terrifying by those who meet her? What connection does this little old lady ghost have with the school girl in the yellow hat?

Do you even care?

That this is a homage is obvious. the director uses all the same shock tactics and build-ups that Takashi Shimzu used in his films that later became a standard for all his Grudge films. The only thing that Miyake’s film has in common with Shimzu’s original  is the murder of a family in  Japan‘s suburban world.

It is an interesting film. Scary in the right places and utilizing the slow build-up and disjointed segments that Shimzu used so well in his films. It is a homage and as such does not rely on blazing originality to make it’s point. At 61 minutes it is better to watch this one with it’s ‘sister’ film Ju-On: Black Ghost to give you a more ‘cinematic’ feeling when you’re done rather than the’special of the week’ feeling that a film just over an hour long leaves you with.

Now on to Ju-On: Black Ghost (or Girl in Black, the original title) it too is 61 minutes long. Directed by  Mari Asato the plot of Black Ghost is a bit convoluted and confusing. It never goes on to explain why the Grudge spirit in this film is all in black. Like the basketball playing grandma in the first film, we never find out why this black apparition is terrifying or why she’s even there.

The plot of this film revolves around a cyst found in a young girl (Fukie) that is the result of her ingesting her unborn twin while in her mother’s uterus. Sound familiar? If it does, it’s not because it was ever used as a plot device in any of the original Ju-On films.

Neither film has a whole lot going for it apart from the claim that they are ‘honouring’ the original films by Shimzu. They are worth a look but only as a stand alone curiosity and not as a sort of sequel or prequel of the original films. They are scary (a bit) and best watched at night.

As I am sitting here finishing this article, I have been playing the White Ghost on the telly. I have decided that the basketball playing grandma was much scarier when she was alive.

Final verdict? Don’t go out of your way to find these films, they’re not worth the effort. If you find them ‘accidentally’ like I did (live streaming on LOVEFILM) go ahead and watch them. They do have a certain novelty value. But if you want ‘real’ scares?

Watch Takashi Shimzu’s originals.

How the Internet Changed the Way We Watch Television

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The internet has changed the way that we view television. I first noticed the increased presence of the ‘net’ while Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in its relative infancy of seasons.

By the time the series had moved up a gear or two and was entering its third season, my daughter started buying Buffy ‘fan-zines.’ The first thing I noticed was the magazine’s inclusion of several different sites that were forums for fans.

If you logged onto the net, you could access these ‘fan-sites’ and either read the current thread of discussion about the program or enter the debate. The latter choice could be a little disconcerting.

While reading the intense and sometimes heated discussions on the forum I noticed that a few of the more fervent fans would get excited enough to give a figurative ‘bitch-slap’ to folks who disagreed with them.

I, for some reason, thought that these ‘fan-sites’ were indicative of the “Buffy-verse” alone and therefore rather unique. But the internet was a great place for fans of many different television programs to meet and discuss or even bitch about the latest episode that they’d just watched.

Certain programs listened to these fan groups and acted upon  the fan feedback.  Lost, for instance, listened when fans  relayed that the introduction  of two new major characters in the program had resulted in characters that they despised. Producers acted quickly and killed off these two new characters in the same season that they were introduced.

Going back for a moment to the verse of Joss Whedon, it is imperative to mention the huge internet support for Firefly when it was unceremoniously axed by its network. The fans of Joss’s fledgling western/science fiction show rose in mass to show support for the program and to petition the network for a reprieve.

While the fan protest wasn’t enough to save the beleaguered show, it was enough to convince both Joss and the studios that an audience existed for a film. And thus Serenity was created to give the loyal fans some closure for a program that they’d grown to love.

Independent film producers learned very quickly of the power of the internet in areas of marketing their products and drumming up interest in upcoming film releases. Paranormal Activity is one such “internet” driven film but it was by no means the first in a long list of films that would use the net as the perfect advertising tool.

The American re-make of The Grudge (Ju-on) used the web to show ‘diaries’ of the actors and set up a site with a ‘tour’ of the grudge house and a fictional account of one of the producers.

Apart from certain network affiliates I have not seen any increased activity across the board for web ‘snake oil publicity’ with the  exception of The Walking Dead. AMC vigorously utilized the internet in the upcoming months to the pilot  air date of The Walking Dead. They continued the vigorous net campaigning well into the second season.

Of course I’ve not mentioned the new “webisodes” that have taken the net by storm. The hugely popular The Guild, brainchild of Felicia Day is just one of many. Joss Whedon also did a webisode series which coincidentally had Felicia Day in a major role,  Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was another hugely successful venture into this new medium.

I have postulated before about how YouTube was becoming the ‘new’ television and now believe that it’s not just YouTube but the internet that is ‘becoming’ television. Either by replacing it as another medium of entertainment or influencing the direction that existing shows are going.

Think I’m exaggerating? Just check out the first related article, Dr. Horrible is going to be on television in October.

Takashi Shimizu: A Director With a Grudge

Takashi Shimizu

Takashi Shimizu is one talented guy. Not only is he a writer and director, but he is also a producer. Shimizu wears all three hats easily. His first foray into the world of cinematic horror was a short two part project to go into a film being produced by a friend. These two shorts were later incorporated into his first ‘proper’ film.

Takashi Shimizu was able to produce his first horror feature because of the popularity of his two short segments in his friends film. With a tiny budget, Shimizu’s first proper film was a “straight to video” called Juon The Curse and Juon The Curse II. Despite the lack of budget and the minimalist approach to special effects, word of mouth soon turned both these films into popular films with audiences in Japan.

With Hideo Nakata‘s The Ring (Ringu) gaining world-wide fan-dom and pretty much starting the J-Horror phenomenon, the popularity of Ringu gave Shimizu the “green-light” to start filming the first of many versions of Ju-on The Grudge.

Ju-on The Grudge is basically Ju-on The Curse with a bigger budget. With the extra money, Shimizu was able to expand the story and increase the expenditure for special effects. He also used the “ghost woman” aka “the grudge girl” who he had first used in the video versions of the film. Takako Fuji has the distinction of being the ‘Grudge Girl’ in all of the Ju-on films until Grudge 3. By the time that Hollywood had taken the reins from Shimizu after the re-make of Grudge 2, they no longer needed the original ghost.

Ju-on: The Grudge 2

*sidenote* Don’t bother watching The Grudge 3, it is execrable.

That Shimizu was able to keep coming back to the “Grudge well” repeatedly is pretty amazing. Especially considering  that right up until The Grudge 2 (Japanese) and the two American re-makes he was able to keep ‘tweaking’ the scare formula and increased the reach of the Ghost each time he re-invented it.

The selling point of all the grudge films is the fact that you don’t have to enter the house or to interact with the ghost to have it come get you. No, the curse or grudge can come calling if you just know someone who has been in the house. Pretty powerful and super scary.

My daughter and I have seen every version of the Grudge films. We have also set through several “making of’s” and listened to several cast and crew commentaries as well.

The first thing you discover is that the man who is responsible for helping to keep J-Horror on the map, loves to laugh and loves to play practical jokes. He is also the one who does the A-h-h-h-h-h-h-h sound that comes from the ghost. We also found out how much trouble he had with the studio brass when they asked him to direct the two re-makes.

Takashi Shimizu had his work cut our for him on both of the American re-makes. The Hollywood producers could not understand why he did not explain the origins of the ghost and a way to defeat it. In their parlance a ghost film had to have a beginning, a  middle and an end. It also had to give the lead protagonist a way to defeat the ghost. They also felt the audience would not be able to follow the film if there was no explanation.

Never mind that the original Grudge films had a rabid international fan-base despite having none of the requisite’s listed by the Hollywood brass. They had gone to the trouble of getting the original director to helm their Hollywood versions and they wanted him to film it their way, damnit.

Shimizu stuck to his guns though and made brilliant remakes of his classic Ju-on series. Ultimately though. he grew tired of the on going battle with the Hollywood execs. That is why on the execrable Grudge 3 (can you tell I didn’t like it?) his name is on the project as being the writer of the original series.

Shimizu has moved on from the Grudge world and continues to make scary films for the J-Horror devotees. He has lost none of his creativity or his humour. His next film, 7500  is due out later this year and Scared of the Dark is currently in preproduction now.