10 Films to Introduce You to Asian Horror

While the United States seems to be churning out nothing but remakes and sequels in the horror genre, Asia is making great strides. Japan and Korea especially have provided some of the best films in the genre over the last decade or so. If, like me, you’re sick of the brainless gore fests playing at American multiplexes, here are ten films that will restore your faith in horror movies.

10. Pulse

A common  thread in a lot of Asian horror films is combining ghosts with technology. One example is Pulse. In the film, a group of young Tokyo residents experiences strange occurrences  after a friend of theirs commits suicide. One of them starts seeing ghostly images of the friend’s face on the wall. Then there’s the connection to an Internet cam that claims to allow people to communicate with the dead. You may be scared of your computer after this one! Give Pulse time. It’s slow, but worth the build-up.

9. The Host

Most horror films that are creature features are really cheesy. The Host from Korea is an exception. The story is a good one. I’ll let Internet Movie Database give you a good summary.

The film revolves around Park Hee-bong, a man in his late 60s. He runs a small snack bar on the banks of the Han River and lives with his two sons, one daughter, and one granddaughter. The Parks seem to lead a quite ordinary and peaceful life, but maybe they are a bit poorer than the average Seoulite. Hee-bong’s elder son Gang-du is an immature and incompetent man in his 40s, whose wife left home long ago. Nam-il is the youngest son, an unemployed grumbler, and daughter Nam-joo is an archery medalist and member of the national team. One day, an unidentified monster suddenly appears from the depths of the Han River and spreads panic and death, and Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo is carried off by the monster and disappears. All of the family members are in a great agony because they lost someone very dear to them. But when they find out she is still alive, they resolve to save her.

It’s a creature feature with a real human story to it. That gives it a real heart not often found in this horror sub-genre. Fair warning, when you do see the creature, it’s pretty creepy! I consider this the best creature feature since the original Godzilla.

8. Three… Extremes

Like anthology movies? Asia has you covered! Three… Extremes showcases three different stories by three different indie horror directors. The three directors are: Fruit Chan, Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park. My favorite of the three is Box, the film by Miike. That’s not a big surprise since another of his films will be appearing on my list. Sit back and enjoy this horror anthology! It’s a great way to get a taste for Asian horror, especially if you’re new to the genre.

7. Oldboy

Nothing I can write will prepare you for the experience of Oldboy. I’ll let Internet Movie Database give you the plot summary.

An average man is kidnapped and imprisoned in a shabby cell for 15 years without explanation. He then is released, equipped with money, a cellphone and expensive clothes. As he strives to explain his imprisonment and get his revenge, Oh Dae-Su soon finds out that his kidnapper has a greater plan for him and is set onto a path of pain and suffering in an attempt to uncover the motive of his mysterious tormentor.

I’ll leave you with that information. The plot twist at the end…well… let’s just say it will stay with you for a long time.

6. The Eye

China has created its share of horror films as well. One of the best is The Eye. In it, a young woman who has been blind since the age of two gets a corneal transplant so she can see again. All seems well until she starts seeing ghosts, not many of them friendly. She goes to a psychologist who at first doesn’t believe her. But as he gets to know her and becomes closer to her he starts to think she might not be crazy after all. The two of them try to figure out who the donor was. Of course those records are sealed, but with a little persuasion they find out who the donor was.

 

The transplant recipient then starts to see what the donor saw. Turns out the donor had a psychic ability to see death and disaster. These leads to an ending that is both tense, sad, and heartfelt. The movie is incredibly well-acted, especially by the actress playing the transplant recipient. She conveys a real sense of vulnerability that doesn’t seem faked at all. Her terror when she starts seeing the ghosts feels incredibly genuine.

 

The Eye is another great horror export from Asia, where the best horror films seem to be coming from these days. This movie is slow but builds genuine tension right until the end. The end of it may well bring a lump in your throat and tears to your eyes. Check it out!

 

Scare factor: The Eye will make you a little more leery of who your organ donor is.

5. Dark Water

If you live in an apartment this one is sure to have you thinking about moving elsewhere. The plot? Internet Movie Database explains,

After winning a custody battle for her daughter, Yoshimi tries to make a new start. The apartment she moves into seems perfect at first. Soon though, strange things begin happening. Huge water stains appear on the ceiling and drip constantly, more liquid oozing into the rooms every day. She calls the landlord in but he refuses to do anything about it. A child’s red bag shows up in odd places and soon the child herself starts appearing. Yoshimi then discovers the origin of the ghost…

Dark Water was remade a few years ago starring Jennifer Connelly. It wasn’t bad, but the original was just better overall.

4. Alone

Our next foray into Asian horror comes from Thailand. In Alone, the surviving half of a set of conjoined twins moves from Thailand to Korea to escape the guilt of her situation. In flashbacks we see that the surviving sister had a difficult relationship with the deceased one. When the living twin goes to visit her dying mother, the spirit of the dead twin comes back to haunt her. It’s sad, creepy, and effectively moody.

3. A Tale of Two Sisters

Korea brought us Oldboy, The Host, and this film. A Tale of Two Sisters is effectively part horror and party family melodrama. Two sisters have just been released from a mental institution. They return to the home of their father and evil stepmother. The sisters have to deal with their unbalanced relatives as well as a ghost. The family is haunted by the tragedies of many deaths in the family. A Tale of Two Sisters works well as a haunted house story as well.

2. Audition

Remember Takashi Miike who directed one of the films in Three… Extremes? This is the other film of his I told you was coming on the list. I included Audition in last week’s piece as well. Here’s what I said about it in case you missed it.

Something about Audition just stayed with me. It’s about a widower who is urged by his son to start dating again. A friend of his, who happens to be a film producer, suggests he hold a fake audition for women to try out for the role of his wife. Well, the girl who he likes the best turns out to have a lot of skeletons in her closet and… I really shouldn’t say much more. It would ruin the surprise ending! The film is a little slow, but it really builds to the last 15-20 minutes. The payoff is more than worth it!

This film really got under my skin. If you see it you’ll understand why!

1. Ringu

I’m guessing more people are familiar with The Ring than Ringu. That makes me really sad. The original Japanese film is 100 times better than the American remake! By now you know the story. In the movie, people who watch a cursed video tape die seven days after watching it. Like Pulse, it incorporates ghosts with technology in a very effective way. When in doubt, don’t watch random videotapes! Run away! The cinematography, the story, the dialogue… everything works wonderfully here. I don’t recommend watching any of the films on this list alone, especially this one! And word to the wise: unplug or turn off your phone before and after you watch it for a bit. Watch the film and you will understand!

Well, that’s my list! Thoughts? Weigh-in in the comment section!

 

 

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13 Movies for Halloween

Halloween is only 15 days away! In light of that, this week I will be offering film suggestions for the occasion. I have chosen 13 movies, largely because it’s a scary number. So, what movies will best set the mood on Halloween? Here are my recommendations.

13. Audition

If you really want good horror films these days, look to Asia! From Ringu (the film that inspired The Ring) to Oldboy, the continent has been the source of the best horror films of the last decade or so. There are so many to choose from, but something about Audition just stayed with me. It’s about a widower who is urged by his son to start dating again. A friend of his, who happens to be a film producer, suggests he hold a fake audition for women to try out for the role of his wife. Well, the girl who he likes the best turns out to have a lot of skeletons in her closet and… I really shouldn’t say much more. It would ruin the surprise ending! The film is a little slow, but it really builds to the last 15-20 minutes. The payoff is more than worth it!

12. The Craft

I was definitely glad to leave high school. The cliques especially ruined the experience for me. So when I finally saw The Craft it was a real treat. It’s about girls at a Catholic prep high school who are outcasts who use black magic to get revenge on their tormentors. The cast features Neve Campbell, who appeared in another one of my favorite horror films: Scream. If you enjoy The Craft, I would also recommend Carrie. Both films do a great job of portraying what it’s like to be a high school outcast.

11. Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow was the first real horror movie I ever saw and the first movie I saw with an R-rating. It’s an adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic tale about a headless horsemen murdering people in a small village called Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane, played brilliantly by Johnny Depp, is a constable sent to investigate the murders. Sleepy Hollow benefits from a terrific cast led by Depp as well as the unique vision of director Tim Burton. To this day I consider it to be one of the best looking horror films I have ever seen. Watch your head!

10. The Sixth Sense

Ghost stories are usually about things that jump out at us without any real explanation. They rely on the shock factor. There’s certainly a place for those movies. But there’s something especially eerie about a psychological ghost story. That brings me to The Sixth Sense. I’ve seen it maybe ten times now, and even though I know the ending, it still gives me the chills. The story is about a boy named Cole who can see dead people. It turns out that the ghosts want him to do things for him. I’ll leave it at that on the off-chance you haven’t seen the movie. The ending is one of the creepiest and most satisfying of any horror film. Haley Joel Osment as Cole should have won an Oscar in my opinion. Sadly the work of Bruce Willis in this movie tends to get overlooked. He does a great job playing Cole’s psychologist.

9. The Changeling

It’s not Halloween without at least one haunted house movie. The Changeling from 1980 is one of the best! It stars George C. Scott as a man whose wife and daughter are taken from him in a freak automobile accident. Still grieving, he rents a country house to start over as well as continue composing and teaching. Unfortunately he finds out that he’s not in the house alone. A spirit of a dead child is communicating with him to get justice for the child’s murder years ago. The haunted house itself is huge, elegant, and effectively creepy. There’s some great imagery in it. Consider the scene where Scott’s character, in an attempt to move on from the death of his wife and daughter, throws his daughter’s ball into a body of water. When he gets home, the ball comes bouncing down the stairs. Spooky!

8. Misery

It wouldn’t be Halloween without something of Stephen King’s. Sadly adaptations of his works have been hit or miss. One of the best for my money is Misery. James Caan plays an author who Kathy Bates’ character is obsessed with. Bates loves his series of books with a character named Misery. Well, Caan’s character decides as an artist he wants to move on and he kills the character off in his latest book. Caan regrets it when, after finishing said book, he heads out to his cabin and gets in a horrible car accident. Bates finds him and promises to nurse him back to health. She is his biggest fan after all! But when she finds out her favorite character has been killed off, it’s all downhill! She forces Caan to rewrite the book and bring Misery back. He’s basically her prisoner while he recuperates. The movie is an exercise in excruciating claustrophobia led by two powerhouse actors.

7. Halloween

The original Halloween essentially invented the teen slasher genre. John Carpenter’s film has a simple premise. A group of babysitters is stalked by a serial killer on Halloween night. While its plot may be simple, it’s one of the most terrifying experiences you will ever have watching a movie. Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead role of Laurie is so believable as the babysitter/girl next door that anytime she’s in danger we are genuinely terrified for her. Then there’s that creepy music (which was composed by Carpenter himself), the great use of the scares of Halloween to add to the terror, and the fact that there really isn’t an explanation for why Michael Myers, the killer, does what he does. He’s just pure evil! Halloween is a movie that was made with a lot of craft. While there are a lot of deaths there isn’t a lot of blood. Many films ripped off its premise but not its brains.

6. Ghostbusters

I think it’s good practice to throw at least one comedy into the mix. Ghostbusters to me is the Casablanca of comedies. The movie’s whole screenplay is quotable, the performances of the actors are superb, the special effects are pretty good for 1980, and… it’s just flat-out fun! You want a great cast? How about Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Sigourney Weaver? This movie has never stopped being funny no matter how many times I’ve seen it. It’s about a group of parapsychologists who have recently been kicked out of a university and decide to go into the business of catching ghosts. Be warned: you will quote this one for days!

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

I don’t even know where to start with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s creepy, has a documentary look to it, and involves a family of cannibals. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In it, a group of hippies go to visit their grandfather’s house and end up running into a family of cannibals. Murder and mayhem ensues. One of the interesting things about it is that it takes place mostly during the day. Horror films are usually set in the dead of night. The heat pounding on the camera lens and the sound of farm equipment just adds to the creepy feel. And the sight of Leatherface wielding his chainsaw in the harshest light… if that image doesn’t stay with you I don’t know what will!

4. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Wes Craven is one of the best directors in the horror genre. His film Last House on the Left is one that I have never recovered from the terror of. But my favorite of his films is A Nightmare on Elm Street. The plot itself is pretty terrifying. A group of teenagers start having nightmares about a killer named Freddy Krueger. It turns out Krueger was a child murderer and the parents of the teenagers killed him when he got off on a technicality in his trial. Krueger is now taking revenge by going after the kids of those parents in their dreams. Krueger only exists in the dream world and if you die in your dream… you die in real life! The idea that your dreams can kill you is pretty chilling. The movie features Johnny Depp in his film debut and Robert Englund brings so much terror and personality to Freddy. It’s really an amazing performance! Don’t watch this one before bed.

3. Godzilla

Forget the awful remake with Matthew Broderick and all the campy sequels, see the original Godzilla! While the sequels got progressively campy, the original is a very effective allegory about the impact of the atomic bomb. In the movie, Tokyo is attacked by a giant dinosaur-like creature called Godzilla. Godzilla came into existence because of exposure to nuclear radiation and proceeds to attack Tokyo with his enormous size and firey breath. Godzilla even rises out of the ocean and attacks a cruise ship! The special effects are pretty decent for 1954 and the cautionary tale of the plot makes it more than just a standard monster movie.

2. Paranormal Activity

When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999 and became a huge success, it kicked off a whole line of imitators. Fake horror documentaries became a big thing. The best of its successors is Paranormal Activity. It’s about a couple in San Diego who are haunted by some sort of evil spirit. The boyfriend sets up a video camera to record what is going on in the house at night since that’s when the creepy things happen. It turns out his girlfriend has been haunted by a demon her whole life. What makes Paranormal Activity so scary is not a lot of special effects or blood. It’s doors opening and closing by themselves, strange noises, light’s turning on and off by themselves, etc. I am not one to scare easily, but this one made me sleep with the lights on for a few nights.

1.  The Pit and the Pendulum

It’s impossible to imagine the creepiness of October nights without the presence of Vincent Price. The brilliant actor was a natural fit for the works of Edgar Allen Poe. There are so many good ones to pick from, but I will go with The Pit and the Pendulum. Allow Internet Movie Database to give you a plot summary:

When his sister Elizabeth dies suddenly, Francis Barnard visits his brother-in-law Don Medina to find out exactly what happened to her. Don Medina lives a lonely life since his wife’s death. He loved her dearly and can’t explain what she died of. Francis clearly isn’t welcome and it is only Don Medina’s sister Catherine that seems to have an interest him. As Francis and Catherine explore the events surrounding Elizabeth’s death, Francis learns of Don Medina’s horrific childhood experiences and discover an attempt to drive him mad.

What follows is pure macabre terror from Poe’s work, Price’s performance, and Roger Corman’s direction. It’s an excellent adaptation of the Poe classic!

Well, that’s my list. Comments, questions, scathing rebuttal? What do you plan to watch this Halloween? Leave feedback in the comments section!

The Blair Witch Project: Over 10 Years Later

With October upon us the countdown to Halloween is on! Halloween is a special holiday for me because it’s an excuse to watch all my favorite horror films.  I plan on doing a blog post devoted to Halloween film suggestions later this month. But for this week’s piece I’d like to focus on one film in particular and it’s impact over ten years later. You may remember this film. It was called The Blair Witch Project.

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In the summer of 1999 The Blair Witch Project changed the way films were made and marketed. The story was simple enough: a group of young filmmakers go into the woods in Burkittsville, Maryland looking for the legendary Blair Witch. What starts off as an innocuous adventure quickly turns into a terrifying quest for survival. The characters get lost (one of them loses the map!), then they start quarreling with each other, and then… spooky events start to happen! Strange voodoo dolls start appearing in the trees, little piles of rocks start showing up where they weren’t before, the director character finds weird slime on her backpack, etc.

The Blair Witch project was successful for many reasons. First, their marketing was genius. It was billed as a documentary (the students disappeared and the footage was the last account of their lives) and before the film was released a documentary special aired on the Sci Fi Channel about the mythology of the Blair Witch. It fueled the belief by the public that The Blair Witch Project was a true story. Then there’s the way the film used its low-budget to its advantage. There weren’t any special effects. The scares don’t come from CGI ghosts, goblins, or any cheap tricks. They come from the strange sounds in the woods at night, the terror of being lost with no way of contacting the outside world, from the sounds of screams in the distance, and a general fear of the unknown. The Blair Witch Project is more proof that in horror films less is more. What you don’t see can be just as scary as what you do see. When the strange things start to happen it’s the accumulation of tension that has the audience on edge. A film shot on a shoestring budget with unknown actors is still one of the most genuinely frightening film experiences I have ever had!

Over ten years later the impact of The Blair Witch Project is still being felt. It gave hope to anyone who wanted to take a shot at making a movie. As long as you had a camera and an idea you had a chance. That’s one of the positive impacts. Unfortunately, one of the negative impacts was that, for a while at least, every director scrapped their steady cam. The Blair Witch Project was shot and looked shaky because the characters were amateur filmmakers. The shaky camera movement made some filmgoers sick when the movie was released. Fortunately that phenomenon has dissipated. Finally, for better or worse, The Blair Witch Project paved the way for reality TV. With the success of The Blair Witch Project, it seemed audiences enjoyed getting off on watching people in their real-life adventures and misadventures. Finally, the film changed how movies were marketed. It was the first film to be largely marketed on the Internet. The buzz largely came from hits on the site and word of mouth. It was a great strategy because the film cost $60,000 and went on to gross $248,639,099 worldwide. That’s not too shabby! If you want a horror film that gives you the chills without buckets of blood and overdone special effects, this is the film for you! What are your thoughts on The Blair Witch Project and its impact? Discuss in the comments section!