Join me for a summer abroad, as I check out a series of foreign films from countries that have made a big splash in the horror community. Of course, in the spirit of this column, I’ll be taking a peek at movies that may not be as well-known as some of the classics from their particular country. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to find a few surprises together.
After taking a month off from the Catalog to focus on the Class of ’88 series, I’m ready to resume my travels overseas to check out some more foreign horror fare. You may recall that our last adventure took us on a very disturbing overnight stay in France (by way of Romania). This time around, I’ve decided to head to Japan to see what awaits me there. Admittedly, I’ve never been terribly interested in J-horror, due to its tendency to dwell in the realm of hauntings/ghost stories, which (with a few exceptions) generally don’t connect with me. I’ve tested the J-horror waters with movies like Ju-On: The Grudge and Pulse, but I’ve never actually seen staples like Ringu or even its American counterpart The Ring. And for those wondering why I’d explore the subgenre in sequels and deep cuts rather watching some of its quintessential films, the answer is simple: they were the ones streaming for free and I’m a very cheap man. Don’t judge me.
With that in mind, it was a movie that caught my eye on Shudder that inspired me to do this whole “summer abroad” thing in the first place. Little did I know that said film, 1996’s Don’t Look Up, is actually an early film from Hideo Nakata, the very same man who would go on to direct Ringu. Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something? There’s only one way to find out.
Don’t Look Up follows Toshio Murai (Yûrei Yanagi), a director in the midst of making a World War II romance starring leading lady Hitomi Kurokawa (Yasuyo Shirashima) and young up-and-comer Saori Murakami (Kei Ishibashi). All seems to be going as planned until they start looking at the dailies, and realize that they’ve been shooting on recycled film first used on an old television show that Murai remembers seeing as a child. As their footage cuts to the old television show, Murai and the rest of the crew notice a strange woman laughing in the background. As Murai tries to recall where he’s seen this show before, he starts seeing the woman around their set, as things take a turn from bizarre to deadly.
Oddly enough, the most effective part of this movie is precisely what misses the mark for me in most J-horror films: the ghost. In Ju-On: The Grudge, the ghosts spend most of the movie just sort of being there, doing little more than advancing on the protagonists with wide-eyed stares. In Don’t Look Up, however, Nakata finds ways to hide his vengeful spirit in plain sight. Sometimes, she’s out of focus. Sometimes, she’s in the background and the typical audio cues don’t kick in to alert you of her presence, so it’s possible to be completely unaware she’s in the shot if you’re not paying attention. I’m a sucker for movies that give you incomplete or very brief glimpses of the villain, be it the elusive Michael Myers or the just-out-of-frame monster from Cloverfield. Nakata takes a similar approach with his ghost, and the results are downright chilling.
What’s more is that Nakata understands that sporadic peeks of our antagonist will only go so far without proving she’s a threat. While there isn’t a high body count or a lot of blood to be found here, Nakata finds other ways to make someone’s demise carry the weight it deserves. For instance, I’ve never been more jarred by the sound of a simple thud than I was in this movie. Trust me, you’ll know what I’m talking about when it happens.
The film also takes some time to invest in its characters, which is a bit of a departure from films that take place on a movie set. Usually, films that show us how the sausage is made take the opportunity to shine a light on the egotism, misogyny, and sexual abuse that are too often present on set. In Don’t Look Up, however, we get a group of people who, by and large, work well together. Yes, tensions run high and some of the veteran crew members show flashes of condescension, but for the most part there are no (human) bad guys in this film. The whole crew just wants to make their movie without having some pissed-off ghost rampaging around the set.
Also, in most movies that feature hauntings, a spirit only makes itself known to one person, or at most, to a select few. But while the spirit in Don’t Look Up seems focused on Murai, she’s not shy about making her presence known to the rest of the crew, either. In particular, going back to that scene where they’re all watching the dailies, there must be ten or more people in the room watching this specter cackle maniacally in the background. There’s something particularly unnerving about a group of people all agreeing they’ve seen something that shouldn’t be there. When one person sees it, that can be played off as a trick of the mind, but when everyone sees it, that’s something that is a lot harder to ignore.
On top of the creepy baddie and the sympathetic protagonists, this movie just has an odd vibe that I really dig. For one, the cinematography has a grainy feel that you only seem to find in ’90s B-movies released shortly before lower-budget films started switching to digital. Plus, the soundtrack has a twistedly playful vibe that gives the movie an extra bit of personality. Think In the Mouth of Madness era John Carpenter doing the score for a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.
In the end, Don’t Look Up accomplished exactly what I’d hoped it would, in that it finally made me see what all the fuss is about with J-horror. I’ve read that the choices Nakata made for the movie influenced his approach to Ringu, so I’m excited to see if he evolved for what would become his calling card movie two years later. Even if he didn’t evolve at all, there’s still a good chance Ringu will scare me, because Don’t Look Up sure as hell did.