Tuesday, June 27, 2006

SpecRom Cinema: Ju-on

Back again to the Asia Extreme film fest, and the offering of Ju-on.

Whoever made this movie should offer me all kinds of things just for sitting through such a 90+ minute lesson on How Good Movies Are Not Made By The Occasional Creepy Visual Effect.

I'll put the lesson in the lead this time, for all you authors looking for tips to darken up your speculative romances or other prose. Pay attention. This is crucial. I'll make it big, bold and unmistakable.

IN ORDER TO GENERATE FEAR, THE AUDIENCE MUST CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS.

Don't read any further if you want to avoid spoilers. Though, how I could ever spoil an entertainment experience this bad is inconceivable to me.

In Ju-on, which was remade with equal negative effect in America, the tragedy of one ill-fated family has leaked into the walls. The ghosts of a sadistic man and the wife and son he murdered take the lives of everyone who subsequently encounters them in the house.

The killing flaw of Ju-on is its structure. After a prologue scene both horrifically and aesthetically pleasing, hinting at the violence that's poisoned the house, the movie devolves into a series of vignettes, each prefaced with the name of the victim printed in white characters on a black screen. Once the victim is identified, the poor unfortunate struggles and screams for ten to fifteen minutes before being dispatched by the evil ghosts.

That's right. It's like an animated kill list. No characters are developed. I'm given no chance to get to know them, let alone given a chance to care if they fall to the ghosts. And since I know exactly who is going to fall to the ghosts in each scene, the only suspense revolves around how creepy the ghosts will be when they kill.

The creep factor lasted for approximately three deaths. After that, I started flipping through a back issue of Gourmet magazine I found under my chair and glancing up at the screen when the scary music sounded, just to see what the ghosts would do next.

A trio of schoolgirl zombies appeared for no apparent reason. Up until that point, the story revolved entirely around the ghosts of this one specific family in this one specific house. Suddenly, I look up from a recipe to see a cute young girl in the obligatory fetish school uniform being menaced by three dead and blue but still cute zombies in the obligatory fetish school uniforms. My mood darkened from disappointed to angry. What, I wondered, are American directors so hot for in this movie that they would waste money making a bad remake of it?

So let's review.

Vivid characters + audience empathy + threat = excellent storytelling in any medium or genre.

Cardboard characters + audience apathy + threats + creepy effects = crap with creepy effects.

If you decide to take your paranormal romance into darker shadows, or take your science fiction love story into Alien territory, please remember that the basic requirements of storytelling do not cease to matter just because the aim is to create fear in your reader.

Vivid characters + audience empathy + threat.

It's a formula that can't go wrong. Tape it above your desk. Tattoo it to your knuckles so you see it every moment that you're typing.

Don't pull a Ju-on if you want to play on the dark side.