How The Japanese Horror Remake Came To Be & Why It Fell Apart

Japanese Horror

With Rings opening up tomorrow nationwide, I was reminded of my first exposure to the franchise back in 2002 with The Ring. I didn’t know the film was a remake of a Japanese horror film until the day before I saw it in theaters. In fact, I didn’t see its 1998 inspiration Ringu, until a year after viewing the American remake for the first time. I’ll be the first to admit that I used to shy away from foreign films but thankfully I’ve become more wise with age. I was struck by how seemingly the film translated to a ghost story that would be familiar to American audiences but also how it maintained the core style of the film that spawned it.

As we know, The Ring became a huge word of mouth hit when it made north of $129 million at the box office after debuting to a mere $15 million on opening weekend. We also know that Hollywood likes winners and nothing says winner more than a proven brand that can bring in a nice profit for the studio. In 1996 Scream revived the teen slasher sub-genre of horror and it ushered in a slew of imitators that resulted in a windfall for various studios before the new thing became the big thing. The new thing appeared in 1999 when The Blair Witch Project became one of the most profitable films ever made by exploiting the found footage concept while it was still in infancy. The attention span of the public can be very small. The window of time between the success of Scream and the emergence of The Blair Witch Project was only three years but by that point teen horror was subsiding. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame it on the attention span of the audience. Perhaps the fans of Scream grew up and craved something new.

Despite how successful The Blair Witch Project was, it wasn’t for everyone. Once it expanded from art house theaters to the mainstream, it was met with mixed reactions that still exist till this very day. Even though other found footage films found success, it didn’t have the same pop cultural impact that Scream sparked in 1996. So  what’s next?

It turns out that a man by the name of Roy Lee had a plan waiting in the wings.

While working at a talent management agency, he set a deal with Dreamworks Studios to remake Hideo Nakata’’s, Ringu. The film itself was already a remake of a television miniseries & Lee would convince Asian filmmakers and producers that their films would never sell big in the lucrative American market. He sold them on the idea that they were better off letting him represent them and sell the remake rights. Once in the door with the studios, Lee would present the original films as a successful blueprint that, with a few savvy upgrades, would be a box office hit.
Lee was right in a pretty big way. Nakata’s Ringu cost $1.2 million to produce and grossed $6.6 million in Japan, making it a success but the remake, which cost $40 million to make, made $250 million worldwide. It was a breath of fresh air for American horror fans and it was also a hit with critics which rewarded it with a solid for horror fresh rating of 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus states “with little gore and a lot of creepy visuals, The Ring gets under your skin, thanks to director Gore Verbinski’s haunting sense of atmosphere and an impassioned performance from Naomi Watts.”
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment, beyond its success, was that it opened the door for Lee and other veterans of the horror genre to secure the rights to almost any popular Asian horror film they could get their hands on and with a success like The Ring, it wasn’t long until they did just that.
One of those veterans of horror who took notice was Sam Raimi. After the success of The Ring, his production company Ghost House Pictures and Sony Pictures were eager to get into the action and remake the next big horror film that had its origins in Japanese cinema.
The film that was brought to their attention by Lee was Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 film Ju-on: The Grudge. Raimi and company were so elated by the film that they wanted to swiftly go into production of the remake but their approach would be a tad different from the one taken with The Ring. That film did not hire the director of the original to helm the remake but Raimi wanted Shimizu to direct what would become 2004’s The Grudge. Having the original director would maintain the integrity of the project and they would also do one better to make sure it stuck to its roots by filming their adaptation in Japan. The Americanized aspect of the film would be its cast by having them being strangers in a strange land that essentially would add to the feeling of isolation for the characters and the audience.
The film starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, who was making a more full transition from TV to film at the time after Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended its run. Despite mixed reviews from critics, The Grudge was able to ride the success of The Ring to its own heights but it also was a product of perfect timing in its own right. The film was released a week before Halloween and opened to a massive gross of $39.1 million. Not only did it come out of the gate even bigger than The Ring but since it was also cheaper to make (a mere $10 million) the film saw great success by the time it wrapped its first weekend. It topped the box office during its second weekend as well and became the first horror film to top the Halloween box office since House on Haunted Hill in 1999. The film would go on to gross $110.3 million domestically and $187.2 million worldwide. Even though this take is lower than that of The Ring, it was still highly profitable for the studio and that meant more of these kinds of films would be coming.

The next title to be snatched up for remake status would be Honogurai mizu no soko kara A.K.A. Dark Water. It felt like a natural progression to tackle this one next because it actually had a few connections to Ringu & The Ring. Jennifer Connelly, who stars in the American remake of Dark Water, originally turned down the role that went to Naomi Watts in The Ring & the director of Ringu, Hideo Nakata, directed the 2002 Japanese version of Dark Water.

When the Japanese original was released in 2002 it made a small impact in the European and North American markets after touring several film festivals. Released the same year as the American remake of The Ring, the original Dark Water quickly became another hot property to be snatched up.
The remake is an effective film and is pretty underrated in its own right but the film doesn’t fully maintain the creepy and menacing tone of the original. It veers more into emotional drama territory by focusing more on the performance of Connelly instead of the central ghost story. This worked for me but this would be the beginning of cracks showing in adapting these films for American audiences.
Dark Water did receive better critical reviews than The Grudge overall but the subdued nature of its story did not capture the masses. The film cost $30 million to make but only grossed $25 million domestically and $49 million worldwide which was a steep decline from The Grudge. If anything it began to show that some of the stories that work well in that market, may not play well to the American market.
Maybe we should’ve seen a decline coming a bit sooner. Before Dark Water hit screens, the film that started this fad in the states got its very own sequel and what should’ve been a sure fire hit, turned into a bit of a mixed bag.
The Ring Two took a bit of advice from The Grudge by hiring the original director to take on the project. Hideo Nakata, who directed Ringu, replaced Gore Verbinski in the director chair which seemed like a step in the right direction for the sequel.
The problem with the sequel isn’t its style (there are some truly great visual moments) but with the story itself. It feels like no time or care went to the script and despite having Naomi Watts back, who is actually quite good in the film despite its shortcomings, the film doesn’t recover from how off the wall it actually is. Perhaps its biggest offense is that its truly boring and doesn’t do anything to improve upon the original. With a 20% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes the consensus saysRing Two serves up horror cliches, and not even Hideo Nakata, the director of the movies from which this one is based, can save the movie from a dull screenplay full of absurdities.”
The sequel had our good will before anyone set eyes upon it. The original was so fresh in 2002 that audiences flocked to the sequel which opened larger than the first film with $35 million. Although it more than doubled the opening of the first film, it only grossed $76 million domestically due to poor word of mouth. It did gross $161 million worldwide on a $50 million budget so all wasn’t bad but its poorer showing in the states was a sign of things to come.
This brings us to the 2006 film, Pulse. Among horror fans, it seems that this is the most reviled of the Japanese horror remakes because the 2001 film, Kairo is so well liked by horror fans. The original film presents malice that is so omnipresent and  it makes for a disjointed, unsettling and highly effective film. The Weinstein Company got a hold of the rights to do the remake and become the true first signs as to why these films began to not work over time. They took what made the original so great and streamlined it into a series of familiar horror clichés that robbed it of the essence that made the original so great. The successful Japanese horror remakes maintained the tone of their inspirations while Pulse felt like the poorer efforts cranked out by American studios. The premise involving evil spirits that roam the internet, could’ve been effectively retold for American audiences  but not even a script partially credited to horror master Wes Craven could save it.
Pulse was a dud both financially and critically. The film cost $20 million to make and made just a little over that domestically while it received a rotten score of 10% on Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus says “Another stale American remake of a successful Japanese horror film, Pulse bypasses the emotional substance of the original and overcompensates with pumped-up visuals and every known horror cliche.”
Perhaps a trip back to a familiar property could set things right. The Ring Two didn’t quite work out but perhaps a sequel to The Grudge could. The first important factor was bringing back Takashi Shimizu to direct the sequel. His style was one of the main reasons the first film worked so well and perhaps he could continue that with a new story.
The Grudge 2  fell victim to a lot of false starts behind the scenes. A sequel was announced  fairly quickly after the success of the original but it remained in development hell for nearly a year. The start and stop aspect of the production seemed to put a strain on all involved and it appears that a lot of the same joy that went into the original, didn’t go into the sequel.
Before I get into the details of why the film failed by most standards, I must say I enjoy it and find it to be underrated. It’s not as tight as the original but I loved the style and dug the non-linear storytelling. Some found it to be confusing which led to a slew of negative reviews but I find this to be a misunderstood film that deserves another look.
Releasing the film before Halloween in 2006 didn’t yield the same results that it did in 2004. The film opened to $20.8 million which was down from the $39.1 million opening of the first film. The film showed poor staying power and earned $39.1 million in North America, making it the first ever film to open over $20 million yet gross less than 50% of its earnings after opening weekend. It also easily set the record for lowest gross of a $20 million opener. Reviews were also unkind with a poor 10% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes with most critics citing the confusing plot for their frustrations with the film.
Despite diminishing returns, studios still had the rights to these properties and they wanted to crank them out. 2008 saw the release of four remakes with one coming from a original film from Thailand and another from South Korea. The year would begin with a true misfire called One Missed Call.
Perhaps this is a project that shouldn’t have been take on in the first place. The original film from Takashi Miikee was actually poorly reviewed in its home country so if the original result is poor, how could a rehash be any better?
The one thing the Miikee film is known for is its impending feeling of dread and that is something the remake lacks. The premise, which has characters that receive a voicemail from their future selves which records their death, is pretty effective but nothing original is done with it. Much like Pulse, it loses the one thing that makes it stand out and turns it into a generic horror film.
The One Missed Call remake is infamous for one thing and that’s being one of the few films to hold a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite being totally panned by critics it did gross north of $45 million worldwide on a $20 million budget which proves being released in the dead of January can benefit just about any film when it’s competing with other garbage.

A month after the release of One Missed Call, The Eye was unleashed upon us but many people had higher hopes for this one before it was released.

The notable thing about this remake of the Pang Brothers’ film, The Eye, a Hong Kong/Singaporean production,  is that it brought the concept of A-Horror (Asian Horror) rather than J-Horror into the mainstream. This could’ve very well been a unique route to take after the norm seemed to be old hat at this point.
The premise, which finds a blind violinist receiving a cornea transplant to get her sight back to only see a series of terrifying images, is one that is prime for a true horror take but the film once again succumbs to horror clichés. It lacks the mood and atmosphere of the original film and decides to rely heavily on its leading lady Jessica Alba to carry the film. The problem is she isn’t strong enough to be up to task for the job and the film gradually falls apart.
The critical fate of The Eye  was sealed when director David Moreau admitted his dissatisfaction with the final version of The Eye. He also revealed that he was shut out of the editing room during the post-production stage and was considering taking his name off the film. The movie holds a 22% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes which is better than what came before it but still a sign that these films continued to lack originality. The film was a bit of a financial success however due to budget ($12 million) and a final domestic gross of $31.4 million.
We would only have to wait another month before Hollywood took another stab at Asian horror but this time it came with a bit of a twist. 2008’s Shutter is a remake of a film from Thailand of the same name and the remake sets itself in Japan. The film finds a couple who is being a haunted by images of a woman that they nearly ran off the road. The images most notably appear in the husbands photo which puts an eerie spin on the premise. The plots of the original film and remake are similar but the remake puts the couple in a fish out of water scenario ala The Grudge while the original had them as local inhabitants of their environment.
Shutter is actually better than the few films that preceded it but most critics still trashed the film with a mere 7% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I find this a bit unfounded since the film does maintain the tone of the original and doesn’t feel like an Americanized rehash. The film also was a surprising financial success making back 6 times its $8 million budget with a worldwide gross of $47.8 million.
The final film of the 2008 bunch came in August of that year when Mirrors was released. The film is a remake of the 2003 South Korean Into the Mirror and despite it being a critical failure upon release, it has been looked at through fresh eyes in recent years because it didn’t attempt to merely copy the original. It came at the concept with a bit of originality and paved its own path. Director Alexandre Aja, who gained horror kudos for 2003’s High Tension, has a keen eye for these kind of films and he brings that to the table here. The haunted mirrors premise is still at play but they tackle it with a more character driven approach that allows it to stand out from the original film.
The film hold a 14% rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes but like I said, time has been a bit kind to the film and it has its very own little cult status among people who appreciate it. The film made $30 million domestically and $72.4 million worldwide on a $35 million budget which made it a bit of a minor success.
The last film of significance during this boom came in 2009 and it happens to be one of my favorites. It’s a shame that it came as this trend of remakes was dying but The Uninvited is a truly underrated horror effort.
The film is a remake of the South Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters and actually brings us back to our man Roy Lee who brought the film to DreamWorks initially which led to it being greenlit in 2006. I’m actually a fan of both incarnations of this story but I did see The Uninvited first which is why I was blown away by its ending. I was so blown away by the ending that I immediately watched the film again to see if it worked and it sure as hell did. I’m willing to admit that my admiration for the film is not shared by most (it has a 32% rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes) but I still cite this one as one to watch for the genre and think it does a good job of maintaining the mood of the original. It also did decently at the box office with a gross of $41.6 million worldwide.
Rings surely won’t see a rebirth of Japanese horror remakes in America. There have been murmurs of more coming for years (most notably a remake of Audition which I hope never happens because the original is just too good) but I think this is one of those fads that had its time. There are definitely entries that stand out but what can be learned about how we tackled these films is that there is something unique in J-Horror style that has to be maintained in order for the remakes to work. Once they strayed from that originality the films began to suffer.  A bigger budget and a big studio doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie. Sometimes simplicity and integrity is what these films needs that’s why the originals are cherished so much and why they continue to endure.
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About Gaius Bolling 1035 Articles
At the age of five, I knew I wanted to write movies and about them. I've set out to make those dreams come true. As an alumni of the Los Angeles Film Academy, I participated in their Screenwriting program, while building up my expertise in film criticism. I write reviews that relate to the average moviegoer by educating my readers and keeping it fun. My job is to let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly in the world of cinema, so you can have your best moviegoing experience. You can find more of my writing on Instagram @g_reelz.