The golden age of horror: Shutter (2004)

Bill: The amount of exhausting labor that goes into haunting people in horror films is ridiculous. Hurling furniture across a room, tossing people around like sacks of laundry, waking up at 3am to pull the bed sheets off…seriously, that’s just too much damn work. If I were ever to become a ghost, I assure you that I would do the absolute minimum to qualify as such. If the phone was left near the couch, you might see it float in the air for a second or two before dropping to the floor when I realized South Park was back on; or you might find your bookmarks moved to different pages in a book every now and again. But good lord, expecting me to float alongside a car going over 60 mph on a highway is a level of commitment I’m just not prepared for. So the ghost in Shutter does get my grudging respect for not being as lazy as I am.

After the Jump: I just wish it starred in a better film

Bill: I originally saw the Thai film Shutter a few years after it was released. At the time I remember thinking it was a competent entry in the ghost story genre of horror films, but that it followed too closely the outline of a ghost story as created by previous films like Ringu and Ju-On without distinguishing itself. In watching it again, I remembered why I thought that. It just seems so formulaic throughout most of its length. Although I will add the caveat that the conclusion put a slightly interesting spin on that formula.

Chris: That’s a very legitimate criticism, and one which I think undermines what might otherwise be some interesting ideas. To its credit, Shutter does at least try to change things up. We start out with what feels like it’ll be a riff on knowing what they did last summer, but that doesn’t explain why Tun’s friends start offing themselves. We find out there’s a reason for that, and that the ghost doesn’t want revenge on Jane, but rather wants to warn her. That’s a fairly creative plot twist but it doesn’t answer our questions about how Tun’s best friends could all commit suicide and he’s completely oblivious to that fact. I guess I also wanted some way in which the screenplay foreshadowed us knowing who Natre is so it doesn’t feel so out of left field when we get that reveal. With all that, as Bill notes, this ends up being another Asian horror movie with a vengeful ghost out to settle scores. Is the twist on things is that we don’t originally know which score is being settled enough? I think it worked a little better for me than Bill, but I can see how this oft-repeated plot is starting to wear thin.

Bill: I’ve successfully avoided the American remake because I’ve yet to come across a really satisfying attempt to capture the spirit (pardon the pun) of any Asian horror film. I mostly blame American audiences for that though. We need constant scares in our scary films. Things like “jump cat” (that cat who suddenly appears in American horror films as the music swells and the audience suspects that the rustling curtain is certainly hiding the monster…only to run across the screen, causing our hero or heroes to nervously laugh and cajole themselves for being such, dare I say it, scaredy cats.) keep us constantly on our toes and invested in the film, albeit in a non-organic manner. Asian culture seems to be more interested in the long game. Their horror films build slowly, then release that tension at the end. I’m not saying that works best. Sometimes their films feel like short stories that have been padded to extend the time. But it does mean that most attempts at remakes of their films go through a transformation process to make them more palatable to American audiences (studio exec: “Get me Jump Cat on the phone!”). And often that process lessens the ultimate impact of the film (for me, at least).

My point (labored as it was) is that this film will probably come across as slow for a lot of folks. Thankfully at 90 or so minutes, it’s not as long as many of its peers.

Chris: There’s definitely a snappier pace in Shutter than the other Asian horror films we’ve covered this month. Even A Tale Of Two Sisters, my favorite of this bunch and a film I now love, feels like it could shave 15 minutes with some basic editing room work. I think co-directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom do a nice job with the flow in Shutter overall. Things slow down when they need to, but they’re fast enough on the cutaways to avoid the embarrassment of having us see the greasepaint on their ghost actress. If nothing else, that lesson from Ju-on seems to have been learned well by Asian horror filmmakers who came later.

Bill: Ju-on and Ringu were incredibly influential horror films. They practically defined the ghost story for years afterwards (for better or worse). When I watch Shutter, I see that influence very clearly. We have an innocent victim (usually a schoolgirl or other young person) that becomes a malignant force after a violent death, and main characters who go looking for the truth only to ultimately become victims themselves. Shutter follows that formula pretty closely with a teenage girl who has seemingly returned as a ghost and is wreaking havoc on a group of friends. I had hoped that coming from Thailand, it would’ve added its own cultural nuances to the story. That would’ve added some flavor to the recipe at least. But other than the names and places, there’s no such effort. The story could just as easily have been set in Peoria instead of Bangkok.

Chris: It certainly is the most western of Asian horror films we’ve watched so far. I think a big part of that is the presence of Ananda Everingham as the lead. He was raised in Australia and carries himself with a distinctly western aura here. In fact, he and Jane both feel like the kind of hipster arty types you’d find in any big city or college town, anywhere in the world. I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, as an ugly American it certainly makes the characters in Shutter a more relatable group of folks to me. Bill’s point is well-taken, though. The local flavor really serves a movie like Audition or Two Sisters wonderfully, and it is all but absent here.


Chris:I did like this movie a little bit, and feel like I’m burying it. While there are too many jump scares here, they’re gorgeously executed (photograph shadow Natre especially.) I liked how it knowingly winked at some conventions of the genre, too. A creepy public bathroom scene that feels lifted right from Ju-on goes from terrifying to slapstick within a matter of moments. We get a medicine cabinet mirror tease that had me on the edge of my couch. The car ghost thing felt like a misstep, since the filmmakers and effects department lacked the skills or budget to pull it off well. I did think the film made up for it in the final act, however with ghost Natre chasing Tun all over his apartment building and up and down the ladder. The uniqueness with which that was mapped out and filmed was exciting, well-edited and plenty creepy.

Bill: Two things I do like about the film is its final reveal that one of the main characters in the film is actually responsible in a significant way for the creation of this particular ghostly presence, and its use of the ghost as a literal representation of the weight of that guilt. I know we’ve been warning people that spoilers are going to be a part of these discussions, but I’ll let the viewer find out how that plays out. I admit I chuckled at first when it was first shown, but after thinking about it, I realized it was a rather unique way to handle the justice meted out to the guilty party. In most films, there’d just be a violent comeuppance and then the credits would roll. In Shutter, we’re left with the impression that that would’ve been too kind of an ending.

Chris: You could certainly do worse for an ending, and the movie certainly foreshadows it a great deal earlier. If it was a bit heavy-handed, I at least found it to be a fairly creative use of the Marley’s ghost tradition, this time visited on a living character. I also like that it’s only revealed in a certain way, and how we’re left to believe that Tun will bear that burden for the rest of his days.

It’s hard not to see Shutter as being a guest arriving at the end of a party, when the keg’s run out and everyone’s started hunting for their coats. The vengeful ghost plot device worked very well and for a long time for Asian horror, but by the time Shutter was released, it’s starting to feel like the long shadows cast by Ringu and Ju-on have begun to fade. Removed from that context and viewed as a one-off, I found Shutter to be a fairly decent iteration of that school of horror. At this point in our month-long travelogue I’ve become a bit weary of it and ready to move on.

(Shutter is available to stream for Hulu Plus subscribers, and also available to rent or buy through the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)