Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Unoriginal

I was planning to write this post about a year ago.

Last January, two horrors with similar titles were released -- The Unborn on January 9th, The Uninvited on January 30th. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans was also released on January 23rd, making it a very Unusual January, but it's the two straightforward horrors, rather than the werewolf-vampire-fantasy horror, I really wanted to write about.

I didn't write about them at the time, because it was the first month of the blog and my head was practically exploding with things to write about, whether good ideas or not. I guess I'm still in the same boat a year later, as I sit here updating my blog for the sixth straight day. The difference now is that I've seen both of these movies in the past week, part of my mad dash to the finish line of ranking movies before my Tuesday deadline to close off my 2009 list. I'm happy enough to write about films in the abstract, but actually seeing them gives your perspective a bit more validity.

A viewing of each hasn't changed that perspective, though: These movies could both be re-titled The Unoriginal.

The fact that they both have titles beginning with the letters "Un" is really more of a cute detail, the kind of thing that inspires you to write a post like this in the first place. But both The Unborn and The Uninvited could be swapped out for a hundred other generic, interchangeable horrors that come out of Hollywood these days, all with more or less the same look, and many of which follow the same structure for their titles: The definite article (The) followed by some vaguely chilling or abstract concept (Unborn, Uninvited).

Consider, just from the last decade:

The Forsaken (2001, J.S. Cardone)
The Others (2001, Alejandro Amenabar)
The Ring (2002, Gore Verbinski)
The Grudge (2004, Takashi Shimizu)
The Forgotten (2004, Joseph Ruben)
The Cave (2005, Bruce Hunt)
The Fog (2005, Rupert Wainwright)
The Breed (2006, Nicholas Mastandrea)
The Reaping (2007, Stephen Hopkins)
The Invisible (2007, David S. Goyer)
The Eye (2008, David Moreau & Xavier Palud)
The Strangers (2008, Bryan Bertino)

And those are just the big Hollywood releases, the ones that most film fans would immediately recognize. The trend runs much deeper when you go straight-to-video -- not surprising, since straight-to-video takes its cues from (to put it generously) and/or rips off (to put it more truthfully) the Hollywood releases.

Also, this is to say nothing of the horrors that are this kind of movie, but don't fit the title scheme, such as One Missed Call (2008, Eric Valette) and Shutter (2008, Masayuki Ochiai).

Also, I'm listing only American remakes here. Half these movies were originally made somewhere in Asia, and you'd think those versions were a lot better, but in many cases, they're pretty much just as bad.

It's not a very surprising revelation that Hollywood likes to follow successful trends, even rehash cookie cutter versions of earlier movies with different actors and a different title. But it's fun sometimes to accumulate the evidence of just how similar they are.

The movies listed above are, of course, individual movies, some of which have actual merit. All of them, however, have at least one thing that I found in either The Unborn or The Uninvited:

1) Creepy child with voice that shouldn't be coming out of that child;
2) Person standing in the distance, visible to frightened victim looking out the window;
3) Image of bizarre creature that doesn't have anything to do, per se, with the plot;
4) Human body twisted in a way that violates the laws of nature;
5) Startle scare from thing that isn't there when the person looks again or tries to show it to someone else;
6) Image of person momentarily warps and becomes vaguely ghoulish;
7) Wide array of disturbing visual motifs that can't be thematically linked to each other, making them unable to justify their inclusion in the film beyond the director's interest to see what that thing looks like on film;
8) Major plot twist in third act of film.

I could go on.

Even the things that seem like they might be interesting in The Uninvited or The Unborn -- and there are a few -- are blatant rip-offs. For example, the poster I chose for The Unborn was one of three that were immediately available through Google images, and is not the one that's most commonly associated with that film. Perhaps I shouldn't have chosen it, because it gives a false sense of that film's value that flies in the face of the argument I'm trying to make. But it actually makes my argument for me, in a way, because the grotesque human who walks like a spider dates all the way back to The Exorcist in 1973. In fact, maybe we can date this whole trend back to the 1970s, when films like The Exorcist, The Omen and The Brood -- all films that fit the title pattern, in fact -- were released. (I'm conveniently ignoring the fact that titles like The Thing and The Blob came out decades earlier.)

Yet it's funny -- I don't think I watched either of these films just for a laugh. I genuinely thought there was a chance they might scare me. And I'd be lying if I said they didn't, sometimes, give me the creeps. The Unborn was the most effective in that regard, giving me chills on more occasions than I like to admit (some of the images were exquisitely bizarre, even if they didn't amount to a hill of beans). And I saved The Uninvited until late in the night on Saturday, in the hopes of increasing the potential scare factor.

I had my primary reasons for seeing these films -- namely, that they were released in 2009 and were easily available through passive means (The Uninvited through OnDemand, The Unborn from the library). I also had my secondary reasons, arising from an academic curiosity about whether Elizabeth Banks would make an effective villain (The Uninvited), or what the hell an actor like Gary Oldman was doing in such an uninspired genre film (The Unborn), or whether David S. Goyer (who also directed The Invisible, listed above, which I found sort of interesting) might be able to make The Unborn less of an uninspired genre film (only by a smidgen, if at all).

The third reason? Maybe, just maybe, these movies would scare me. As I've discussed before, fear is my favorite thing to feel during a movie, but I so rarely get it that I've become jaded about the very possibility.

Not so jaded, however, that I won't occasionally see a movie like The Unoriginal.

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