Remember when "Japanese import" meant an economical sedan? Nowadays, Japan is shipping us big scares, at least at the theater, where now even our slasher films are imported from the Far East.
"Dark Water," opening today, is the next in an explosion of Asian horror films that Hollywood is lining up to clone. It's based on a 2002 Japanese film and follows in the footsteps of "The Ring," another Japanese import remade for America. When that film became a surprise hit, grossing $130 million, studio executives hopped on planes and began exploring Japan and the Pacific Rim for axe-wielding thrills.
In "Dark Water," Jennifer Connelly stars as a recently divorced mother who takes refuge in a rundown apartment with her daughter, only to be terrorized by the ghost of a former resident. The Oscar-winning actress says the new film is much more than a paint-by-numbers remake.
"There's character development," she says. "You learn more about my character's history with her mother, and I think that works well because it anchors the film, so that when it starts floating past the limits of rationality and into the supernatural, you can go with it."
Hollywood's motives are very clear. With the cost of production skyrocketing, Hollywood has, for years, been turning to recycling old movies and vintage TV shows. But Nicole Kidman in "Bewitched" this summer was just as disappointing as Nicole Kidman in "The Stepford Wives" last summer. Remaking familiar hits from American TV and cinema is no longer money in the bank.
In Asia, especially Japan and South Korea, Hollywood is finding a wealth of material that has already been test-marketed, and it doesn't hurt that Asian-Americans are loyal moviegoers.
In August, Tom Cruise's production company hits theaters with "The Eye," an adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller "Jian Gui." In it, a girl gets a cornea transplant and starts seeing ghosts who have a score to settle with her organ donor.
It might seem that filmmakers would not have to travel so far for such campy plots. Still, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who split with Miramax last year, have made the remake of the Japanese gore-fest "Kairo" one of their first orders of new business. The film, due out next year, revolves around an Internet Web cam that lets people interact with the dead.
Just how much stomach America will have for imported gore has yet to be proven. Last year, Sarah Michelle Gellar fought off bad reviews in "The Grudge," another Japanese retread, and the film earned a respectable $110 million at the domestic box office.
DreamWorks trotted out "The Ring Two" earlier this year, and the film brought in $75 million, suggesting that the series might not last into the double digits. But perhaps reaching a dozen sequels is a distinction reserved for Jason, Freddie and other American box office monsters.
A Lower-Level Penthouse … With Demons
No matter how it fairs, "Dark Water" can hardly be accused of being a quickie cash-in. Connelly earned best supporting actress honors in 2002 for her work as Russell Crowe's wife in "A Beautiful Mind." Co-star John C. Reilly is one of the busiest and most versatile supporting players in Hollywood.
With his trademark hound dog face, Reilly plays the suspiciously chipper real estate broker who saddles Connelly with the ghost-infested basement apartment, which he describes as "lower penthouse level."
Walter Salles, the Brazilian director who earned raves last year for "The Motorcycle Diaries," adds credibility to the project. Connelly says she wouldn't have gotten involved if it was just blood and guts.
"I think it's a sophisticated scary film because, on one hand, it's literally a supernatural ghost story," Connelly says. "On the other hand, it's a story about a woman confronting her own ghosts, her demons from the past."
As the title suggests, Connelly's character gets soaked in the sludge and it's not simply the metaphoric bilge of a failed marriage. The 34-year-old actress, who married her "Beautiful Mind" co-star Paul Bettany two years ago, says she had to descend into a makeshift pool where 70-to-80 pounds of muddy water was blasted at her by Jacuzzi-like jets.
"My arms were just covered with bruises," she says. "But as a bit of a tomboy, I was quite proud. I'd come home and say, "Honey, look what I got today,' to show off my war wounds."
Similarly, the faucet has been turned full force for Asian horror. But who will be bruised? Filmmakers or filmgoers? Like with any good thriller, we'll just have to wait to see who gets hacked to bits -- and who gets to do the hacking.