Blame it on Bud Pollard, for want of a more readily identifiable scapegoat: Hollywood’s prevailing obsession with remaking scary movies from Japan seems to have caught fire with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998), which led to Gore Verbinski’s The Ring in 2002, with sequels and imitations from either side of the planet.
Old-time hack filmmaker and Directors Guild co-founder Pollard (1886-1952) helped to seed the movement back during 1932–1933, though, when a domestically un-releasable flop of his called The Horror – involving an Eastern curse placed upon a Western thief – became a well-received attraction when exported to Japan.
Ignored by the Depression-era American critics and seldom shown in the U.S., The Horror garnered thoughtful, if dumbfounded, coverage in its day from Japan’s influential Kinema Junpo magazine. As translated from the archaic pre-war Japanese grammar and syntax, the Kinema Junpo review finds the critic-of-record as fascinated with the rambling, surrealistic presentation as he appears flabbergasted by the film’s refusal to follow a coherent narrative arc.
Leslie T. King – who had played the Mad Hatter in Pollard’s similarly odd 1931 Alice in Wonderland – serves The Horror as a traveler who steals a sacred idol, only to find himself besieged by weird apparitions and a disfiguring transformation. Pollard re-edited The Horror during the 1940s to convey a temperance lecture, re-titling the film as John the Drunkard and explaining the ordeal as a nightmare brought on by an alcoholic stupor. Where The Horror had gone largely unreleased in America as a theatrical attraction, its preachy condensation played long and widely in church-and-school bookings.
But as a commercial release in Japan, Pollard’s The Horror helped over the long term to inspire the dreamlike, often incomprehensible, style that distinguishes Japan’s present-day contributions to the genre. Seen today in surviving footage at the Library of Congress, The Horror looks like nothing so much as a genetic template for modern-day Asian horror cinema.
This preamble points toward Eric Valette’s One Missed Call, newly opened as the latest in a string of U.S. remakes of Japanese hair-raisers. Any sharper appreciation of some Americanized version practically requires a familiarity with the original. The source-film in this case is Takashi Miike’s Chakushin Ari (2003); it, and various spinoffs, can be found with little difficulty in DVD editions. There is a distinct resemblance here to Ringu, or The Ring; to Japan’s similarly conceived Ju-On series of recent years, known in America as The Grudge; and to the South Korean Phone (2002).
One Missed Call stars Shannyn Sossamon as Beth Raymond, a cell-phone user (and who isn’t?), who has good reason to associate some disturbing voice-mail messages with the close-together deaths of two friends. These “missed calls” appear to have been made from the near future, foretelling disaster.
Though dismissed as a crank when she attempts to report this impossible information to the police, Beth finds a sympathetic listener in a detective named Jack Andrews (Edward Burns), who has lost a sister under similar circumstances. Drawn inexorably into the mystery, the characters appear to be approaching a solution – when Beth’s telephone begins to register that same ominous signal: “one missed call.”
Apart from the self-evident fact that a telephone is not all that creepy an implement, One Missed Call in either version does a fair job of generating the shivers. The absorbed viewer might gain a richer context for watching this one by backtracking to catch 1939’s The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. More sinister uses of Mr. Bell’s invention can be found in 1930’s The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case and 1932’s The Thirteenth Guest.
The emotional depth, crucial to a tale of suspense, is either half-full or half-empty in the new Hollywood version of One Missed Call. Shannyn Sossamon brings little dramatic conviction but a great deal of vain self-consciousness to her role. Edward Burns, however, is very good as the lawman with a personal stake in the case. French director Valette seems more concerned, at any rate, with driving the audience to the edge of its collective seat than with achieving any sense of identification with the characters beyond their desperate situation.
Original-version director Miike, best known for an unnerving picture called Audition (2000), deals more ambitiously with the story of One Missed Call. Miike places a greater emphasis upon the emotional instability of the leading character (played by singer-turned-actress Kou Shibasaki), and he makes somewhat more of the Ring-like notion that some vengeful ghost is responsible for all those threatening phone calls. Miike’s Chakushin Ari also indulges more playfully in comedy relief and nightmarish visual imagery. Miike plays the yarn up to a point as a conventional psychological thriller – then launches all-out into a bolder array of shock-value techniques. (One Missed Call: PG-13; Chakushin Ari: R)
And The Horror’s Bud Pollard? An important figure despite a prevailing lack of narrative sense, Pollard is best known for two films showcasing the rhythm-and-blues entertainer Louis Jordan (Beware and Look-Out Sister, from 1946–1947), and for a 1946 showcase for comedian Mantan Moreland called Tall, Tan and Terrific. Pollard also cashed in on the Road-movie popularity of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope by cobbling together a Crosby feature called The Road to Hollywood (1947) from a number of Crosby’s musical featurettes of the Depression years.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors: The Definitive Edition (Midnight Marquee Press) includes detailed coverage of the tangled history of Bud Pollard’s The Horror. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.