There’s an old truism about horror movies that what you see isn’t as scary as what you don’t see — or what you sort of see. Take that idea and wrap it up in a slick, fast-moving, moody package, and you have the Hong Kong horror flick The Eye (2002), brainchild of brothers Danny and Oxide Pang. Their story of a young blind violinist who gets a corneal transplant and starts blurrily seeing dead people was successful enough to spawn two sequels and a Hindi remake.
Now, finally, here’s the American version, coming at the tail end of the Asian-horror-remake craze. Earlier this month, fright fans were perfectly happy to miss One Missed Call, and last weekend The Eye earned about half as much nationwide as a Hannah Montana concert film. Sure, The Ring and The Grudge cleaned up at the box office, but Americans seem to have had their fill of floating ghosts, stop-motion ghosts, and vengeful ghosts with long black hair.
That’s too bad, because there’s more to the genre than those overused devices. In Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, what starts as a simple horror film can morph into a head-trip film and even into an art film, as fans of Pulse, A Tale of Two Sisters or the profoundly bizarre Suicide Club know. The Eye is a more conventional film than those, but it still has moments that remind us what gets lost in translation. Take the scene where the heroine, sitting at a busy noodle bar, sees a woman slip around a corner, moving way too fast. Hearing a slurping sound, she turns just in time to glimpse the phantom stretching out her tongue to lick a strip of hanging meat, as if it were a lollipop.
Not surprisingly, that moment is missing from the new version of The Eye. Writer Sebastian Gutierrez and directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud have reproduced some of the original’s scariest scenes almost shot for shot, but they’ve removed the element of oddness. They’ve also done something far worse. In the lead role, they’ve cast an actress who has trouble seeming terrified — or human.
It’s tempting to call Jessica Alba the female Keanu Reeves — as beautiful as she’s wooden. But Keanu managed to ditch his Valley Boy rhythms for a serviceable, dignified drone. Alba isn’t there yet. In one tense scene, the violinist meets the mother of her corneal donor: “It must be a terrible thing to see the spiritual world,” the older woman intones. “All those souls destined for death, powerless to change their fate.”
“Yeah,” Alba chirps. Though she looks pained, as if she were trying really hard to imagine the burden of second sight, you have a feeling her next line could be “Anyway, I was at the mall yesterday, and Sephora had this sale . . .”
It doesn’t help that the new film has turned The Eye’s vulnerable heroine — a wan, mousy girl who lives with her grandmother and plays in an orchestra for the blind — into the star soloist of a regular orchestra, who lives alone in a tower of concrete and steel. Parker Posey, earning a paycheck, turns up in a small, extraneous role as the overachiever’s sister.
But the remake’s worst travesty comes at its end, where the Pang Brothers blew their budget on a mini-disaster-film sequence, a clever set piece based on a real-life traffic accident in Thailand. The American version is downscaled and defanged, but it does prove one important point. In these post-9/11 times, it’s easy to send people stampeding for the exits — all you have to do is use the word “bomb.” Of course, it helps if you look like Jessica Alba.