Posts Tagged ‘Junji Ito’

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about how Hollywood is coming to see big horror films are, and that they are looking into making more. It’s even been compared to the explosion of superhero films that came about after the Dark Knight trilogy and Iron Man showed how popular and profitable superhero films could be. Since I am a horror fan in addition to a horror writer, I thought I’d weigh in on the subject.

First off, this explosion in horror is not exactly out of the blue. Studios have been making horror films since the early days of film, and they keep making them every year. There’s obviously always been an interest and a profit to be made in horror. It’s just lately we’ve had a slew of horror films that have shown studios and audiences that horror can be extremely profitable, mainstream, and even deeply thematic. We actually first started seeing this trend years ago with films like the Paranormal Activity series, which kicked off a huge fad of found-footage horror films, and with Blumhouse Productions, which proved you can make horror films cheaply and still have critical and box office success. This is especially so with their Conjuring film series, which in itself is a cinematic universe.

But late 2016 and 2017 brought on a slew of horror films that really brought these points home. Split, with its surprise ending technically making it a superhero film, and Get Out, with its commentary on race on par with some Oscar-nominated films, brought horror into the mainstream in new ways. Later in 2017, Annabelle: Creation and It proved massively successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and in 2018, films like A Quiet Place are raking in the dough and proving how powerful horror can be in creating terrifying atmospheres and emotional narratives.

And this is just scratching the surface: Stephen King stories are being optioned at record rates (where’s my adaptation of The Library Policeman?); some of Netflix’s biggest recent original films have been horror movies; and studios are developing more horror movies than ever before. It: Chapter Two starts filming this summer, and a new Halloween film is getting released this year. So while I may say yes, horror is kind of the new superhero film, it’s not because they suddenly became profitable. The potential has always been there, it just took some very specific successes with deeper cultural resonance to really bring that potential to the attention of studio heads.

Remember, don’t do what The Mummy did. Not if you want your horror movie to actually be successful, let alone spawn a franchise.

So yes, the horror genre may be the new superhero film, with every studio wanting its own successful films, film series, or film universe. But to steal a superhero film quote, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So while I have no pretensions that studio heads or directors or writers or whatever will see this post, let alone take its message to heart, I thought I’d offer some advice advice on getting into this horror boom. After all, as a horror fan and a creator, I want the horror boom to continue. The more good horror out there, the better. So here are some of my ideas for ways to make sure the boom doesn’t fizzle out:

  • Focus on telling a good scary story. This seems obvious, but some companies get so caught up in having a successful film or franchise, they forget to make a good horror film. Remember last year’s The Mummy? That film was convoluted, packed to the brim, and not at all scary. Not a good start for a film that was supposed to be the launching point for an entire cinematic horror universe. Which was the problem: Universal was so concerned with getting their franchise off the ground, they forgot what let Iron Man get the MCU off the ground: a good film in and of itself. If Iron Man had not led to the MCU, it still would’ve been an excellent superhero film. The Mummy should’ve been made that way, but unfortunately, it wasn’t, and now the Dark Universe is sunk.
    So remember kids, focus on a good story first, franchise a distant second. At least said franchise is up and running, of course.
  • Take chances on new/indie directors and stories. A lot of great horror films have come from the indie scene and/or from new/emerging directors. It Follows and Babadook were both very successful horror films from directors with less than three films under their belts, and the former was from the indie scene. Get Out was from Jordan Peele, who had never done a horror film before in his life.
    And all these stories are original plots. In an age where every other movie is a sequel, remake, or some variation on a familiar story or trend, adding something new to the horror canon has the ability to draw in a diverse audience, rather than just the smaller audience of devoted fans and some possible new ones.
    So take a few risks. It could lead to some big returns.
  • Adapt more than just Stephen King. Yeah, I’m happy for the many Stephen King adaptations being made (Library Policeman movie, please?). But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Even his Royal Scariness: I got sick of him back in high school because I read too much King and had to take a break for a few years. I still make sure to space out my dives into his stories nowadays. And if that could happen to me with his books, imagine what it could do to audiences with too many of his movies.
    The point is, there are a number of horror writers out there whose works should be adapted. Scott Thomas’s Kill Creek is one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year; Ania Ahlborn’s Within These Walls would make a great Blumhouse movie; Junji Ito has plenty of stories that could make great films; and as I noted in a previous post, HP Lovecraft is in the public domain and would make for great cinema. It’s something to consider.
    And before you ask, “What about your works, Rami?” I would be flattered if someone showed interest in adapting one of my stories. However, I don’t think that’s a possibility at this stage of my career, so I’m not going to get my hopes up. Still, I’d be flattered.

Horror is finally being given the attention it deserves from Hollywood, and I couldn’t be happier for it. However, it’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of good stories, for horror to continue to thrive. I hope that filmmakers old and new are up to the task.

Advertisements

Think of every childhood monster you thought might be in your closet or under your bed or anywhere else a monster might hide during the day. What did your child-self know about the monster? Probably only that it was big, that it only came out at night and wanted to eat/kill you, and that maybe only the nightlight kept it away. Perhaps there were certain details, like fur or scales or whatever, but that was the extent of it. You didn’t know if the monster had any weaknesses, or where it came from, or why it chose your closet/bed/whatever. The monster just was, it wanted you, and you were only able to keep it away during the day. And it terrified you.

Now perhaps as a young child, you simply weren’t capable of thinking that any of that other stuff might exist for your monster. But if you confronted a creature like that as an adult, a monster where all you knew about it was its location, its active period, and its diet of humans, but nothing else, you’d be freaked. Because a monster is scary, but a monster that you don’t know how to fight is even scarier.

And that can be applied to nearly any antagonist in horror. The less is revealed about it, the scarier it is.

Case in point: vampires. When I first learned about vampires, my knowledge of what they were was limited to that they came out at night and didn’t like the sun, that they drank human blood (which could sometimes create other vampires), and that they could turn into bats. For a few years, that was all I knew about vampires, and they terrified me. If I ever came upon one, the only recourse I had was to try and survive till daylight, or I was dead! But when I found out that vampires were susceptible to stakes, garlic, crosses, and required invitations into private residences, they became a little less scary. Why? Because they were easier to deal with, and things that are easy to deal with are less terrifying than those that aren’t easy to deal with.

Contrast that with many of the works of the manga artist Junji Ito. I’ve had the opportunity to look at a bunch more of his work since reading his masterpiece Uzumaki (read my review of the manga here, as well as my review of the film adaptation here), and his works rarely tell us the hidden history or how to deal with the monsters featured within. He only gives us enough of a look to get the modus operandi of the monster, and then weaves the story around that. One of his works, Tomie, revolves around an immortal girl whose beauty often drives people to murder her/for her, and who keeps coming back to life no matter how much you kill her. We never get a full explanation of how she is able to do that. Is she some sort of genetic aberration? An undead creature brought back by a grudge? Ito doesn’t tell us, and forces the reader to wonder at the possibilities, as well as how much is being kept from us about these mysterious monsters.

Tomie, one of Junji Ito’s signature characters.

And that is terrifying. And Ito is well aware of that. He knows that the less you know about an antagonist, the more possibilities there are, and that makes the horror more effective. And not just Ito: HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Adan Ranie, and other horror authors, including me, are well aware that adding a bit more mystery to our horror stories, and not letting the readers see beneath the proverbial hood of the monster, heightens the fear the reader will feel.

And this is the main reason why I was disappointed with Alien: Covenant this past weekend, as well as the catalyst for this post. Granted, that movie had a number of problems, but one thing that Covenant and its predecessor Prometheus both do is try to give an origin story to the films’ real stars, the Xenomorphs. When it comes to antagonists in horror getting origin stories, it’s on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of the Xenomorphs, I’ve actually come to dislike the idea of giving them an origin story. Part of their power is that, even for man-eating monsters, they’re so divorced from what humans perceive as normal. In fact, the name Xenomorph means “strange form,” and it’s that strangeness that makes them so terrifying and iconic.

So when Prometheus and Covenant try to explain them to us in origin stories, they put them in contexts that we can understand, robbing Xenomorphs of what makes them so amazing. Granted, it’s a question everyone who’s seen the original films has asked at some point: “Where do the Xenomorphs come from?” But it’s not a question that has to be answered. The fact that they had such a shady origin to them was part of their mystique, causing our minds to wander and wonder if maybe, somewhere in that until origin story, there’s a dark truth out there waiting to make us wet our pants. And now, that sense of wonder is gone, because these movies have given us an origin that, rather than being dark and terrifying, is at times confusing and at other times lame.

What I’m trying to get at is that sometimes–not all the time, but a significant portion of the time–you don’t need to reveal everything about your monster. Sometimes, keeping some mystery around adds more to the story, and keeps the source of our terror effective. And in a horror story, keeping things terrifying is one of the most important aspects of horror storytelling.

I love manga and anime, but I often have trouble getting my hands on horror manga and anime that is actually scary. I’ve found plenty with ghosts, zombies, homunculi, serial killers, and death games, to name a few, but often they’re mixed with other genres to make them more palatable for non-horror fans. Other times I have heard of a scary one, but I can’t get my hands on it (still trying to get my hands on Corpse Party), and other times I just don’t know of some series that I should. So when I actually hear and find some manga or anime that is actually scary, I rejoice. Case in point, Uzumaki by Junji Ito, who is considered one of the greatest horror manga artists from Japan, and it shows in this series.

Uzumaki literally translates into “spiral,” which is the essence of the manga. The story follows Kirie Goshima, a teenage girl living in the town of Kurozou-cho. One day, her boyfriend Shuichi tells her that his father has become obsessed with spiral shapes, to the point that he is losing his grip on reality. This leads to a gruesome series of events that reveal a curse upon the town and the surrounding area, a curse involving spirals, spirals that hypnotize and entrance, spirals that terrify and excite, spirals natural and unnatural. And once the curse sets in, it doesn’t let go.

From the very beginning, Uzumaki is quite extraordinary. Ito illustrates with  incredible attention to detail, which in a horror manga  is necessary if you really want to convey a sense of terror. I mean, look at the imagery below.

Holy crap, that is both well-drawn and scary! You can see every detail, how much  work is put into each stroke of ink to make the imagery look realistic despite being an illustration. And the best part is, Ito is not concerned with aesthetic beauty. You look at most animation, and it’s meant to be pleasing to the eye. To be cool, or pretty, or adorable. Ito doesn’t concern himself with that. He’s concerned with just making you squirm, and he does that so well with his illustrations.

And on top of that, his storytelling abilities are great. Unlike other horror stories, the horror is based on abstract concepts. A geometric shape, the spiral, is what we’re supposed to be afraid of. You’d never think a spiral shape like the one below would be scary, but Ito uses his illustrations, storytelling, and the turn of a page to weave this frightening tale where we’re forced along to find out what happens, fining stranger and stranger things on the succeeding pages. And best of all, Ito just takes things in the most unexpected directions, inserting the spiral into strange places we normally wouldn’t see it. I won’t say what happens, but things like snails or pregnant women get matched with the spiral, and it becomes terrifying. It’s made even better that you don’t actually get a lot of explanation. With ghosts or vampires, you get a mythology on how they work and how to deal with them. In Uzumaki, Ito leaves it up to the imagination as to what’s happening. It’s very unnerving in a Lovecraftian sense to see how this town becomes part of some strange curse around a geometric shape, and never get an explanation.

Doesn't look scary at first. Wait and see.

Doesn’t look scary at first. Wait and see.

If there is one criticism I have, it’s that the people of the town don’t really come to terms with what’s going on as fast as they should. At a certain point, it becomes impossible not to face what’s happening in the town, but up until then, there are plenty of signs that something’s up, and not one of the main characters realize they have to get up and get out before it’s too late. Even the guy who’s constantly saying they should leave doesn’t. At least make an attempt!

But other than that, Uzumaki is a terrifying story of cosmic horror that takes something harmless and give it a weird, disturbing form that will surely stay with you for a while after you finish reading it. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Uzumaki a 4.8 out of 5. If you enjoy horror and don’t mind visual reading like comic books and manga, definitely check out Uzumaki. I’m glad I did, and I will try to track down the move version as soon as possible. Because after seeing these sorts of pictures, I’m curious as to how they’re translated into the cinematic world.

Until next time, my Followers of Fear. Pleasant nightmares.