Anyone who was watching horror in the early to mid-00s will remember the abundance of East-Asian horror remakes that we were subjected to. It’s a tradition that seems to be coming back with the recent reboot of The Grudge, as well as the inevitable cash-ins from Parasite’s historic Oscars win. Wherever there’s a great foreign language film, there’s an eager Hollywood producer with deep pockets and a desire to make an English version.
It’s strange to remember that this entire craze started because of one film, 2002’s The Ring, the remake of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ringu. Neither of these films is the copycat for this article, but we will be talking about both films, simply because both were influential within their own territories. The honour of being this month’s copycat goes to One Missed Call, a film that bookends the craze that was many fans’ gateway into horror. It’s a craze that, unfortunately, did not end with a bang for western audiences.
To say that Ringu was anything less than a cultural phenomenon would be a gross understatement. The franchise this film launched currently boasts eight Japanese films (although the less said about Ring: Kanzenban the better) over two continuities, an American remake with two sequels, two video games, two TV series, and a Korean remake – not to mention the utterly bonkers Ju-on crossover Sadako vs. Kayako, which is everything you’ve ever wanted from a boss fight movie.
With every cultural jackpot comes the onslaught of similar projects trying to get a slice of the cake, and this was the case on both sides of the globe. Whilst Ringu was kickstarting a new wave of Japanese horror, the success of The Ring meant that Hollywood studios were snapping up the rights to entries of this new phenomenon as fast as they were being made. There are even some reports of rights being bought before films were completed.
This is where One Missed Call comes in. The Japanese original had already been met with criticism that it was too similar to other entries in the genre, but the 2008 American remake was somehow able to remove any residual charm. It delivered a bizarre crossover of Western and Asian horror sensibilities, but instead of Godzilla vs King Kong, we got onryō (malevolent spirit) vs jump scare. One Missed Call took tropes from both sides of the water, resulting in a dodgy hybrid that nobody really wanted.
The premise is, like a lot of J-horror, very simple. Characters in the film receive a mysterious voicemail from the future, where they hear themselves die. The message is always from 48 hours in the future and is accompanied by a special, creepy ringtone. It’s a bit like when you were a teenager and your best friend had a different ringtone to everyone else, only here the friend is your inevitable demise. The characters then die in bizarre ways at the date and time of the message.
These kill scenes would probably be entertaining had the film not been given a PG-13 rating. If you think that this sounds a lot like the Final Destination franchise, you wouldn’t be the first. A lot of criticism aimed towards the remake was that it was a decrepit clone of those films, like the clone of Sam Rockwell in Moon with none of the charisma. This is a crying shame because you’d expect a film where Twin Peaks alumni Ray Wise exorcises a phone to be much more fun.
Ringu has everything you would now expect from a J-horror. There’s a vengeful spirit in the form of the now-iconic Sadako (or her American counterpart, Samara), cinema’s most recognisable onryō. There’s a cursed object rooted in a distrust of technology, not to mention folklore galore, and a chilling score. Despite the film’s focus on psychic abilities, Ringu’s strength is in the simplicity of its plot and premise. We follow investigative journalist Reiko as she investigates rumours of a cursed videotape supposedly haunted by a vengeful spirit who kills her victims seven days after viewing the tape. After discovering that her niece has fallen victim to the tape, and watching it herself, Reiko must defeat the curse. The setup is simple and effective, with clearly established rules and a wonderful take on the role of modern technology in society. The remake follows almost all the story beats and, surprisingly, retains much of the tension and tone of the original, which would prove the secret to its success. The Ring ramps it up a bit, flexing its Hollywood budget with CGI enhanced corpses, a glitchy, fast-moving Samara, and a marketable star in Naomi Watts. However, The Ring is still a very loving and faithful remake, and this clearly paid off since the film smashed the box office and left audiences craving more films in this vein. It did leave less to the imagination than its counterpart though, and it’s still very easy to argue that we absolutely did not need to see Samara’s water-withered face in full.
One Missed Call takes a lot from Ringu/The Ring. It features technology haunted by the vengeful spirit of a child, and your death warrant is signed by a phone call. In the lead-up to your demise, you’ll start getting hallucinations rendered in awful CGI, and there are a suspiciously large amount of scenes where the lead character performs extensive research in a library. The film wanted to make audiences see mobile phones in the same way that Ringu/The Ring made audiences look at videotapes. Sadly, for them, with the original coming out five years after Ringu, and the remake we’re focusing on coming six years after The Ring, it was not hard to see through this attempt. One Missed Call is a paint-by-numbers horror film in which you can see the tropes coming a mile off. On the plus side, there’s probably a fun drinking game here where you drink for every Dutch angle, creepy child or college kid in their late 20s.
The reason J-horror resonated so much with its newfound audience was very simple – it was a much-needed change of pace. Western horror offerings had all the subtlety of Michael Bay in a fireworks factory, but with five jump scares before each explosion. Mainstream horror prior to this boom was largely Scream rip-offs and sub-standard slashers.
Asian horror, on the other hand, favoured subtlety, tension and utterly chilling sound design. This may be down to their considerably lower budgets – every moment had to count, and the dread had to be built in more creative ways. The J-horror boom also introduced us to tropes of Japanese folklore that were already entrenched in their popular culture, and we ate it all up. We’d seen haunted objects and vengeful spirits before – Candyman made an entire generation terrified of the revenge-driven ghost in our mirrors; Poltergeist and Videodrome made us distrustful of the TV sets in our living rooms, perhaps as a subtle marketing campaign to make the audience flood to the cinemas. However, it was Japanese horror that gave us the images of the stringy-haired girl in white that resonates with us even today and favoured the chill over the jump.
By trying to straddle both Asian and Western cinematic traditions, One Missed Call ends up feeling hollow and cheap. Rather than stewing in tension, it gives us a jump scare within the first three minutes. Similarly, instead of settings that are eerily familiar to the audience, like Ringu’s iconic scene where Sadako emerges from the television, One Missed Call features a burnt-out hospital set piece in its final act, which feels like a haunted house at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Gone are the genres lo-fi scares, like the corpses of Sadako’s victims and their twisted faces – we get a 79 minute After Effects tutorial instead. With all of this, the film somehow feels more dated than Ringu. This is one hell of an achievement when you consider that Ringu is centred around a dead video format, while mobile phones are still a pervasive part of modern living.
There are few saving graces for One Missed Call. It would be easy to make the joke that, at 79 minutes long, it’s at least over quickly, but the wooden acting may as well add 45 minutes to the runtime. We are excluding Ray Wise from that statement, who approaches his role with the enthusiasm and over-acting of a Star Trek bit-part actor.
Ringu revitalised the world’s appetite for Japanese horror and still has a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Ring surpassed all expectations and paved the way for the J-horror remake explosion, which gave us Dark Water, Pulse, and The Grudge. This explosion fizzled out with One Missed Call, winner of the mouldy tomato award with a 0% approval rating. The film probably would have struggled regardless. After six years of remakes and sequels, audiences were done, and the rise of torture porn meant there was a new craze on the block. That said, audience fatigue is no excuse for the laziness this film delivered.