By Charles J. Garard, PhD  English Department Jilin Agricultural Science and Technology University, Jilin City, China  (This is where I lived and taught when I first wrote this article. Now I live in Atlanta, GA, USA, working on a trilogy of horror novels, time-travel novels, and mainstream novels about my experiences in China. This article was originally intended to be published in a bi-lingual periodical in China, but they wanted to censor it because it dealt more with Indonesian horror films than they liked and supposedly contained adult themes. I refused. Anyway, here  it is, uncensored.)

 

How does one compare so many films on such a broad scale, since horror films have been with us for over a century?

First, we might start with the word “horror” which many of my Chinese students, and even some colleagues, confuse with the word “horrible”; many see these words as the same.  “Horrible” means something negative or pejorative, something thought to be extremely bad. “Horror” refers to literature and films dealing with subjects that are meant to be frightening, usually involving scary creatures and heavy violence.

Second, to deal with a topic so broad and encompassing, we might just examine a few films and use them for a comparative basis.

Asian horror films are not only those produced and photographed in China but also made in other Asian countries, such as Korea, Japan, and Indonesia. Take Indonesia, for example; that country has produced some that are quite good, and some, in my view, that are downright awful.  

One particular film is called VOODOO NIGHTMARE, filmed in Kalimantan and carrying the alternate title of RETURN TO PONTIANAK. The film — which includes in its alternate title the name of the Indonesian city of Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan – has nothing to do with Caribbean or African voodoo. According to a Javanese reader of this blog, “voodoo in this context refers to a type of ghost version of the west country.” This may be the version intended in this film because it features a young, barefooted girl wearing a flimsy white gown with scars on her legs who is being controlled by a dukun or male witch. The dukun cuts off the head of one of the main characters and turns the rest of them against themselves; for example, he causes a blond character to strangle his sexy but mouthy Chinese girl friend and then to spit up insects. However, the barefooted girl, who wears white contact lenses over her eyes in only one close-up, wanders among them in the jungle attacking no one on-screen. Whether she is supposed to be a setan or a demon or a pontianak is never made clear.  What is possible, nevertheless, is that someone involved in this production had seen the American films THE EVIL DEAD and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

One film titled LADY TERMINATOR, is one of the worst of the Indonesian films that I happened to see. In this one, a female scholar is abducted and transformed under the sea into the Queen of the South Seas or Nyai roro kidul. This transformation occurs after a serpent (always a good mythological archetype that Christians recognize from the Garden of Eden) enters her significant orifice in a manner imitating the famous raped-by-the-woods scene in the 1981 film THE EVIL DEAD. When the woman transformed into the Queen of the South Seas emerges from the ocean, she is shown nude in one shot and, in the next shot, wearing white underwear.  I mean, don’t they have continuity people? 

In another Indonesian horror film titled DANGEROUS SEDUCTRESS, a severed finger is shown flying through the night in a poorly rendered process shot. This film is full of car chases using vehicles that appear as if they have been wrecked and restored too many times, and this is before the title character even appears. The characters speak English, but, in most cases, the dialogue is so stilted that the viewer almost prefers that subtitles had been used.  To understand these films, you might have to know something about Indonesian folklore, but even the references to those beliefs fail to salvage poorly constructed films such as this one.

        

MYSTICS IN BALI is about a Leyak, a creature in Indonesia and Malaysia that is able to separate its head and entrails from the rest of its body and go flying after people. Like the Kuntilanak (shown in the far-better films called KUNTILANAK and KUNTILANAK II), the Leyak is a creature that intelligent people from, or living in, the above-mentioned countries believe to be real. The acting in MYSTICS IN BALI, unlike in the film KUNTILANAK II, is hardly worth mentioning. The German non-actress in the lead just spouts her lines as if she were rehearsing a high school play. Apparently, verisimilitude is not a requirement for these films. When the girl’s head and trailing entrails finally leave her body, her image changes color and texture just before the separation is made, signaling what is going to happen. More subtle means might have been employed to suggest this separation of her body and entrails from the torso, the way the Mothman creature is subtly shown in the American film THE MOTHMAN PROPHESIES.

On the other end of the spectrum of Indonesian films are the Kuntilanak movies. KUNTILANAK II looks like a work of art when compared with MYSTICS IN BALI and features a lovely leading lady who summons the horrible kuntilanak creature by singing a high-pitched siren’s song. The white-haired creature herself is shown moving with jerky motions like the demon-child in the Japanese films THE RING and THE RING II and its Canadian remakes. Rapid editing prevents her from being seen on the screen for more than a few seconds at one time; this makes her appearance more frightening and, within the context of a horror film, more believable.

After this article, which I first wrote while in China (see introduction), appeared on this blog, the aforementioned Javanese reader informed me about the origin of the kuntilanak. It is a sad story about a young woman who is made pregnant by being raped and, out of shame, kills herself. Her spirit wanders the earth at night, crying because of her tragic fate. Some versions have her looking for unborn babies, a belief structure which makes pregnant women in Java quite alarmed for their safety. Other versions have her on the prowl for unsavory young men who have harmed or betrayed women. Over the years, I have spoken with friends from Indonesia and Malaysia and discovered that variations of these creatures exist, just as different versions of vampires can be found in films and novels. Recently I saw a horror film brought back from Indonesia which included, in an opening scene, a woman with long dark hair and a gaping hole in her back — apparently the exit wound for her unborn child — wandering through a forest at night. Apparently, she is meant to be a kuntilanak; she is not weeping, so she must be on the prowl.

Many Chinese horror films are often given generic names when released on DVD worldwide. We have CHINESE GHOST STORY, CHINESE GHOST STORY II, EROTIC GHOST STORY, EROTIC GHOST STORY II, etc. The list seems to be endless. Many are derivative of American horror films, but, on the other hand, American directors also remake Chinese, Korean, and Japanese horror films.  One film made in Hong Kong — that is, in spots, derivative — is called, at least for English-speaking viewers, BEAUTY IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE. It is a comedy-horror mixture with soft-core sex scenes, a film that includes a music track taken partly but directly from THE CAT PEOPLE (1982). The director and scriptwriter(s) didn’t seem to know what kind of film they wanted to make, so we are left with an uneven mix of genres. The film is not frightening, but it is worth watching for its amusement value and erotic content.

A particularly daring and original horror film is given the broad, encompassing title THE ETERNAL EVIL OF ASIA. It is a combination of horrible death scenes and outrageous humor, as well as a unique sex scene between the young Chinese female protagonist and an invisible male demon. He has destroyed all but one of the men who had visited Thailand and accidentally caused the death of his sexually precocious young sister. The heroine can only destroy this powerful demon during his moment of weakness, when he has an orgasm. So she has to “sacrifice” herself – not her life but her body.  The scene where she makes love to him in his invisible state cannot be described accurately enough without sounding pornographic.

Among the best of the Asian horror films are the aforementioned THE RING and THE RING II (remade in Canada), THE GRUDGE I, II, and III (the latter taking place in Chicago and featuring only one Asian character), the skillfully made film THE EYE (which features an ending that seems to be taken directly from the American film THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES), and the Korean film THE TALE OF TWO SISTERS, remade in the US as THE UNINVITED — not to be confused with a ghost movie of the 1940s starring Ray Milland.  Many Chinese horror films are often given generic names when released on DVD worldwide. We have CHINESE GHOST STORY, CHINESE GHOST STORY II, EROTIC GHOST STORY, EROTIC GHOST STORY II, etc. The list seems to be endless.

           

To mention more than a few western horror films would require a collection of titles that would result in a list, not an article.  We all have our likes and dislikes based upon our own perspectives and tastes. I, for example, might mention THE SHINING, WHITE NOISE, HAUNTED, THE OTHERS, GHOST STORY and THE INNOCENTS as my favorite ghost stories. My all-time favorite creature/horror movie would have to be THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, a suspenseful film with no violent death scenes. Others could question my taste and list different titles. This is to be expected. Instead of mentioning the greatest western horror films, I will focus only on British and American horror films that I showed to undergraduate and post-graduate students while in China.

        

The 1958 British film THE HORROR OF DRACULA, based loosely on the novel by Bram Stoker, eliminates some important characters and combines others. A junior-level class in a small private college in Atlanta, Georgia, thought it was slow moving and not gory or frightening enough. However, when I showed this to juniors at the technological university in Anshan, China, I was surprised when a frightened female college student approached me and asked if she could be dismissed from that class.

        

In Ningbo, China, for juniors in a British literature class, I showed MARY REILLY – an unlikely title for a classic horror story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. (How many versions of Stevenson’s thin and spare novel do we have?) In MARY REILLY, the superb John Malkovich plays both sides of the same person. Before I showed it to students here in China, I had been impressed by the fact that MARY REILLY pretty closely followed the text — including the little girl whom Hyde tramples in the street, the brutal murder of Sir Danvers Carew, and the “virtuous” Mr. Poole, as Jekyll calls him. Aside from the existence of Mary Reilly (portrayed by Julia Roberts), the characters are drawn, if considerably enlarged, from the Stevenson novel. When I showed this film to Chinese undergraduates in Ningbo, I was amazed to see two female students clutching each other under their desk and shivering.  
        

In a foreign language institute in Changchun, I hesitated to show the Hammer Studios film THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) to teachers in a post-graduate class. I was afraid that the homoerotic scenes between the Lesbian vampire Carmilla and her buxom victims might offend some of the female students. As it turned out, this was the favorite film of some of the women taking the course. As a horror film based on a well-known novel, it is one of the better ones in the vampire genre. As I mentioned, variations exist with horror creatures, whether in Asia or the UK and the US.

As we look at horror films from both the east and west, we can see that some are derivative while others are almost direct copies with just a few minor changes to reflect the separate cultures. Personally, I don’t find the Asian horror films to be particularly frightening, even though some like THE ETERNAL EVIL OF ASIA are boldly different and entertaining. Maybe it is a matter of sensibility.