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Cheap Thrills 

by Ed Symkus

Why do we go to these movies? Why do we like to sit in big, dark, crowded rooms and wait, wait, wait for something behind the door to come and scare the bejeebers out of us? Maybe it's just fun to shout out loud en masse or, for the guys in the audience, to scream like a little girl.

There are plenty of opportunities for both in this English language remake of the hit 2003 Japanese film that got very little notice in the States. Set in Tokyo, it tells of college student Doug (Jason Behr of Roswell) and his girlfriend Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who has gone along with him. At first it seems that she's also in school, but suddenly she's given a last second fill-in job, taking care of dementia-riddled Emma (Grace Zabriskie) when her regular helper, Yoko, no-shows.

Emma's home is a place of serenity, an aural escape from the bustling city, a place where the ambient sounds are of wind and birds instead of constant traffic. At least that's what the house is like when Karen first visits it.

Never mind that this film is about angry ghosts doing some downright horrific business. That's just the plot that was written on paper. It's really about sound. Yoko had heard some strange creaks and moans in the house, then went to investigate them. Now Karen is hearing the same creaks and moans. Most audience members, whether aloud or to themselves, will be saying, "Karen, don't check it out; you don't want to know what it is."

Bad things happen to just about every character, each incident accompanied by variations of those sounds. There may be low electronic rumblings combined with shimmering strings. There may be loud jolts of music -- or just the sharp, single pounding of a bass drum -- that, of course, are matched up with visual shockers. (It would have been nice if, just for once in a horror film, there wasn't a pouncing, hissing black cat.) The soundtrack features some of the scariest violin sounds since Psycho. And while making comparisons, there's also some of the most frightening bedroom footage since The Exorcist.

It's just not very easy to explain what the film is about. A haunted house element is prominent, as is something about a house-based curse that latches on to anyone who comes in contact with it (and can follow them even when they're elsewhere). A bruised and bandaged little boy named Toshio, along with that black cat, make regular, unnerving appearances. A series of flashbacks to previous tenants in the house is supposed to explain things, but they're presented in an awkward manner, and in many instances it's even hard to figure out how long ago they were supposed to have taken place.

What's clear is that Emma has lived there for a while, and she was in much better shape when she moved in than she is now. And there's no doubt that her son and his wife lived with her, and that her daughter was around when everyone else moved in. But too much isn't clear. About an hour into it, Karen turns to a detective and says, "I don't understand what's happening." Neither does the audience. Within the horrifying onslaught of the final reel, during which hardly a word is spoken, everything is (sort of) explained, even though nothing ends up making much sense. Ah, well, at least the film is a success in doling out the cheap shocks.

Publication date: 10/21/04

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