People who don’t particularly like horror movies often find their predictability frustrating. Any given slasher film has, essentially, the same plot, albeit with a different mask and murder weapon. Horror aficionados often find the predictability reassuring somehow: like with good crime fiction, you know how the story will play out, but the fun is seeing how they get there.
Recently, horror movies have been changing, largely thanks to the work of Hereditary and Midsommar director Ari Aster. Netflix’s new horror movie, Wounds, starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson, is very much a post-Aster movie, and like Aster’s work, is proving divisive among casual viewers. Director Babak Anvari – a British-Iranian, whose last film was the superb, Farsi language Under The Shadow, cut his teeth outside of the Western tradition of filmmaking. And actually, to understand Wounds, it pays to compare it not to Western horror films and their familiar tropes, but to the traditions of Japanese horror.
Technology plays a part
Arguably, mobile phones ruined Western horror movies, which typically rely on a group of people being trapped in a situation where they’re unable to call for help. In Japanese horror, however, technology is typically integrated in a clever way – back in the days of LCD screens and Nokias, One Missed Call (2003) saw kids receiving voicemails from their future selves – with details of their own deaths. In the VHS days, Ringu (1998) spread its curse via videotapes and landlines. When US filmmakers have tried to follow suit, it’s been done to good and bad effect, and usually with a fairly heavy-handed ‘cyber horror’ approach. Unfriended, in which a creepy loner makes advances on her female classmate, was fine. Smiley, which features a murderous entity made of ‘all the hate on the internet’, and with a face like an emoji scarified on an arse, was not. In Wounds, bartender Will finds a lost mobile phone containing shocking images of mutilated bodies, and through which he receives texts from a group of students who’ve got themselves in big trouble. Following the brawl in the bar which opens the film, it’s the phone that acts as the conduit to oblivion.
There’s an investigation
In US horror, it’s common for the events to play out with the characters acting on base survival instincts – think of, well, pretty much every slasher film. In Japanese horror, it’s more common for the characters to seek to liberate themselves from their fate by trying to find the source of it via a methodical, procedural investigation – take Death Note, for example, which centres on anti-hero Light being tracked by unorthodox detective L. In Wounds, Armie Hammer’s bartender plays the investigator role – albeit unwittingly – as he attempts to alert the police to the mobile phone and its contents, and checks in on his injured friend Eric.
It’s rooted in folk religion
Japanese mythology is rich with tales of the supernatural, and the country’s horror films often draw heavily on that tradition. In Wounds, the strange goings on can be traced back to a group of college kids reading a book named The Translation Of Wounds, a Gnostic text. Gnosticism is an umbrella term for a number of religions operating in the earliest days of Christianity, and broadly relates to religions that see the material world as being evil and the spirit world being good. It may not be the ancient curse of Japan’s long-running Ju-On/The Grudge franchise, but it’s the closest thing in Western mythology.
There’s sparing – but disgusting – body horror
Among the modern masters of horror manga (comics), one name towers above the rest: Junji Ito, a former dental technician and wonderfully twisted storyteller whose strips feature ultra close-up images of decaying, sunken-eyed, contorted bodies dripping with pus and blood. Ito’s defining work is, perhaps, Uzumaki, a story about a town cursed by spirals, in which residents begin to resemble snails. Or maybe it’s Tomie, a story about a girl whom men cannot resist madly falling in love with – then are compelled to mutilate. No matter what happens to Tomie, she always regenerates and claims another victim. Both have been adapted into movies in Japan. Wounds, with its sparing scenes of open sores and cockroaches, takes a subtle, Japanese-influenced approach to body horror – a far cry from the ‘torture porn’ of, say, Saw or Hostel.
Hereditary was such a shock to horror fans – and such a divisive film in cinemas – as it subverted the conventions of horror movies, rejecting jump scares and the regular narrative arc and instead showing audiences a situation that got exponentially worse as it progressed to its frantic final scenes. This, too, is a common trope in Japanese horror, typically showing far more restraint than US horror and saving the big, horrific reveal until the very end. Think of Sadako crawling out of the TV set in Ringu. Then try and forget it again…
‘Wounds’ is streaming on Netflix now