Ghosts Gone Wild!

The unkindest cut: Halle Berry in 'Gothika'
Warner Bros.

What does it say about our culture that male ghosts in movies get to lay on the charm (Nicolas Cage in City of Angels) or make whoopee (Patrick Swayze in Ghost) while their female counterparts are angry and irrational? Critics have erroneously interpreted this trend in American film as some kind of female empowerment ritual. But Gore Verbinski's The Ring and Mathieu Kassovitz's Gothika--two recent movies that owe a debt to Japanese ghost stories and Italian giallos--speak mainly to our culture of sexist greed. True, the stringy-haired nymphets in these films return from the dead to help selfish heroines escape torture. But unlike the pervasive threat of the little blond girl from Mario Bava's brilliant Kill, Baby...Kill! , the violence these girls wield is inexplicable, unemotional, even pornographic. It hardly sheds light on the social diseases that plague the living.

In his review of Ghost in 1990, Roger Ebert criticized the "limited imaginations" of ghost stories--namely the specious tendency of otherworldly spirits to stick around after death just long enough to conduct unfinished business. This trend continues in current Hollywood spookfests, but the effects have gone from the kitschy to the dangerously immoral with the release of The Ring and Gothika. Ever hungry for an original idea to exploit, Hollywood suits have been tweaking M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense for several years, but now they're looking to Japanese horror for their recyclables.

It's no surprise that Japanese multimedia, with its unexamined violence and Lolita-complex iconography, has wowed our equally puritanical society. But in transplanting distinctly Japanese stories, Hollywood filmmakers often forget to give their borrowed product a proper American context. The soulless Kill Bill Vol. 1 (not unlike Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) is little more than a nerdy DJ's A/V mix tape, but at least Quentin Tarantino attempts to subvert the not-so-innocent nymphet fantasies that propel much of Japan's pop art. His revenge fantasy is certainly a dish served cold, but there's no mistaking the sizzling provocation of an emasculating schoolgirl arming herself with an array of deadly power tools.

In Kill, Baby...Kill!, a child ghost redresses the faith and inhospitality of a nameless Italian town, and in Guillermo Del Toro's unofficial remake, The Devil's Backbone, a little boy returns from the dead to expose the horrors of a self-destructive Franco regime. But in girls-gone-wild horror flicks such as The Ring and Gothika, maligned and perpetually drenched ghosts exist only to confuse the Nancy Drews played by Naomi Watts and Halle Berry, respectively. The ghost is the unwitting accomplice, and once the self-serving heroine has saved herself, the ghost's emotional baggage (child abuse, rape, you name it) is revealed as an added bonus. In Hollywood, it's me first.

Ghosts have come back with a vengeance before, but their humanity remained intact: They used to have souls. Now they're walking Calvin Klein campaigns driven less by discernible human emotions than by flashing lights, loud noises, and endless horror tropes. Victims once, the dead girls of The Ring and Gothika must now survive their directors' aesthetic torture chambers. This shift shouldn't come as a shock to anyone concerned with the dumbing down of American pop culture: Hollywood regularly appropriates art while skimping on the moral consequences. And why should this concern you? Because in the age of Megan's Law and Elizabeth Smart, witless films such as these objectify pain and trivialize violence. That's their real horror.

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