James Baldwin once wrote, “It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.”
Baldwin understood that the camera is no dispassionate chronicler of life, but a device used to reveal hypocrisy, to blackmail, embarrass, titillate, move, or entertain. Its power to manipulate is what is so intoxicating about movies and television: the camera creates, reflecting the world of whomever holds it, but also creating a world of its own.
But perhaps the camera’s greatest power is the illusion of objectivity—which is why people can’t stop looking for truths within the frame. The premise of Shutter, the new horror flick by Japanese director Masayuki Ochiai, is that photographs contain secrets of life (or the afterlife) that we’re oblivious to. They are a medium through which the dead speak to us.
The movie begins with newlyweds Benjamin and Jane Shaw (Joshua Jackson and Rachel Taylor) moving to Japan, where Benjamin has taken a job at a prestigious fashion magazine. Driving at night to a resort, Jane hits a young woman in the middle of the road and then drives into a tree. After the police arrive, no trace of the woman’s body can be found.
The couple get on with their new life in Tokyo. But strange images begin appearing in all of their photographs—both Benjamin’s fashion shoots and the couple’s snapshots—alternately looking like blurs of light or ghostly images. Jane becomes convinced that the woman she fears she killed in the accident is haunting her. But as the movie unfolds, Jane slowly realizes that Benjamin is not the man she believed him to be, and that his past is what’s come back to haunt them.
Old photographs can be pretty creepy and the movie smartly plays with this, as Jane at one point looks through a collection of random “spirit photographs.” Photographs give us glimpses of the dead, frozen in everyday moments that seem to take on a profound significance. In them, we see the long dead, and wonder, where, in fact, did they go?
But photographs can also be mundane and boring, and the familiar poses tell us how to react: vacation photos, family photos, group office photos in front of tourist attractions, the subject extending a thumbs up, a way of winking at the future viewer.
So it is with genre movies. As a genre, horror films are pretty stale. The form was reinvigorated in the ’90s by Asian filmmakers, most notably with 1998’s Ringu (which got a credible Hollywood remake, thanks to Naomi Watts, in 2002’s The Ring). Many of these Asian horror movies re-imagine ghost stories through modern technology—supernatural horrors using technology (the VCR, the camera, the subway) to haunt, imprison, and torture their victims.
But this device has already worn absurdly thin. Originally a Thai film that was also remade in Tamil, Shutter is a predictable genre flick with few surprises. Ochiai sets most of the film in Japan, which pushes the protagonists into unfamiliar territory—from the start, they’re lost in an alien culture, which they hope to exploit and conquer. But soon they’re doubting their sanity as they’re confronted with the supernatural. There’s a sense that the ghost that haunts them is a product of that alien culture and it won’t be able to follow them across the Pacific to the United States, with its bland familiarity.
Of course, that isn’t the case. And this horror movie turns into a morality play, with the bad guys brought to cruel, terrifying justice. Jackson and Taylor move the plot along in workmanlike fashion, but don’t give us much to invest in: You don’t really mind seeing them knocked out of their privileged, globe-hopping existence and end up rooting for the ghosts.
While Shutter doesn’t reinvent the ghost story, it does a competent job with the formula, recreating those spooky surprises, one more time.