The Eye

The Eye is probably one of those horror films completely ruined by Internet hype. Those lucky enough to stumble onto it with no expectations were most likely blown away by a stylish and, at times, quite frightening supernatural thriller about a blind woman (Lee Sin-je) who has a corneal transplant and begins seeing blurry and troubling things. Now, though, the Internet backlash has kicked in, and some cynics want you to know that The Eye is just a ghost story, for Christ’s sake, and not a particularly original one at that (dutifully ticking off predecessors like The Sixth Sense). Granted, the film doesn’t re-invent the wheel. And the premise might’ve been explored with a bit more cleverness and curiosity.

But. The Eye, directed by the hotshot Hong Kong brothers Danny and Oxide Pang, made me jump a bunch of times, and seriously creeped me out at least three times. One such time comes early in the game, when the woman, called Mun, is recuperating in the hospital after her eye operation. Her eyesight isn’t anywhere near 100% yet; the world is still a blur to her. She hears sounds out in the hallway, and rises from her bed to investigate. What follows is simple to describe: she has an encounter with a ghost. And we can see that coming. What we haven’t bargained for is how aggressively the Pang brothers use the film vocabulary of a blurred, disoriented point of view to ratchet up the terror. We may also not be ready for the Pangs’ sadistic use of sound (crank this 5.1 Dolby sucker way up if you want to shit your pants). The ghost doesn’t even really do anything. It moans, it says something, and it slowly, sloooowly approaches the camera while staying defiantly out of focus. And it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Later, Mun wants to take an elevator up to her apartment, but notices on a security camera that a gray-haired ghost, facing the corner (shades of Blair Witch, and done with infinitely more menace here), is in there. She opts for another elevator. She peers inside. It’s empty. She gets in. Pushes the button for the 15th floor. And suddenly we’re into a sequence that could do for elevators what Psycho did for showers. And it doesn’t end there. We may be thinking to ourselves, “She should’ve just taken the stairs,” but the Pangs then do for stairways what they just did for elevators. It’s a virtuoso scene of sustained suspense.

What do ghosts want? Movies, including this one, tell us that ghosts are embittered vestiges of the soul, taken abruptly from life and not realizing they don’t belong on this plane of existence anymore. As in Ringu and its remake, and as in Sixth Sense, the protagonist must figure out a way to appease the restless souls so that they will move on. Here, Mun’s transplanted corneas are courtesy of a deceased Thai girl with a backstory to rival Carrie White’s. In life, the girl was ostracized for her visions; now Mun is seeing through her eyes. Inevitably, The Eye loses some force when it starts explaining itself. The first 45 minutes or so — culminating in that celebrated elevator sequence — carry enough what-the-hell-is-going-on? freakishness to power five lesser movies. We expect resolution, a return to order, an affirmation that all of this is going somewhere logical, but when we get it, there’s unavoidable disappointment. The Pangs pay a price for laying such creepy groundwork in the first half: they have a hard time following their own act.

The incongruously concussive climax has been jeered for echoing that of The Mothman Prophecies, a moron-movie no self-respecting horror film should share a room with, but it reminded me more of the wham-bam opening scenes of Final Destination and especially Final Destination 2 (which The Eye‘s similar highway massacre preceded). Hong Kong movies seem to exist comfortably in the overlap zone between the spiritual and the hyperbolically physical, and some of The Eye‘s excesses might put off Western tastes. (It’s reportedly being groomed for a Hollywood remake by Tom Cruise’s production company.) I cannot say The Eye is the end-all-be-all of modern supernatural horror, and the Pangs, enthusiastic and skilled as they are, lack the perversity of a Takashi Miike or the pathos of an Alejandro Amenabar. Still, the brothers have contributed more than a few fine moments to the horror pantheon, and interrupted my sleep patterns for a couple of nights. I can’t really ask more than that.

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