'Siren' hopes to revive Japan horror pix

TOKYO — Japanese horror has been Japan’s hottest live-action genre abroad ever since the worldwide success of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 hit “Ring.” It is also a mine Hollywood has gone to again and again for remakes, like Takashi Shimizu’s “The Grudge,” the first pic by a Japanese director to pass the $100 million mark in North America.

But to Japanese distribs, horror is running out of steam, as local auds tire of the same old scares. The peak came back in 1999 with Nakata’s “Ring 2,” which grossed ¥2.1 billion ($17.8 million). The third entry in the Ring trilogy — “Ring 0: Birthday” — fell to $5.1 million in 2000, while Nakata’s “Dark Water” could only scare up $5 million in 2002.

The genre briefly sprang back to life when Takashi Miike’s “One Missed Call,” a thriller about haunted cell phones, grossed $12.7 million in 2004. But Shimizu’s latest horror outing, “Reincarnation,” finished with a disappointing $3.6 million following its January release, despite a strong marketing push led by distrib Toho.

Now, however, it seems that Japanese horror pics aren’t quite ready to sink into the grave. Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s “Siren” — the first horror outing by a hot director of twisty thrillers scored an impressive $1.25 million on 100 screens in its opening weekend, starting Feb. 11. Distrib Toho now expects the film to reach as high as $8.5 million by the end of its run.

Based on the second edition of a popular Sony computer game, “Siren” departs from both the game’s storyline and horror formula. “It’s really more of a psycho thriller — it’s a different take on the genre,” producer Akihiro Yamauchi says.

The story: A mild-mannered freelance writer (Reo Morimoto) comes to live on a remote island with his anxious grown daughter and ailing young son. Soon after they move into their creepy old Japanese-style house, a cracked neighbor lady comes calling and gives the daughter a rundown of the local rules. The most important: don’t go outside when the island’s siren, mounted on a sinister steel tower, starts wailing.

The plot turns on violations of the rules, deliberate and otherwise, by the newcomers — and the uncovering of the island’s dark secrets by the horrified heroine.

Much of the action takes place outdoors, CG spook effects are kept to a minimum and creeping dread is largely supplied by the siren that, in the course of the film becomes another character.

“We put a lot of effort into the soundtrack,” explains Yamauchi. The result is what he describes as “sonic horror.” “It’s the first film of its type — we see it as a kind of experiment.”

The B.O. results look promising, and Americans are already interested in the remake, the producer says.

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