Scared Senseless

Horror-film 'The Eye' isn't scary, while comedy 'Johnny English' is terrifying. Go figure.

This week, I saw two horror movies: the visually enchanting, well-acted, and in no way scary Hong Kong hit The Eye, and the mysterious, creepy and terrifying Johnny English. While the former is a tear-jerker marketed as a ghost story, the latter is inexplicably being advertised as a "comedy."

Johnny English, a spoof of the Bond films, stars Rowan Atkinson. Atkinson has two comedic personas: in Blackadder, he emphasized verbal comedy with an intelligent, historical bent. In the Mr. Bean TV series and movies, he does that thing where falling down and landing in poop is considered funny. Guess which angle he goes for in Johnny English?

I understand that falling down a lot is considered classically funny. It's the basis for pretty much every French comedy from the middle of the last century, and is a key reason why the French are considered the most hilarious and good-natured people on the face of the planet. Poop, on the other hand, is just not funny. Let's face it: If poop was as funny as filmmakers seem to think it is, we'd all get a good hearty laugh every day, and Ex-Lax would be purchased with broad chuckles in drug stores across the nation.

Luckily, there's only one poop sequence in Johnny English, but like all the jokes in that movie, it's set up so far in advance that you can pretty much see the punch line coming over the horizon, and it goes on so long that you have time to pop out for candy and a soda before it comes to its merciful end. This is comedy for the comedically retarded, as though a slow and deliberate lesson on the general structure of jokes was being given to the remedial comedy class at Carrot Top High School.

Since Johnny English is packed with nearly four jokes, there's little time for much in the way of a plot, but in short, the story concerns an evil Frenchman who wants to steal the crown jewels of England. One of the great things about England is the extent to which they hate the French. They make America's recent tryst with anti-Gallicism seem like a spring-time romance. Thus, for the English, any bad thing happening to a French man is inherently hilarious, which is one of the many reasons that "English Humor" has come to mean "something that is funny after drinking seven warm Guinnesses, going to a soccer riot and frittering away the largest empire the world has ever seen." Strangely, "English humor" had not previously meant "a guy crawling through human feces." Johnny English has now rectified that bit of propriety and good taste.

Thus, Johnny English may be the perfect film to see while coming out of anesthesia after having your eyes removed. On the other hand, if you want to see a movie about someone coming out of anesthesia after having new eyes put in, you really can't do better than The Eye.

Ostensibly, The Eye is a horror film, but unlike most horror films, it's neither scary nor stupid. Instead, it's a sad and attractive story about Mun, a young woman whose sight is restored by corneal transplants. After waking in the hospital, she finds that she not only sees people who are there, but she also sees people who are not there, which, for those of you without vision, is not how eyes are supposed to work.

It turns out that she has gained the ability to see into the spirit world, where the souls of the recently departed are escorted away by strange, shadowy figures. When Mun sees one of these shadow men, it means death is on its way.

The Eye meanders in a sort of plotless manner for nearly its first hour, but really comes into its own later when Mun tries to track down the family of the woman whose corneas she received. From there, the film changes from a horror story to a tragedy, and the earlier elements begin to make sense as part of a larger theme about difference and responsibility. The final half hour is intensely sad and very beautiful. Cinematographer Decha Srimantra uses the standard translucent figures for ghosts, but adds a good deal of mood by carefully limiting his palette of colors. Lee Sin-je, who plays Mun, has tremendous control over subtle facial expressions, which she uses to strong emotional effect without ever being overly broad or obvious.

Quite the opposite of Johnny English, then, and perhaps not what horror-film fans are looking for. If you want to be terrified, I can think of nothing better for you than the toilet sequence of Rowan Atkinson's latest "film," but if you're not really up for something that I can only imagine is even more unpleasant than watching Dick Cheney try to get out of bed in the morning, and would prefer a quiet, evocative and somewhat slow cinematic outing, you might give The Eye a look.

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