Terror Lost In Translation

by Pamela Ryan

Horror movies are supposed to induce terror, make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and make your blood run cold. Is the same effect had when the film you’re watching wasn’t originally intended to be in English? My belief is that, no, it isn’t. The problem with English language knock-offs is that direct translations are never used, they’re tweaked, losing their real meaning. The actors are also trying to mimic someone else’s performance instead of making their own. The terror in their eyes just looks flat and fake.
The first example that comes to mind is [REC] vs. Quarantine. [REC] was originally filmed in Spanish and released in 2007. Once English subtitles were added I gave it a critical viewing. The problem with loving horror movies so much is that I’ve become immune to the scares, but [REC] is one of those jumpy movies where things pop out of nowhere and get your heart racing. For me it was more the element of surprise that got me, but that was the genius of it.
It’s an infectious-zombie flick, and there are many of these, but this one has a difference. It’s all seen through the lens of a TV reporter’s camera, and we hear, but never see, the cameraman. Directed and written by Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza and Luiso Berdejo, the film is brilliantly cast and thought out. Contained to one building where the Spanish authorities have entrapped them, the tenants, camera crew and fire-fighters struggle to survive as one by one they succumb to infection. Manuela Velasco and Pablo Rosso play the characters of Ángela and Pablo with dedication and pure adrenaline-fed fear.
Successful horror movies make you build a relationship with the characters too; you don’t want anything bad to happen to your favourite characters. Pablo in particular is a great example of this technique. We never even see him; we just hear his lines from behind the camera. His bravery and protection over Ángela make you want him to survive, but when that camera falls to the floor in silence it breaks your heart. I actually remember my friends and I, screaming in unison: “Noooooooo, Pablooooooooo.”
Then there’s Quarantine, the 2008 English language remake. I avoided it for so long because I knew it would ruin a fantastic movie for me. I should have trusted my intuition. It was like any bad remake really, the casting was awful because they had no previous history in the horror genre. The main characters were played by up-and-comers who obviously tried desperately to re-enact the performances of the Spanish predecessors, rather than feel the fear themselves. Honestly the English version would have been better if they had just dubbed the Spanish film; and I despise dubbing.
Unfortunately this is not the only example. The Grudge (2004) too failed in comparison to its Japanese counterpart, Ju-On, released in 2002. Well to be honest I’m assuming this. I watched it in English first, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and directed by Takashi Shimizu, and I loved it. Months later I attempted to watch the Japanese original, surprising directed by the same person. I’m ashamed to say that even a horror movie buff like me didn’t make it all the way through the film. Something about the filming and the casting of the dead mother and child (Takako Fugi and Yuya Ozeki) left me terrified; I had to turn it off. But even though I didn’t finish it, I still consider it better than the remake in my native tongue. The idea of horror movies is to terrify us, right?
These are the only examples I can think of right now, but I’m sure there are many more. But I think watching these movies yourselves will prove to you all that the terror really does get lost in translation. Give me subtitles over a bad remake any day!

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