She Might See Something Scary: The One Missed Call Trilogy on Blu-ray
Earlier, I wrote about the Ringu trilogy (+1), also released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. While the Ringu series has since spawned more movies, and even the American remake is now technically a trilogy, the first three films in the series work as a triptych at least insofar as that they seem to be in conversation with one-another.
The One Missed Call trilogy, on the other hand, which was just released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video, works as a trilogy only in that each film seems to be violently retconning the one before it, and even the first film requires familiarity with other films for it to work completely. (It has also spawned an American remake, not to mention a Japanese TV series.)
These are movies that feel, alternatively, like a trio of spec scripts that were aggressively rejiggered to fit the parameters of the series—much like the painfully twisted corpses of many of the victims of the vengeful ghost—or like sequels separated by a lot more time than the two years (at most) that come between the various installments.
“Phobias come from what we can’t forget.” – One Missed Call (2003)
While writing about a different Takashi Miike movie, I learned that Miike’s favorite film is apparently Starship Troopers, which makes so much sense. Like Paul Verhoeven, even Miike’s most serious and straight-faced pictures are shot through with seemingly satirical and parodic elements—elements that are often dismissed, overlooked, or misunderstood even by those who praise the films in question.
Such seems to be the case with One Missed Call. Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman comes so tantalizingly close to not missing the point: “One Missed Call is so unoriginal that the movie could almost be a parody of J-horror tropes,” he writes, “yet Miike, for a while at least, stages it with a dread-soaked visual flair that allows you to enjoy being manipulated.”
Indeed, I haven’t seen a single review that quite latched onto the idea that Miike was intentionally lampooning the J-horror genre, save for Anton Bitel, writing in the booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray. “Miike was typically ahead of his times in already identifying the subgenre as a collection of by-then well-worn clichés and conventions,” Bitel writes, “which he recombined in a highly self-conscious manner that bordered on parodic pastiche.”
Yet, when I brought up One Missed Call on Facebook, everyone who had seen it seemed to be on board with the idea that Miike was essaying something that was, as one Facebook friend put it, “a remarkable send up and a great horror film, itself”—the kind of balancing act that only someone like Miike could probably get away with performing.
Even accepting that Miike is dabbling in outright parody, though, One Missed Call certainly seems, at a glance, like a much more commercial film than something like Audition or Visitor Q—though it’s not even close to the only commercial film in the prolific director’s 100+ movie oeuvre.
As with so many of Miike’s films, however, he plays with audience expectations in One Missed Call, to such an extent that, obviously, many viewers have read the film as nothing more than a pastiche of other, better pictures.
For roughly the first hour or so, One Missed Call feels perilously familiar to anyone who has seen a Ring or Grudge film or any of their assorted imitators—not to mention Final Destination. In fact, specific scenes intentionally call out specific films, from Ringu/The Ring to Dark Water. It isn’t until Miike has put the audience at east with that first hour that he begins upending those tropes into some much wilder territory.
When I sat down with it for this review, I was certain that I had seen One Missed Call before. I was wrong. I had seen the forgettable 2008 American remake, which enjoys the unfortunate distinction of having a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, but not Miike’s original. I definitely would have remembered the sequence in which the playing out of the curse is broadcast live, or the ‘80s Italian horror fake-out climax in the hospital.
Does the whole thing work? Not completely, but it certainly elevates itself into something much more than just another in a long line of J-horror flicks mashing up traditional Japanese ghosts with modern anxieties about technology and social isolation. As usual, Miike creates something that confounds expectations—whether you’ll enjoy that or not is a whole other matter.
“How do we keep tabs on a ghost?” – One Missed Call 2 (2005)
If Miike’s One Missed Call was a semi-parodic take on the whole J-horror phenomenon, throwing all of the familiar conventions into a blender to create a concoction that was more than the sum of its parts, then its sequel from two years later largely failed to get the memo.
Not that there isn’t something a little tongue-in-cheek in how blatantly director Renpei Tsukamoto lays out the genre’s obligatory trappings, while at the same time bogging the previous film’s already convoluted mythology down by incorporating its vengeful ghost into the story of another vengeful ghost that ties her back to an earlier rash of deaths in an abandoned mining town.
I saw someone on Letterboxd say that this overlit flick had “plenty of atmosphere,” by which I’m not entirely sure what they meant. Most of the rest of director Tsukamoto’s credits are TV shows, which makes sense. The abandoned coal mining town is pretty cool, but just about everything in One Missed Call 2 is as brightly and flatly lit as any sitcom. On the plus side, this means you can always see what’s going on, at least.
For most of its running time, it makes the (perhaps bold, perhaps misguided) decision to largely abandon the mythology of the first film in favor of sending its protagonists to Taiwan in search of a new (albeit similar) antagonist with the same M.O. This is a tendency that we’ll see picked up again—albeit to better effect—in the trilogy’s capstone installment…
“People can peck anyone to death.” – One Missed Call: Final (2006)
One Missed Call: Final opens with a close-up shot of the eye of a rooster. From there, we see what might be the most atmospheric sequence in the whole film, as chickens pecking at the rooster are interposed with a montage of scenes of students bullying a classmate who then hangs herself.
The plot, from there, is essentially the same as 2014’s Unfriended—enough so that writers Minako Daira and Jiro Shin probably should have gotten an honorary screenwriting credit on that flick. Now lying comatose in a hospital bed, the spirit of their classmate seems to have somehow merged with the spirit of Mimiko from the previous films and is stalking the whole class through their cell phones.
All the characters are on a class trip to Busan in South Korea, functionally stranding them in a hotel, away from home. This hotel setting—along with the sheer scale of the cast—help to distinguish One Missed Call: Final not only from its predecessors, but from a lot of the rest of the J-horror pack.
Further altering the dynamic of the film is an additional wrinkle to the working out of the curse. Now, the targeted students can save themselves if they choose to forward the curse on to someone else in their contact list; an elaborate metaphor about the “pecking order” that the vengeful student is all-too happy to elaborate via an over-the-phone monologue.
When watching these films for review, I always take notes. I ended up writing down pretty much the entire “pecking order” monologue, as it basically lays out the entire theme of the movie.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this new twist on how the curse works is not in who decides to forward the message on—or, indeed, who they decide to forward it on to, but in the way that the mob reacts to the very ability of someone to forward on the curse. The minute someone’s phone starts up with the music box ringtone that has haunted all three installments of the series, the power dynamic in the group shifts entirely.
We see students fighting to snatch cell phones away from targets before they can forward the message, and even barricading people in closets to keep them away from their phones. It’s a surprisingly more robust exploration of the “pecking order” dynamic than the “mean clique turns on one-another” take that I was expecting.
The other fascinating thing about One Missed Call: Final is that it just goes ahead and leans hard into the Final Destination of it all. The death scenes in all of the movies have felt more like that series than like most of their J-horror contemporaries, thanks in part to the mechanism of knowing when and some small hint of how you’ll die, allowing the various directors to build their set-pieces around the tension inherently generated by that knowledge.
This last One Missed Call also benefits from being watched hard on the heels of the previous one. While the atmosphere here might not be anything to write home about on its own, there’s considerably more of it than in One Missed Call 2, including a delightfully gruesome variation on a slasher movie “corpse scene” near the end.
Plus, as Anton Bitel points out in the booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray, this may be the first (and possibly only) ghost to ever be “partially busted by a distributed denial-of-service attack.”
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.