Snapshots of Our True Evil in Shutter (2004 Film) By Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom

Shutter 2004 Film
Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

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New technology can seem scary. It was once believed that photographs were evil as they could steal your soul. As we learned more about technology, we knew this to be false. Still, it’s a fascinating concept for supernatural horror, trying to find the terror in capturing life in the amber of celluloid.

Shadows of the Past

The film follows Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee) and her photographer boyfriend Tun (Ananda Everingham). They get into a car accident and Tun favors driving off rather than helping the woman they hit. But if horror films have taught us anything, hit and runs don’t go unpunished.

Tun photography starts taking on stranger tones. He notices faces and white shadows that show up in his photos. Jane believes they’re ghosts but Tun dismisses the idea but all signs point to a haunting happening. As Tun mysteriously gains weight, their friends are terrorized by some unseen supernatural force.

Dark Evidence Exposed

After some suicides of friends, Jane unravels a mystery surrounding Tun’s ex-girlfriend Natre. Not only was Jane unaware of Tun’s previous love but she unearths the rape of Natre that Tun knew about and did nothing about. And he has never forgiven himself for this.

The ghost of Natre places a literal weight on Tun’s shoulders. Though Natre is revealed through the magic of photography, she will not leave. She will always remain with Tun, haunting him until the end of his own life.

A chilling yet cathartic ending is present where we sympathize more with the villain. The ghost at play is not striking out because of some curse or dark lord looming over them. Natre is a spirit of revenge for an unjust action that will never be resolved.

Proving rape has been an uphill battle and practically an impossibility when the victim is deceased with no witnesses coming forward. But Tun did witness that rape and his inactions will eat away at his soul. It is for this reason why Natre decides not to kill him. He will suffer forever with this knowledge, a punishment presented by the victim on her own terms.

What Pictures Reveal

It’s interesting to consider how cameras handle shutter speed in relation to this tale of the spooky. Consider that the faster the shutter speed, the crisper a movement can be captured. The slower the shutter speed, the blurrier the motion will become. It’s that slowness that allows for those cool shots of traffic that look like long streaks of light.

Considering how photography can freeze time, we can also change how that time appears with the shutter speed. We can capture the moment and make ourselves look exactly how we appeared to others at that moment. Or we can appear as a blur, a faded interpretation of ourselves. For example, if you set a shutter speed at ½ on most cameras, you’ll look like a person and more like blurry smearing.

Beyond just the camera settings, we can bring photos into editing programs like Photoshop and Lightroom to further retool the image. Our imaginations can run wild in these programs, where cloudy days are replaced with sunny skies and frowns can literally be turned upside down. We can change what we captured. We can distort the truth, bending it to fit our desired perspective.

In this sense, Tun is having his photos doctored by the supernatural. They are showing him and others what is not seen and deserves to be witnessed. They are not a distant memory of a past crime but something that will not die so long as it remains in the mind.

Who Is The Real Monster?

Could the ghost just be Tun’s conscience guilt that has come back to bite him, forcing him to see Natre in his work and the death of those around him? Well, maybe, but that’s a theory that is getting away from the bigger point. The point is that we often see what we want to see until the truth eventually spills out somewhere within our psyche.

As the film progresses, Tun becomes less sympathetic. The more we learn about Natre and how she was wronged, the easier we side with her. By the end of the film, we’re less hoping our protagonists defeat the ghosts and more that they’ll find a way to pay for their crimes.

Some viewers may want to see Tun suffer for his crimes. It’s why the finale feels so fulfilling for its two moments of shock. Tun falls out the window and we think he’s dead but he doesn’t escape from this pain so easily. He can’t escape his fate to bear the weight of his crime; he didn’t come forward about it.

In this sense, there’s a cathartic end to Shutter that is evocative of a Twilight Zone episode. You can practically hear Rod Serling’s narrations in the final moments witnessing Tun under the weight of Natre on his shoulders. Picture if you will, a man racked with guilt that nobody else can see, and only through his photography work is the true evil revealed.

The Older Tech

Though Shutter is a Thai film, it does share the DNA of J-horror which was becoming a huge draw in 2004. It could easily be seen as a film hopping on the train of such pictures as Ringu, Ju-on, Pulse, and One Missed Call. In the same way that those films used the terrors of technology, so does Shutter tap into our media that shapes our lives and turns it upside down.

What’s interesting is that this type of horror involving photography has been around for quite some time. Readers of the Goosebumps books will note the book “Say Cheese and Die” which told the tale of an evil camera that erased people from photos. Gamers will know of this horror concept from the horror game series Fatal Frame, a game where you find ghosts through the photography lens of the Camera Obscura.

Where Shutter differs from these stories is that it’s not a film about discovering and defeating the ghosts. This film asks us to understand and study ghosts, much in the same way we take study photographs of people and places. What if these spirits haunting us have something important that went unspoken?

Given the history of viewing cameras as devices that suck out your soul, it’s surprising there weren’t as many horror films about haunted photographs. Of course, once Shutter hit the scene, more films followed in the form of remakes.

The Many Remakes

Shutter wasn’t exactly a critical success considering the mixed reactions by critics but it certainly seemed to please audiences. It would debut #1 at the Thai box office and would become the fifth-highest-grossing film of that year. An international remake was all but assured, especially during an age when international horror was becoming all the rage.

Naturally, there was an English-language remake developed in 2008. Despite being a Thai film, the American version shifts the story over to Japan with Masayuki Ochiai directing and American actors in the lead role of out-of-towners. Even with the change in location, the narrative remains the same, with Joshua Jackson playing the new Tun as Ben.

By 2008, however, Asian horror obsession had subsided and the American Shutter remake wasn’t as highly regarded. It received low ratings from critics and the box office wasn’t stellar, despite making plenty of money back on an $8 million budget. It echoed the similar sensation of disappointment from the American adaptation of One Missed Call that debuted the same year.

Before the American remake, however, there was a remake in India under the Tamil title Sivi. Written and directed by K. R. Senthil Nathan, this faithful remake featured a lot of styles and a fantastic score composed by Dharan. It would end up being a commercial success just as much as the Thai original.

Despite the tapering off of Asian horror in the late 2000s, yet another Indian remake of the picture would debut in 2010 with Click, this time in Hindi. Despite the strong direction by Sangeeth Sivan and soundtrack more abundant with music, the film was ultimately a box office flop. The failure led to the film being rebranded for a Tamil release as Monica House.

The Fleeting Photographs

Today, physical photographs don’t feel as common, replaced by digital cameras storing images on files rather than glossy prints. This perhaps makes the horror of Shutter less easy to carry into a new generation of technology. Where films like Ringu and Ju-on have seen revivals, Shutter remains locked in the 2000s as old tech.

Yet it doesn’t feel as though Shutter would be that much of a hard sell. How hard would it be for Shutter to make the jump into digital? The concept of a lingering evil still works and there’s certainly some terror that could be found in the current technology we use every day. We snap selfies often without thinking about it and post them everywhere online.

What makes Shutter hold up over time is not the spookiness of photos. There have been supernatural scares through cameras before and after Shutter of varying quality. The real shock of the picture comes through what we capture, what we see, and what dark truths lurk beyond.

It’s a film about the shocking nature of the past and how we may struggle to deny what we can’t escape. Think about how terrifying it would be for someone capturing pictures of ghosts who were wronged and be unable to remove them. The victims keep trying to edit them in Photoshop but they still remain, refusing to be erased.

There’s something far more poignant in Shutter that is worth exploring. We live in an age where it’s easy to manipulate what we see and choose what we want to believe, refusing what is in front of our eyes. Sometimes that refusal is not just for wanting to be stubborn or right; sometimes we just can’t bear to believe something so horrible that we choose to see something else.

Among all the Asian horror that taps into tech, there’s more to Shutter than just photography frights.