1) I am going to spoil the ending of these movies, because it is the ending I want to talk about. If you haven't seen Shutter, go watch the Thai Original, which I think is an amazing movie.
2) A trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and victim blaming.
The Thai horror movie Shutter and its American remake are in many ways very similar. They're both derivative of that late 90s wave of pale-dark-haired-ghost blue-tinted j-horror. They both follow roughly the same plot, and end with the same bleak twist. They also both buck the trend of these ghost movies by having the haunting directly related to the actions of the main characters, rather than a mystery they stumble upon.
The Thai movie takes those j-horror influences and crafts scares that still manage to feel fresh after decades of pale girls with wet black hair popping out at us. Partly this is because it doesn't rely on very many jump scares, and partly this is because it feels like it's crafted by people who are interested in scaring people in new ways. I found the remake to be almost entirely un-frightening but that's not really what I want to talk about.
I want to talk about the variations on evil that the movies depict. In both films we are initially led to believe that a couple is being haunted because they hit a young woman while driving on a dark road. The ghost begins showing up in photographs, and then in more real ways. And in both movies, the girlfriend in the couple seems more interested in investigating than the boyfriend does. In both movies she discovers that the ghost is someone her boyfriend dated, and eventually learns that he was involved in this girl's sexual assault at the hands of his friends.
The stories we're told of these past relationships are very similar. The boy hides a relationship with a strange and quiet woman from his friends. Both relationships end because the boyfriend gets weirded out by a gift that seems too extravagant. What's interesting here, is the differences in how the movies portray each man and their involvement in the assault, I think.
The Thai photographer boyfriend, Tun, has hidden the relationship with quiet and weird Natre from his friends. He laughs along when they tease her in the elevator. He's shown becoming distant after she gives him an expensive camera. When his drunk friends stumble across Natre working late at the university, they first harass and then rape her. Tun comes in part way through this scene, and stands there horrified with his camera. Natre is looking at him and calling out for help, but he doesn't move. Then one of his friends grabs him and tells him to take pictures, to keep her from telling anyone. Tun hesitates, but his friend yells at him, and so he lifts his camera and begins to take photos.
The American photographer boyfriend, Ben, is also dating the quiet Megumi in secret. But when he tries to break things off with her, she is hurt and tries to understand his sudden shift in behaviour. Megumi keeps trying to make contact with him, which he describes as her "being crazy." He tells his friends that she won't leave him alone, and they suggest a solution: drugging her at a party and taking naked photos of Megumi to blackmail her into staying away from Ben. They go through with this plan, with Ben luring her to a room at the party by telling her he wants to talk about their relationship, and then when the drugs take effect, he photographs her while his friends pull her clothes off. He then looks slightly pained when they lift her up to carry her to another room for sex, but turns his head to the side and literally looks the other way.
Both women leave the city to return to their small town homes after this, and both commit suicide. This all comes out as the present-day women discover the rape photographs hidden in their boyfriends' apartments.
Tun tells his girlfriend about the rape sadly, saying that he knew he "should have done something." There's regret in his voice, but the language is distancing, like it was something terrible that happened that he handled poorly. He talks about it the same way he talked about having laughed at Natre with his friends in the elevator.
Ben, when explaining things to his wife, almost immediately returns to his justification that "she was crazy," and he didn't know what else to do. The American photographer is more active in causing the rape, and seems less remorseful about it, whereas the Thai photographer seems to be haunted by his choice and what it means about him. It changes the feel of the final scenes of the movie, but in an unexpected way I think.
Both movies end with the photographer photographing himself and realizing that the ghost has been sitting on his shoulders the whole time, a not entirely subtle weight that he's been carrying around. And both men try to kill themselves to escape the ghost's torment. They each wind up in a hospital, looking catatonic, and our last view is of the ghost still sitting on the photographer's shoulders in a reflection. They have no hope of leaving her behind.
In the American movie, the wife discovers the truth and leaves her husband. She walks out and says she needs time. Then stops and says, "No, I don't. I will not spend the rest of my life with you." He's a rapist, and he is getting what he deserves. His actions are painted as more intentional, and the movie seems to think this makes it more satisfying when he's punished at the end. He's alone in the hospital with the ghost on his shoulders, his wife long gone.
But in the Thai movie, Tun isn't alone in the hospital. His wife has come back in that final scene, and it leads you to believe that she may be able to forgive him. He's portrayed almost as a victim of circumstance, and certainly he seems to feel that way. He made a mistake and it's going to haunt him for the rest of his life. In a way, this makes the final scene so much more devastating. Because, looking in at his wife on the verge of forgiving him, and seeing the girl still sitting there, it is so clear that neither of them see the ghost. They only see Tun, weighed down by his actions. And you realize that at no point in the movie, was this about the victim.
Tun is not portrayed as being as actively evil as Ben, but neither man is actually concerned for the woman they helped to rape. They're both concerned with their own mistake and their own suffering, and they've both found ways to justify the horrible thing they did. I don't know enough about Thai culture to speculate on whether the difference in their justifications is a cultural difference or not. I do think that both types of justification seem like something that could happen in our culture.
The American version is very clear toward the end. This character is getting what he deserves. It's much more cut and dry. The Thai version is more insidious, because the character is made to seem less evil. He demonstrates regret and sadness as opposed to the American's anger and victim blaming. Both versions of the movie deal with self delusion and the dehumanization of others, but I think the Thai version is more uncomfortable and ultimately more effective, because by making Tun less obviously evil, it lets the viewer see reflections of their own self-justifications and failures of empathy.