Ju-On: The Grudge

The trendiest fad in Hollywood is not just the versus movie. It’s remaking Japanese horror movies. If there’s one thing the Japanese do infinitely better than their US counterparts it’s creating creepy psychological horror movies thick with atmosphere. Of course, in the eyes of studios, dumb western movie goers are too caught up with ADHD to bother with pesky subtitles so it’s best to recycle them with flashy effects, crispy clear monosyllabic English dialogue, and such polished production values that it loses what made it creepy in the first place. The latest victim of this is Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On series. Originally starting life as a TV movie (Ju-On: The Curse), it was then remade as a theatrical feature (reviewed here) which itself is, surprise surprise, being remade for US audiences starring Sarah Michelle Gellar under the direction of the man who wrote and directed the whole original Japanese Ju-On series in the first place. Confused? You should be!

Ju-On puts an interesting spin on the old haunted house genre. We are told simply in the opening credits that the Ju-On is “The curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage”; in this case the rage is through a man who dies after brutally murdering his wife (and the pet cat and possibly his son, I wasn’t too sure) when he discovers she has cheated on him and his son may not be his. This leaves the house haunted by the woman, the young boy and cat (though the cat and boy may in fact be the same entity) and anyone who enters the house immediately becomes destined to die at the hands of these pallid complexioned ghosts.

The tale opens as our “main character” as such, young welfare worker Rika (Megumi Okina), is assigned a job to go and check up on an infirm old lady. Her old welfare officer cannot be contacted and neither can the old lady’s next of kin. Rika reluctantly accepts. It will probably not surprise you to learn that the old lady lives in the haunted house and it is from here the story unfolds.

The story is told in “chapters” each representing one victim of the Ju-On curse. This makes it difficult to say too much about the plot as it involves so many characters. Much like Pulp Fiction, as the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives so too do the chapters, flashing backwards and forwards in time, slowly revealing the fate of it’s protagonists, how they came to end up in the house and how they meet their unfortunate end.

Like previous Asian horror movies Ringu and The Eye if there’s one thing that defines Ju-On it’s the unsettling atmosphere it manages to create. The score is minimal, the pacing slow and everything is painfully quiet. The kind of quiet where, if you’re in your house alone at night, you’re never quite comfortable. It also plays on more modern superstition, especially one of my worst strange childhood fears, that one of the TV image that develops a disturbing and distressing life of it’s own that you can’t control. As shadows take a life of their own and phones let out piercing caterwauling sounds, Shimizu creates an unsettling environment out of everything that plays tricks on the eye and ears and all the silly irrational fears that for some reason still play on our minds.

If there is any major weakness to Ju-On it’s that it’s disjointed episodic storyline can be hard to follow as it jumps back and forward in time and between characters. While it may have worked in Pulp Fiction, here it just adds to the confusion as you try to piece together whether a segment comes before or after the ones preceding and succeeding it. Adding to the confusion is a couple of dream segments blurring the lines. In fact, I’ve watched it twice now and it still seems like one character “dies” twice. What Shimizu seems to be trying to do is squeeze too large a story arc into too narrow a movie. The result from a story-telling point of view is a little hollow.

This would also account for one of the other big weakness that you may have picked up from my review; the ambiguity of some of it. I know if you explain the monster it becomes less scary, but if your never 100% sure why what’s happening is happening it leaves you more confused than scared. I’ve been informed that one of the “Curse” TV movies actually serves as a prequel, explaining the back story more clearly - however that’s no excuse to leave it out of your theatrical remake, it only confuses matters. But from a country where no less than three different versions of Ringu exist and where the theatrical Ringu actually has two sets of sequels - it shouldn’t really be a surprise.

What is refreshing though, as always, is that like all good horror movies out of Asian, it never compromises a happy ending or a feeling of closure to satisfy a focus group and it never just throws an unnecessary “we want a sequel” bone out there where it isn’t warranted. There is a sequel to Ju-On and from what I can gather, general opinion is that it is better than the original. However, if you live in the US, you should just consider yourself lucky that the Hollywood studios that bought the rights are letting you see this one at all. It’s flawed, it's not the best of it's genre, but damn if it doesn't succeed in being creepy. A rare thing in modern horror.

Interestingly I watched the trailer for the Sarah MG version of this after watching this. It looks to have done exactly what I said earlier; dumbed things down to a simple narrative while keeping almost all the memorable fright scenes from the original shot-for-shot intact (albeit a lot more slick). But when the movie it’s based on is as equally confusing as it is scary, this may be both a blessing and a Curse of it’s own…