Ju-on: The Grudge
2003, NR, 92 min. Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Starring Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji, Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito, Misa Uehara, Yui Ichikawa.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 10, 2004
It takes an awful lot to creep me out these days. Having said that, the highest praise I can offer this marvelously outré Japanese horror film is that after viewing it on tape alone in my home one night I later found myself eyeing the barely open closet door in my bedroom with something bordering on alarm. After all, I had closed it before going to bed. Hadn’t I? Fear of what may be lurking just out of sight, under the bed (or even under the covers, which, in Ju-on: The Grudge, provide absolutely zero protection from the things that go bump and then moan in the night), in the mundane banality of the home, or on a lonely street corner is at the heart of this film. Along with Ringu and The Eye, Ju-on: The Grudge is at the forefront of a new wave of Asian horror films that rely on giddily escalating atmosphere to impart their undeniable frissons of fear. Watching this – and just as importantly, listening to it – is as likely to set the hairs on the back of your neck dancing the dead-girl shuffle as much as any film in recent memory. Shimizu, who directed a pair of direct-to-video versions of Ju-on before this streamlined theatrical version, knows what scares you, and because of the film’s Asian setting and characters, Western audiences are open to an extra dose of spookiness engendered by the unfamiliar foreign locale. Ju-on: The Grudge has been badgered a bit in the Western press for not having much of a plot, and although it’s true that Shimizu’s film, which revolves around a haunted house, the scene of a terrible crime, and what happens to the very, very unfortunate people who live in it, visit it, or even walk by it, has no real traditional three-act structure to speak of, I think that’s missing the point entirely. Fear itself has no structure, and Ju-on plays to that primal, reptilian part of the mind that sees the shadow on the wall and transmogrifies it into something else. It’s a film about the peripheries of life, complete with characters (a young couple, a social services nurse, a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls) who exist in what at first seems to be the most prosaic of locales. Nobody giggles for long in Shimizu’s film, however, and the appearance of a strange little boy, a hackle-raising telephone call, and even the images on a security camera in an ordinary apartment soon take on the full-fledged weight of horror. Few, if any, American films of late have managed to accomplish this, and the closest Western parallel to Shimizu’s unique ability to find terror in the borders of the banal may well be Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People or I Walked With a Zombie, and that was 60-odd years ago. Americans see blood and violence and noise and react viscerally. Shimizu sees darkened staircases and hears the rustle of dead autumn leaves and reacts as if from the devil’s own haiku. And his dread is catching.