Ju-On: The Grudge

By Chris Hyde

August 27, 2003

Thank God she's got that flashlight to protect her.

Though the Wes Craven remake of Kairo now seems to have been scuttled, post-Ring Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films are still a fairly hot Hollywood commodity. One such film is Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On: The Grudge, an eerie property destined to eventually show up in a domestic form at a theater near you.

The director of this horror piece is a former student of the Film School of Tokyo who has worked under the tutelage of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kairo, Kyua) and Hiroshi Takahashi (screenwriter of The Ring). The Ju-On series initially made its debut in a straight-to-video format during the year 2000, with the director cranking out two episodes that were successful enough on the small screen to allow for theatrical versions to be made. To confuse things just slightly, these video versions of Ju-On and Ju-On 2 actually form the basis of the celluloid film Ju-On: The Grudge, while the cinematic Ju-On 2 continues the story further. But whatever its other manifestations, this first take of Ju-On to be made for the cinema proves an unsettling trip into the off-kilter world of the beyond.

In Japanese cultural tradition there are ghosts known as onryou, who are vengeful spirits that haunt the real world. In Ju-on these apparitions are the result of a horrible crime glimpsed briefly in the credit sequence, shortly after the film has declared: "JU-ON: a curse born of a grudge held by someone who dies in the grip of powerful angers. It gathers in the places frequented by that person in life, working its spell on those who come into contact with it and thus creating itself anew.” Thus, after a violent father butchers his unsuspecting family (even including the cat), the young wife's vindictive spirit holds on to retaliate against anyone who comes into contact with the evil place that was the site of this terrible crime.

Yet it isn't only the wife's spirit that returns to walk the world anew; in fact, the whole family reappears as ghosts to torment those who visit this cursed place. Ju-on's story unfolds as a series of vignettes, each of which center on a particular person who may fall victim to the onryou as they come into contact with the house's ghostly inhabitants. The film continuously delivers a succession of scary and threatening moments from the very first, as the introduced characters confront the horror visited upon them by these hate-filled denizens looking to wreak their vengeance upon the living.

Viewers who are hung up on the finer intricacies of plot detail and who demand explanations for the actions of characters onscreen will likely find themselves befuddled by the director's approach with Ju-on: The Grudge. The emphasis here is certainly not fixed on tightly controlling the story details -- instead, a pervasive eerie tone and offbeat mood rule the day. Characters get introduced and then just as quickly are dispatched by the onryou; the chronology is confused so that the viewer is often unsure where in time a segment stands; odd events are glimpsed tangentially so that the threads which connect them are blurred and hazy. But what it all ultimately adds up to is a stylish and alarming trip into the supernatural that is utterly satisfying as long as one isn't too concerned with the more delicate machinations of the tale.

Director Shimizu should be praised for the capable, moody manner in which the chilling events develop during this original entry to the horror genre. The film is filled with creepy moments that are designed to terrify: a black-eyed, pallid young boy scampers into corners and peeks out from darkened closets; black cats yowl with fear and turn up in broad daylight to surprise their victims; telephone calls echo with the creaky rumblings of wayward ghosts looking to have their cold revenge. Throughout all this the cinematography and lighting are handled so that they have the maximum impact, setting a minor key feel that gives the movie a pervasive sense of affright. Also helpful to the film's success is the high quality acting of most of the cast, which renders believable many set pieces that might otherwise play as completely absurd rather than fear inducing.

Undoubtedly, it'll be interesting to see how this movie is translated into the Hollywood milieu once the remake is completed for a domestic audience. One suspects that much of the puzzling, surreal atmosphere that lends the Japanese Ju-on its eccentric air will be replaced by the sort of coherent, hit-you-over-the-head explanation that North American audiences seem to demand. But hopefully the transition can be made as smoothly as was done with the very successful Ring film, where the story was brought into a format acceptable to such viewers without completely sacrificing the flavor of the original. However, it also wouldn't be completely surprising to have the same fate befall this remake as happened to the Kairo (aka Pulse) remake, where the studio ultimately decided the outing was too similar to that Gore Verbinski project and eventually shut down production. Still, rumor has it that principal photography for the Hollywood Ju-on should begin sometime in September, so with any luck perhaps things are now too far along to have the idea fall apart completely.

But whatever the ultimate outcome of the domestic remake, viewers can rest assured that this original Japanese film version of Ju-On: The Grudge stands in its own right as a powerful and interesting contribution to the horror genre. Its entire length is filled with stylish, scary sequences and if the viewer is willing to simply go along with the outlandish development of the plot, the film exists as a pure and frightening pleasure. Additionally, it's always instructive to see the properties that Hollywood vacuums up for reconstruction in their original form prior to the unveiling of the domestic version. For while the world may at times appear to be closing in quickly on monoculture, it's obvious that there still remain major differences in approach that surface in the way a story is handled by a particular country's film industry. So, if you should happen to get a chance to catch a glimpse of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On: The Grudge (and attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival should note that a print will be shown at this year's upcoming shindig) before it shows up in megaplex form, the suggestion from this corner is that you take it. That way, perhaps you'll ultimately get the chance to have this twisted tale make your blood run cold more than once.



Need to contact us? E-mail a Box Office Prophet.
Friday, March 5, 2021
© 2021 Box Office Prophets, a division of One Of Us, Inc.