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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Ju-On(s) Takashi Shimizu 2000-2004

The Gift that Keeps On Giving

I'm going to do something rather odd here and review 4 - count 'em - 4 movies at the same time. Normally you wouldn't think to consider a movie and its three sequels as a single work (trying to do so with, say, Halloween would likely cause your brain to leak out your ears), but in the case of this strange Japanese horror series, it's really the only way to approach the piece.

See, what we have here is a set of variations on a theme: the premise is introduced (a curse is unleashed upon a house when a person is murdered in a state of rage), which is then expanded upon in a peculiar, non-linear way (the curse is contagious and follows home anyone who comes in contact with the house) in the subsequent films. There is no real protagonist (the films are divided into sections, each led by the next victim's name on a black screen), the stories are told out-of-sequence, and there's no single continuous story. But the simplicity and utter originality of the concept is what makes the series, as a unit, so brilliant (along with, of course, the photography, atmosphere, and one of the creepiest sound effects ever committed to screen), even though when compared to one another there are definitely stronger and weaker entries. I'll start by addressing the films one by one, and close with a review of the series.

Ju-On: The Curse (2000)
The first and shortest of the crew, this installment certainly packs the most punch. Shot on video for what looks like about $70 (not a slam to the better-than-average cinematography, mind you -- there's just nothing expensive about this film), Ju-On is a lean, mean urban ghost story that starts mysteriously, ends mysteriously, and features some things in the middle that are as fucked up as you're ever likely to see.

Kobayashi (Yurei Yanagi), a young, married teacher whose wife is expecting, goes to check in on a student who has been absent from school for a while. He visits the boy's seemingly normal suburban home, and finds the house filthy and trashed, the parents missing, and the boy (Toshio, played by the sure-to-be-in-therapy-for-the-rest-of-his-natural-born-life Ryota Koyama) sitting inside. Kobayashi decides to wait with the boy until his parents return, and as we move away from he and Toshio to watch the curse that fills the house exact punishment on others, we slowly learn why they won't be coming home. At least, not alive. The story unfolds ploddingly, almost infuriatingly so, but it's worth the wait: the ending is one of the most disturbing resolutions I have seen in ages, and the genesis of one of the best horror franchises running.

The interesting thing about this original installment is that although it inspired a series of films with very tenuously connected narratives (there is sometimes no main character, no real plot to speak of -- just episodes of people falling prey to the ghost), it actually has a very clear story. Kobayashi, unlike the dozens of victims to come in the sequels, has a direct connection to the original murder that sets the Ju-On into motion -- namely, he's the cause of it. The unfolding action is then a revelation of how and why the house has summoned him in particular, and a terrible and unjust revenge for a misdeed he committed far in the past is exacted on a number of innocent persons -- and this is before the curse even begins. Multiple murders, forced abortions, corpses in the walls, boys who scream like cats, and a nasty, roach-like ghost are the makings of this very disturbing and well-told story. The structure, though here almost an afterthought or a layer placed over the main story, is the main element to be carried into the sequels: we are told the story through chapters named after each victim, out-of-sequence. Since there is an underlying mystery to be solved here, the puzzle-structure works far better than it does in the subsequent episodes, where it comes across as being intentionally misleading and becomes the story, rather than reveals it.

And, of course, this film is the one that introduced the lovely Kayako (Takako Fuji, who would go on to play the ghost in all of the films), a blue-white cockroach of a woman who slithers along like a snake with a broken back and pops up at the most inopportune of times to frighten people to death. Toshio, her little boy, is more of a mystery -- is he alive? Is he a ghost as well? We're not sure, and none of the films actually address the question -- although his tendency to make cat noises on the telephone is certainly not normal. With her black Joan Jett shag and her bloody white dress, Kayako definitely sits next to Ringu's Sadako at Sunday tea.

Hands-down the best of the bunch.

for Ju-On: The Curse

Ju-On: The Curse 2 (2000)
Another direct-to-video cheapie, Ju-On: The Curse 2 starts where the first film left off. Ordinarily, this is a good thing (as in Halloween 2, Back to the Future 2, Ringu 2) -- but here it's just plain annoying. Why? Because they literally replay twenty full minutes of the original film to "get you back in the mood". Seriously -- the same fucking footage. Seeing as how, well, I had already seen the first film (the reason I was now watching its sequel, natch), I found this incredibly annoying. Were they trying to pad another shortie out to feature-length? Did they just really really like the second half of the first film? God knows -- but by the time I waded through the re-run at the beginning and got to the new stuff (it doesn't help that the films are episodic and don't follow one character, in this situation -- I had a real hard time figuring out what I'd seen already, as I watched the second film about 4 months after the first), which is admittedly pretty good, I was already unfortunately a bit soured on the whole project, as it reeked of a coke-fueled marketing decision.

Anyway, once the story kicks in, we're presented with the conclusion (as much as there is a conclusion to ANYTHING in these movies) of Suzuki's story (a real estate agent who sells the house at the end of the first film without first exorcising it), which of course feeds into another (several cops who are on to all of the disappearances and murders at these addresses, including one who has gone quite mad from exposure to the curse), and another (Suzuki's son, oddly spared from the curse, even though it directly attacks him, finally gets tracked down in his junior school, where it naturally spreads even further), and another (another family who moves into the original house: the wife is actually physically possessed by the evil spirit and kills her husband, then sits down for a nice cup of tea. Very Japanese.), and of course has an open ending for a sequel that oddly comes in the form of the first feature.

Elements from Ju-On 2: The Curse are echoed in the following feature film, although they are not directly related by any one character or plotline, save the original curse murder. I think. But this one's worth watching -- although it's light on scares, there are some excellently creepy images here, from grandparents frozen in silent screams to a great school chase that ends in what I think is this installment's definitive image (I'll let you see it yourself -- it's nice).

for Ju-On: The Curse 2

Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)
The first of the theatrical Ju-Ons, Ju-On: The Grudge was shot on film and is more traditional in terms of photography, although it still is quite unique from a narrative perspective. This was the first of the 4 that I saw, and I'll admit that I had no idea what the hell was going on all the way through. But ending a movie with more questions than answers isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly when you've got other pieces of work out there that flesh out the story (yes, I ran out to get the first two installments in the hopes that they'd explain things. And they did. Kind of.).

Sort of a sequel, sort of a continuation, and not really directly related to the first two, the structure remains the same: different people come into contact with a vengeful, rage-filled spirit in an otherwise innocuous-looking Japanese home, and they get royally fucked up. In this film we sort of have a main character, a young social worker who is sent to check up on a patient who hasn't come in recently. She finds a borderline-comatose old woman on a dirty mattress inside the house and decides to hang out (naturally), and of course things don't end well. We then follow several other people, including a detective investigating the original murder, again in non-sequential order, until the "conclusion", which doesn't really conclude anything. I think we are supposed to understand that the murder is still the same murder from the original film (which, in retrospect, now seems like it obeys the Aristotilian laws of drama compared to this stream-of-consciousness head trip) and that this is all just happening later. Regardless, it is the same damned house that was used in the first two movies, and I have to say that by this point it's been etched into my mind and kinda creeps me out.

Creepier still is the fact that the director of all 4 films also filmed the American remake (starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as the social worker), and he filmed it in the same fucking house. I can't imagine spending that much time in one place. But I give him credit: with 5 movies under its belt, this is the most consistently haunted house in horror series history, from what I can tell: and it features the same ghosts, the same decor, and no one ever gets even close to exorcising any demons. In fact, that's one thing that makes this series so unique: here the emphasis is not on "helping" the ghosts or "cleaning" the space -- it's about getting the flying fuck OUT.

In this installment we have unfortunate schoolgirls, a home shrine (again, these films are patently Japanese, and while some might say they are copping American filmic conventions, the music, decor, and underlying ideology are refreshingly Asian), a little blue boy (apparently Toshio wasn't keeping too well -- he's starting to look like he's rounded the corner), and lots and lots of black hair. But the most significant contribution that this film makes to the franchise is... that sound....

I don't know who came up with the sound that our ghost-lady makes, but he should be given a fucking Oscar -- the noise is a cross between angry frog and backed-up sink, and it's really, really, really creepy. In the first two films the little boy makes cat noises a lot (there's cat imagery in all of the films, actually), but Ma Ghost is pretty quiet other than the rustling of her bloody dress as she shimmies down the stairs. Here, she's got lots to say, and it all starts with "A-A-A-A-A-A-Ahhhhhh-ah-ah-ah-aaahhhhhh".

I have to say that the switch from video to film for this movie actually bummed me out. The first two films had a lo-fi, DIY glee to them that I got really used to, and the slicker, more conventional filmed version actually left me a little cold. I also felt in this film that we were making a real departure from the origin story for the first time, and to be honest I think it hurts the film. I found it hard to figure out who the hell the characters were, and I really wanted to be more connected to the original curse. Of course, watching the films in sequential order might not have the same effect, if you can get your hands on the first two.

for Ju-On: The Grudge

Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2003)
Although it features two drop-dead fantastic sequences, Ju-On The Grudge 2 unfortunately starts to show a little wear in the Engrossing department. The main plot (yes, it actually kind of has one) unfortunately follows Kyoko, (Noriko Sakai) a pregnant actress who miscarries when she and her fiancee are in a car accident that also puts her man in a coma. This is a heavy way to start off a film that most people will be watching to see the cockroach-lady and her blue little boy freak the shit out of Japanese schoolgirls while croaking like frogs. She's naturally a little bummed out by losing her baby and potentially her husband (and bummed even further when her mother unexpectedly dies under the dining room table), but oddly, the baby seems to come back to life in her belly after she is touched by the little blue ghost-boy.

You don't need to see a paranormal OBGYN to know that this is not a good thing. Before you can say Rosemary-san's Baby, Kyoko is freaking out over her pregnancy and starting to put together that maybe it wasn't the best idea to film a reality television show in the haunted house while she was preggers. In traditional Ju-On fashion, we see a few of the other actresses involved in the television show and other projects with Kyoko falling prey to the ghosts, who seem to make more house-calls in this film than the previous outings. Not that this is a bad thing, because it does allow Shimizu to play around with other spaces and stories; in fact, this film feels most like an anthology -- almost like these stories were just bouncing around like urban legends and he put them together with the curse as an epoxy.

Luckily, two of them are very effective (one of which, involving noises coming through a wall at night, has a punch-line that will seriously make you gasp), but I really could have used more. Here Shimizu is really taking the mindfuck angle (certain sub-stories are impossible in the time-space continuum -- which is fine, as long as you don't encourage your audience to try to follow them), but the anchoring maternity story just doesn't seem to fit in with the rest. Imagine It's Alive! meets Jacob's Ladder, and you get the idea of how messy it might be. Shimizu also must have seen the original Kingdom series (the Lars von Trier one), because there are some pretty similar scenes (including the resolution) and elements (hospitals, pregnancy, ghost children). In fact, this installment's similarities to other horror movies is revealing: while the other films were quite unique, here we see that the creative juices may be running a bit thin, leading to borrowing from other films.

Oh -- another defining characteristic of this one is the flagrant use of bloody ass-prints and copious hair (sometimes together).

The Whole Shebang
In all, Shimizu has given us something very, very special: he has taken the haunted house concept and completely turned it on its head, and through a shockingly simple story and execution, has revitalized a dead genre. By making the curse (or the grudge) communicable, much like the Ring Virus, Shimizu infuses the story with a deep sense of hopelessness and inescapability, which is driven even deeper by his use of "mounting dread" and lo-fi, pedestrian environments. Very scary, sometimes downright shocking, and absolutely unique in their execution, the films are much like a puzzlebox -- especially when taken as a whole -- and beg to be studied more closely. I find it remarkable, for example, that after 4 films that generate from one murder, there is no actual description of the murder itself (there are glimpses here and there, but certain accounts conflict with others and it's usually referred to very obliquely): I can't imagine an American franchise dangling that kind of information just out-of-reach for that long, and I applaud the filmmakers for it.

At no point in ANY of these films does ANYONE get the upper hand on these ghosts. It's not even introduced as an option. There are no fights, no confrontations, no last-act surprises (except the ones that are genuinely a part of the story), no "Oh My God He's Not Dead!" shocks, and -- loathe as I am to admit this -- no final girl. But that's what makes it all so intriguing and delicious, and I will go on record saying that I've had more fun watching this franchise than any other series of the past 10 years.

From preliminary reports, the American remake/sequel will likely not answer many questions, and could pose more (namely, what in the hell is Buffy doing in Japan?!). Here's to hoping that they keep their Western mitts off this curse and let it do what it does best:

"A-A-A-A-A-A-Ahhhhhh-ah-ah-ah-aaahhhhhh..."

 

Rating (out of 5):