Ju-on follows on the heels of two successful video releases and precedes both a sequel and an American remake, The Grudge, to be released next month starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Bill Pullman (for once, the remake will be helmed by the original writer/director, Takashi Shimizu). As such, it makes sense that it tells only part of the story; what’s unfortunate is that it’s apparently the most incoherent part. The film opens and closes centered on a girl named Rika, who volunteers at a Social Welfare Center. She’s sent out to check on an elderly woman named Sachie, who lives with her son and daughter-in-law in an attractive stucco house in a suburb of Tokyo. Little does Rika know that the house has a sordid history and restless spirits afoot (the premise is similar to The Amityville Horror, though we are thankfully spared a malevolent James Brolin). Between these two segments, we’re treated to various related stories about those who’ve entered the house and met its demons face to face. The problem with this episodic structure is that there’s no real buildup of suspense or fear; after each scare, we’re thrust back into everyday circumstances that again build toward a little climax, but nothing shocking enough to really chill you; indeed the structure makes the episodes repetitious enough to be mildly tiresome.
The film’s other problem is its lack of moderation. It’s an axiomatic assumption of the horror genre that it’s scarier to show your monster as little as possible or to save it for the very end. But here the vengeful spirits who inhabit the house have made an appearance within the film’s first fifteen minutes and continue to pop up for extended periods throughout the film. They’re basically actors wearing lots of white pancake, which can work in a quick glimpse (watch the film’s trailer and they really are eerie and frightening) but in extended shots starts to look a lot like actors wearing white pancake. The immoderation extends to the acting, which is frequently histrionic. Both elicit laughs from the audience where there should be only the clickety-clack of nails being bitten.
I’m told that for those familiar with the videos that preceded the feature everything presented here makes sense and is quite scary. I have no reason to disbelieve this assessment, but neither can I condone punishing those in the audience who haven’t seen the preceding works. For us, the film is a bit of a muddle. While I ordinarily applaud the eschewing of unnecessary exposition, it would be helpful to understand what, exactly, is going on here. As I left the theater, I had a lively discussion with a friend as to what various elements of the film might mean and what precise chronology was appropriate for the various episodes. Eventually we had to conclude that there was no way of being sure, and it was perhaps best not to unduly bother ourselves with unverifiable assumptions.
The film is being advertised as being “From the creators of Ringu,” but the only shared elements I can find are producer Takashige Ichise and a few borrowed visual tropes. Despite his liberal borrowings (some of which don’t work at all), Takashi has some good instincts, such as underscoring his scare sequences with silence or a low, foreboding hum rather that ratcheting up the score. But all too often he ruins his clever set-ups with overlong climaxes. For those who’ve seen the earlier works or die-hard fans of Japanese horror, Ju-on holds some promise, but the rest of us had best not get our hopes up.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Ju On: The Grudge / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()