Japan has seen a revival in creepy, atmospheric horror movies over the past few years, largely
due to two potent franchises, both of which have reached the American market and have spawned
remakes: Ringu (which became The Ring) and Ju-on (currently topping the
US box-office as The Grudge). The Ju-on installment that served as the basis of
The Grudge (not surprisingly titled Ju-on - The Grudge) delivers incredibly
creepy atmosphere and tension with minimal gore or violence.
In fact, the film is
minimal in nearly every aspect. The sets, costumes, and directing style are all put together
in their own clean, simple styles. The story concerns the spirits of those who died in a
particularly violent manner. The legend the film builds on suggests that those souls haunt the
living, particularly those who enter the site of their deaths. Most of the characters meet
their demise after entering a particular house that was formerly inhabited by a family
briefly glimpsed in the horrifying opening moments of the film. Little is shown of what
happened there but the film suggests that a husband and father dispatched his wife and young
son in a
particularly gruesome manner. This sequence sets up the film as a bloodbath but in fact it's
of the style of the rest of the film.
Ju-on - The Grudge is so minimal that it feels at times like nothing is even going on.
But the sense of dread created by director Takashi Shimizu makes even the most mundane moments
tingle with nervous energy. He achieves this by marrying two seemingly-conflicting pacing
techniques: First, the film features a fractured narrative. Structured as a series of segments
(each featuring its own title card named after that sequence's main character), the chronology
is jumbled in a way that leaves the viewer working to put the pieces together and figure out
what has happened and what will still happen. This also serves to highlight some tragedies, as
we sometimes spend time getting to know characters that we already know will die from previous
The other technique occurs within each chapter. Shimizu uses each segment to slowly build the
tension and then release with traumatic terror at the end. After a couple of segments the
viewer is lulled into this rhythm, which has some interesting side-effects: You pretty much
feel safe for the first few minutes each time since you sense that the horror won't start for
a while. (This also allows the director to catch you off-guard, if he feels like it.) It's
like a round with the film circling the audience endlessly, not quite repeating, but drawing
on a circular pattern to amplify the creep-factor.
This technique also has thematic relevance. Since the film doesn't really have one central
character, the notion that this ghostly evil will act on anyone it encounters is key. And this
cycle of violence, which starts over whenever anyone new enters the house or encounters the
ghost, reflects the cyclical style of the film. As each new character enters, the film doubles
back on itself and comes around again to fold them into the story.
The plain style of the scares is particularly creepy. The box art and advertising emphasize
the ghostly image of a young boy with chalky-white skin and black eyes (Yuya Ozeki makes a
terrifying tyke) but no matter how many times you see the kid leading up to watching the movie
he'll still scare your pants off. It's so simple but so effective. There is another
ghost-character, although that character is best experienced without warning.
The beauty of this Ju-on film is how much of it is left to the viewer's imagination;
Not just the violence, but the story is open to interpretation. While the trailer might state
that one of the main characters "uncovers the truth" or whatever, the film actually leaves the
specifics of what happened up in the air. When the film ends, the viewer might have more
questions than when they started. But rather than a Hollywood film that leaves threads
hanging due to studio cutting or filmmaker incompetence, Shimizu's film does so by design.
Because, more than Ringu, this is an existential horror film: Real scares
wrapped around a puzzle of a film with no final conclusion. It's not unsatisfying, but at the
same time it's not tied up in a bundle. Shimizu is perverse enough to never really clue the
audience in to exactly what's going on. For a film to leave you with bone-chilling scares is
one thing, but to then give you something to talk about on top of all the scariness is
something that only the best horror films achieve. Ju-on - The Grudge may not be the
equal of masterpieces like the original Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the
Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but its haunting ghost story and
thought-provoking construction do put it in that league.
The anamorphic widescreen video is very nice. The cinematography ranges from bright and sunny
to moody and dim to downright dark and the transfer keeps pace with it. Colors are bright
(when they're meant to be), images are crisp and the compression is clean. An excellent
The Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 is the preferable track, coupled with removable English
subtitles. In addition to allowing the dread in the original performances to come through,
having subtitles ensures that your eyeballs will be glued to the screen instead of hiding
behind your hands. The sound is clean and dynamic, with the interesting score and ambient
effects all playing well. Surrounds are nicely used for atmosphere.
There is also an English 2.0 track. It's a nicely produced mix that still delivers a good
experience, although the dubbing does detract somewhat. The voicework isn't as passionate as
the original performances and some of the voices are annoying. Definitely the Japanese track
is the way to go.
The list of extras is long but the quality is not always that impressive. A commentary track
Spiderman director Sam Raimi and longtime collaborator Scott Spiegel is pretty much a
waste. Spiegel spends
the opening scenes of the film telling Raimi how much he loves the director's Evil Dead
films and then the two engage in an annoyingly shallow and uninteresting discussion of the
film at hand. They have little insight into the mysteries of the film other than generic
statements about how this is a horror film that schooled them in horror.
This is extra disappointing given that, since Raimi produced the American version of The
Grudge I figured he's have some interesting thoughts on the original. It's a shame that
Shimizu, through subtitles, couldn't have offered his own commentary.
the scenes videos are kind of interesting, but don't really give much insight into the film
(rather they just show the filmmaker and cast goofing around on the set). There are video
interviews with the director and much of the cast, although the subtitles here are pretty
confusing. Shimizu discusses some personal, philosophical thematic topics and the subtitles
make him pretty tough to follow.
There's a pretty generous selection of deleted scenes (taken from a non-anamorphic work
print), including an alternate ending that expands a good deal on what happens without really
making it any more straightforward. Shimizu offers Japanese commentary over these alternate
scenes with English subtitles. The subtitles sometimes battle with the timecode and other
workprint gobbledygook but it's a nice way to present this material. Some of the alternate
versions of scenes only differ by one shot but it's interesting to get a little extra glimpse
into how this filmmaker works.
There is also a trailer (which makes the film seem more conventional than it is) as well as a
selection of other trailers (including Ringu).
One caveat on the presentation: The menus are built out of some of the scarier scenes
in the film. They're nicely done but they also have a second, unintended effect: Watching some
of the film's best bits repeating over and over while waiting for your friend to return from
the bathroom or while you go to the fridge for a soda does tend to desensitize
you to those particular images. I applaud the inventiveness, but in the future DVD producers
should save their films' most potent images for their intended purposes.
An unusual and engaging film, Ju-on - The Grudge might leave some audiences covering
their eyes and scratching their heads at the same time. But its ambiguous storytelling and
palpable atmosphere combine to create something very unique. The style and the substance are
inextricably linked in this soulful, slow-building frightfest.