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 successful Hollywood 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 atypical 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 chapters.
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.
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.
Some behind 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.