by (2003, Japan)

I’m not a huge fan of horror movies.  I’m a complete sissy when it comes to most films in the genre.  Heck, I haven’t even seen any of the Nightmare On Elm Street or Friday The 13th movies, supposed classics of the genre, or so I’ve been told.  However, I am a huge fan of the horror movies that Japan has been putting out in recent years, at least of the handful that I have seen.

The Ring didn’t quite live up to expectations I had, though there were many elements of it that I did appreciate.  On the other hand, Dark Water scared the crap out of me, turning me into a screaming little girl the first I watched it (a good thing, mind you) while also revealing a lot more emotional and thematic depth than I had expected from a horror flick.  But they’re nothing compared to Ju-On (trans. The Grudge).

Ju-On doesn’t really have a plot per se, but rather a premise that merely plays out through a series of episodes. 

In a grainy, black and white flashback that begins the film, we catch glimpses of a man going insane and killing his family (including the cat).  He hides his wife’s body in the attic before committing suicide, but their 6-year-old boy goes missing and is never found.  Jump forward to the present, where their spirits now haunt their old house.  However, don’t expect the poor, misunderstood specters of The Sixth Sense.  Because of the violent nature of their deaths, Ju-On‘s spirits now bear a terrible grudge against the world of the living, and anyone who comes in contact with the house is subject to their wrath.

The first of these unlucky souls is a young social worker named Nishina Rika, who heads to the house on her latest assignment.  When she arrives, the place is in complete disarray.  The only person there is an elderly woman named Sachie who is virtually comatose.  But as Rika searches the house, she discovers a young boy named Toshio hiding in the closet.  As Rika goes back downstairs to ask Sachie about him, the house suddenly takes on a more menacing atmosphere.  A black mist seems to envelope Sachie before Rika’s eyes, and what she sees practically drives her mad.  The last thing we see is her face twisted in terror as she presses up against the wall… and then the screen goes black and the next episode begins.

At first, the episodic nature of the movie is a bit confusing and disjointed.  Characters disappear, captured by the spirits, only to reappear a few episodes later.  Episodes seem to take place days, months, even years apart from each other.  But as the film continues, a pattern begins to emerge, revealing a web of misery and terror with the house and its spirits at the center.

While some horror films rely on cheap shock tactics or gore to get their chills, Ju-On relies almost entirely on the unbearable sense of dread that it creates and sustains right up until the very end.  It does have its shocking moments.  Occasionally, a door suddenly slams shut or someone (or something) leaps out of the dark to grab a character.  The audience jumps out their seat, and then nervously laughs at how silly it is.  But more often than not, Ju-On will have you sinking down into your seat, as it piles on the dread until you think you’re going to suffocate, and then piles on even more.

Most of the time, you can see the scares in Ju-On coming from a mile away.  After awhile, it’s safe to assume someone’s a goner the minute they step inside the house.  And if you’re still confused, a name flashes on the screen at the beginning of each episode, announcing whose going to meet their Maker within the next 10 minutes or so.  What’s more, it’s pretty obvious just how they’re going to be dispatched.

In one episode, a girl believes she’s being chased by one of the spirits, and being a, well, silly girl, she hides under the covers.  Of course, the audience giggles because you should never, ever do something like that when being chased by a ghost.  But whereas a scenario like that would be played for laughs in an American horror movie, it becomes absolutely terrifying in Ju-On.  The viewer is never once let off the hook or allowed to laugh at the characters’ demises, no matter how obviously stupid their actions are, because Shimizu puts you right there with them.  I’ll confess, I screamed like a little girl when she peeked under the covers.

Even when the movie seems to let up for a bit halfway through, Director Takashi Shimizu (who directed the original direct-to-video releases on which the movie is based) always finds subtle ways to send shivers down your spine.  It might be a creepy reflection, some unsettling photographs, or even just the gloomy music that always seem to playing in the background.  As a result, when the movie’s really big scares start mounting, you’re already prepped for whatever disconcerting sight Shimizu is about to unveil.

Ju-On is a horror film, plain and simple.  Its only aim is to terrify the audience, and it does so extremely well.  It’s a wonderfully chilling piece of mood and atmosphere, creating an alien sense of dread so pervasive that I still get the heebie-jeebies whenever I think about it (which usually occurs when I’m in the shower or putting stuff away in a darkened closet).

There are certain things in this movie that I’ll never get out of my head: Rika opening her eyes and seeing Toshio, white as a bone and his eyes blackened pits, staring over her; the shower scene; watching a character cover their face only to realize that there are a few too many hands there; the horribly nasty sounds that announce the spirits’ presence; the puppet-like manner in which a bloodied woman crawls down the stairs (which would give Sadako fits); and many more.  And I can’t wait to experience them all over again.  But this time with friends, so I can have the sadistic glee of bringing The Grudge a whole new set of victims.