Ever since Ringu exploded onto the scene several years ago, Asian horror has seen a massive revival. For us Westerners, they're a wonderful and refreshing change to the usual ghost films - not as self referential as our American counterparts or as glossy looking, and not as reserved as our UK ghost stories. Granted, they're certainly to everyone's taste - they all pretty much rely on the same scare tactics; take one girl with long black hair and make her shake a little. And to be honest, there have been a lot of weak films coming out, particularly from Hong Kong. But when a film does get it right - oh boy, time to sleep with the lights on! Films like The Eye, Inner Senses and Dark Water have terrified us and made us babble like Tarantino on speed about how good they are. But there's a new guy in town, and he's not a happy bunny...
Ju-On: The Grudge is the first feature film effort in the Ju On series - an extremely popular franchise in its native country of Japan, including television shows, books, graphic novels and the such like. The premise of these tales, and the fable of the Ju-On, is as follows - "a curse born of a grudge held by someone who dies in the grip of powerful angers. It gathers in the places frequented by that person in life, working its spell on those who come in contact with it and thus creating itself anew." (Thanks to http://www.kfccinema.com for that explanation).
This film begins with a social worker, Nishina Rika (played by the very cute Okina Megumi), visiting a family home to check up on them. The previous worker assigned there has disappeared, and she's the only worker free to take over. Once there, Nishina finds the house in complete disarray - food is rotting on the tables, rubbish is strewn throughout the place and plants are left smashed and dead. The only occupant there is the family's grandma - a mute vegetable of a woman who spends her life in bed. Nishina obviously cannot get any information her, so she naturally assumes that the old dear simply cannot look after herself.
Whilst cleaning the upstairs bedroom, Nishina discovers a little boy hiding in a wardrobe that's been taped shut. He's bruised and dirty, and just like the grandmother, he's hardly a fountain of knowledge. Nishina rushes off to confront the old woman about the boy, and is greeted with a dark figure hovering over the bed...
From here on, the film goes into overdrive. To explain any more would be a crime - the film relies on the fear of the unknown to unnerve the viewer. The rest of the film is shown in smaller vignettes, each telling a different story about a different visitor to the house. They all interlink, and each goes to explain the reason for the ghostly presence in the house. Once each story has been told, it's left to the viewer to put together the pieces.
Writer and director Shimizu Takashi has created a masterpiece. I like to think of myself as well educated in the area of horror, and the following statement is one that I do not use lightly. This is easily THE scariest, creepiest, most intense viewing experience I've ever had! While Asian ghost films (and to be honest, most ghost films in general) have 4 or 5 big scares, this film notches up one every five minutes, resulting in a bombardment of assaults to the senses. Even the mild scares traditionally used at the beginning of these types of movies to gently lure the viewer in are far more terrifying than most ghost stories ever manage to muster. Some of these set pieces are reminiscent of certain scenes from the Ringu series, they never seem to be rip-offs. It's not surprising really when you consider that Hiroshi Takahashi, the writer of the Ringu trilogy, acted as creative consultant, along with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Kairo and Cure. With their input, Takashi manages to create a whole new vision of horror. Many films use the iconography of children as warning signs or precursors to tragedy - Carole-Ann in the poltergeist series and Linda Blair's child persona at the beginning of The Exorcist are classic examples of this. But Ju-On's little white faced boy is something altogether different. He is the warning sign, yet he's a protagonist of the haunting himself. It's as if he doesn't want to haunt, but he has no choice.
The equally beautiful yet disturbing photography from Kikumara Tokusho is what really pulls you - each frame is filled with an eerie sense of dread. A subtle feeling that both pulls you in to the film, yet compels you to switch off at the same time - isn't that the hallmark of a great horror film? The whole house appears alive as if it's a lead actor in itself. Even the showing of a staircase is a creepy moment; an accolade that's only ever been associated with The Haunting of Hill House. The soundtrack used throughout is disturbing and sparse - the music and effects pumping only when the action on screen demands in. And after watching this film, they'll be a certain sound effect used that will stay in your head for a long time.
I know this sounds like a love letter, or one of those sick inducing 'Making Of' featurettes where everybody is so happy working together, and oh, aren't we so lucky to work on this film blah blah blah blah. I do genuinely feel that this is the greatest ghost film ever made. But here's its downfall - it's not a film that'll warrant repeated viewings. Yes, you may to want to bring it out to show unsuspecting mates or disbelievers, but it's hardly the type of film that you'll stick on and be entertained. It's simply too much to handle at times. I remember going to a midnight screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the local multiplex a few years back. Now, that was an incredibly tense experience. People were crying, walking out in disgust and generally terrified out of their wits. But watching Ju-On: The Grudge was a whole new ball game for me. Call me a wimp if you like, but if you are scared by films like Ringu, The Eye and Dark Water, then you'll pretty much feel the same way.
Onto the DVD presentation now and it's a good job that the DVD delivers. This is only the cheap R3 HK release (the R2 Japan release doesn't have English subtitles), but it's a little corker of the disc. The anamorphic 1.85:1 picture is clear and detailed, although a little soft at places. The colours themselves are a somewhat muted, but I get the feeling that this was intended - the bleakness of the film stock reflecting the aura of the story. Sound wise, we're presented with an incredible 5.1 mix of the original Japanese dialogue. Each speaker is perfectly mixed, and the rears are really used to full effect on certain scare scenes. That sound effect I was talking about earlier (check out the ending of the Nirvana b-side Moist Vagina if you want to know what I'm talking about) really hits you at all angles. There's almost no background hiss, leaving you with incredibly creepy silences at times. The English subtitles are pretty much error free and are very easy to read. The menus themselves are enough to make you run to the light switch (word of advice - leave the scene selection menu on the screen).
As for extras, we're only given a trailer. Now, considering that the film is given a very good presentation, and that the disc is available for around £5 on certain sites, I can forgive this. Hong Kong Legends are supposed to be releasing this on R2 in early 2004, so I hope that they can give us some background material on the franchise and some insight into the creation of this film. But for now, this disc suits me fine.
Review by Steve Smith
|Extras : see main review|