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Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)
25th Jun 06
A long black hairy scary ghost haunts anybody who dares enter the house in which it resides.
Review Ju-On begins with care worker Rika (Megumi Okina) arriving at a typical suburban house to look after a semi-catatonic old lady who is apparently living in total squalor. Why she’s living in this state is unclear but Rika very diligently digs in and starts cleaning up the place. But why is the old lady so freaked out? And who is in that ripped photo that Rika gets caught in the Hoover? And, more importantly, who is that little boy she finds hidden in the cupboard upstairs? All good questions to be sure, but before she has time to answer them (or the phone for that matter, she just lets someone leave the message “how’s mum?”) she witnesses a truly scary event. A large black human shaped thing sucks the life out of the old lady before her very eyes and all she can do is watch, petrified.
And so opens Ju-On: The Grudge, the famous Japanese haunted house tale based on two previous, very popular in their home country, straight to video releases. As the credits explain a Ju-On is what happens when someone is killed in extreme distress, a vengeful spirit left behind if you will which then haunts the location of their death, terrorising all who come in to contact with it. In this case the location is the house, a house where years before a husband had gone mad and killed his wife, hiding her body in the attic, before being found mysteriously dead in the street by a neighbour. Their young son Toshio disappeared and his body was never found. Now it appears that all who come in to contact with the house trigger the Ju-On curse and, as soon as you do, it looks like your days are numbered.
Let’s get back to the plot. Director Takashi Shimizu brings the story of Ju-On to us in a series of chapters, with each chapter roughly dedicated to a separate character which in turn breaks the movie down into half a dozen smaller stories. However, each story is not exclusive and they tend to overlap, sometimes in more ways than one. For example, the first chapter is Rika’s and tells of how she witnesses the old lady’s death, but the next story is Katsuya’s. He is the old lady’s son, who has moved in to the house with his wife Kazumi fairly recently, meaning the movie now jumps back in time to tell his story, which revolves around him being continuously freaked out by the appearance of the white, ghostly apparition of a child in their bedroom. Who is the child? Or rather, whose child is it? It’s not his, not his child, so what does that mean? Is Kazumi having an affair? Needless to say a combination of the apparition and the bizarre constant cat imagery has a bad effect on Katsuya’s psyche, and he does a very terrible thing.
When Hitomi, Kazumi’s younger sister arrives on the scene with food to cook dinner, Katsuya confronts her, tells her Kazumi has gone out and ushers her out the door too. Confused she leaves, but by now it’s too late, and thus chapter three is invoked to tell Hitomi’s story. Now things start to fall in to place; Hitomi carries on regardless, going to work as usual, but she has a rather scary encounter in the toilet of her office block involving a scary long black haired ghost. She tells the security guard who promptly investigates while Hitomi watches on the CCTV. Needless to say the CCTV shows up more than she expected, the ghostly silhouette that took the old lady arrives to meet the security guard and, in terror, Hitomi runs. She runs all the way home, alone, to her own devices, although not before she leaves a message on her sister’s answering machine asking “how’s mum?”
And other characters are introduced too, using similar links. Rika and Hitomi’s segments, you see, are connected by the answering machine message, but similarly later on a former detective named Toyama is drawn in to the plot as he was the detective on the original case that started the Ju-On, so the current investigators into the strange goings on go and ask him for advice. They show him the CCTV footage of Hitomi’s office and, well, from here on in things get even weirder.
Ju-On is essentially a very Japanese story of ghostly revenge, nothing too surprising there, but also manages to tick all the marketable boxes by using imagery that we all associate with Japanese horror cinema, namely long black hairy scary ghosts and Japanese school girls in peril. The later even get their own chapter; Izumi, Toyama’s daughter, and her friends are dared to spend a night in the haunted house in question, but obviously things go terribly wrong (so much so that it all goes a bit Romero for a while there). The long black hair as well you can obviously attribute to Ringu, which could be argued changed the face of Japanese cinema forever, but it could go deeper than that. Watching the horror compilation Scary True Stories opens your eyes to the facts that these long black hair ghost stories are maybe not as original as we initially think; Scary True Stories is an amalgamation of TV shows broadcast back in 1991 and 1992 and also has many long black hairy scary ghosts and schoolgirls in peril, which leads me to conclude that the story telling aspect of both Ringu and Ju-On is not so original. But what both these movies do so well is present the story really well by projecting the story with suitably chilling imagery, and with camera work which tricks you into focusing on one part of the frame when the scary element is quite clearly going to come from another. Jump factors have never been so high, and they’re augmented beautifully by some of the creepiest scoring you’ll ever hear, the ghostly Kayako’s signature croaking sound being probably the most difficult to ignore.
Admittedly though, this movie is not going to be to everyone’s tastes. It’s slow, deliberate and relies heavily on you believing that that little boy covered head to tow in white make up is a ghost. And that that croaking actress also covered in white make up but with added blood and long black hair doing the spider walk down the stairs is scary. So, the bottom line is, if you like your movies a bit more gore soaked, or a bit pacier, or a bit cheesier (i.e. a bit more Zombie Club like) then this is probably not going to work for you. Ju-On is the kind of movie that provokes ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ reactions on movie chat boards and, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that within reason. I’m here to tell you that Ju-On is an intelligent and well made little haunted house picture that, while showing us nothing new, is quite scary in its own right if you let it get under your skin. Turn off all the lights and watch it on your own, you’ll see what I mean.
Versions The UK DVD release is pretty good, with docs and all that. If you're after the two straight to video prequels however, you might have to import.
26th Apr 04 It’s not all bad of course. This is Tarantino, after all, and there are plenty of highlights. Action scenes are handled very well, (the fight between Black Mamba and Darryl Hannah in particular, is a poke in the eye to any who doubt that),