Asian horror films are becoming all the rage in the West, especially with the popularity of “The Ring”, “The Eye”, and the “Battle Royale” series. So it goes without saying that “Ju-On” has an awful lot to live up to in terms of audience expectations. The shot-on-video film rises to the challenge impressively, and becomes one of the most bizarre and macabre releases in recent memory.
The film is primarily an anthology, a ghost story broken up into four acts that all revolve around the same subject. The opening tale concerns a worried teacher who goes in search of a missing student. He finds the boy abandoned and underfed at home, with the child’s mother murdered and wrapped in plastic in the attic. Things essentially go downhill from there. The second and third entries revolve around an unfortunate family that has moved into the home, and how the house’s supernatural influences consume them. The finale deals with a man who has the unenviable task of trying to sell the house, and how he attempts to exorcise it of its powerful demons.
Director Takashi Shimizu works miracles with a scant $4 million budget, and gives the film an atmospheric and surreal quality. It is this dark trait that makes the film so effective, and allows the audience to suspend whatever disbelief they had when they started to watch the movie. Shimizu also gives the film the perfect pace — first starting out slowly, then later wringing out every scene for its shock value. It is commendable that Shimizu uses surprisingly little gore, but even so the images of the crying ghost child and the jawless ghost may haunt you for weeks. Sadly, Shimizu is less successful as the film’s writer. While he’s working with an inventive premise, the script feels unfocused and lacks clarification on important plot points. It also seems a bit too short, as the story might have been told better if the running time wasn’t a brief 90 minutes.
Yuurai Yangi, who previously appeared in “Ring”, gives a standout performance as the young boy’s teacher. He displays a convincing array of emotions — first concerned for his student, then fear and confusion at being trapped in an unearthly situation. His performance demands sympathy from the audience, especially at the moment he realizes he is trapped with no escape from the horrors unfolding around him. The rest of the cast gives serviceable performances, but no one is particularly memorable.
Cinematography by Nobuhito Kisuki is excellent, and contributes to the film’s foreboding feel. The music credited to Gary Ashiya and Shira Sato is fairly eerie, but you get the impression the film would just be as scary without it. Creepy piano music and some pop music are not entirely original, and while adequate they are nothing remarkable.
“Ju-On” has a weak script, but nevertheless manages to be an extremely frightening film of supernatural terror. Whatever it lacks in substance, it more than makes up in style; the movie easily gets under your skin and stays there. It has been reported that Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”) will be handling the directing chores for the planned American remake. Let’s hope he is sensible enough to retain the atmosphere of horrific dread that permeates this Asian import.
In the meantime, moviegoers who like their horror films spooky and stylish should definitely check out this offering from Asia.
Takashi Shimizu (director) / Takashi Shimizu (screenplay)
CAST: YÃ»rei Yanagi …. Shunsuke Kobayashi
Chiaki Kuriyama….Mizuho Tamura
Asumi Miwa….Kanna Murakami