The Japanese “Juon” series seems to function under the motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. From what I’ve read of the franchise (there are four so far), there seems to be no attempts to do anything different each time around. Taking into consideration Joseph’s reviews of two of the four installments (“Juon: The Curse” and “Juon: The Grudge”), the pattern seems to be this: multiple characters loosely connected wanders into a haunted house and ends up being terrorized and killed by a dead woman and her dead son. That, in a nutshell, seems to be the story of all 4 “Juon” installments.
The latest entry opens with movie scream queen Kyoko (Noriko Sakai) in a car at night with her fianc’, when they run over something in the road. The fianc’ claims it’s nothing, and hurries back into the car; but that’s when the pale face of a dead kid shows up to cause an accident. The fianc’ ends up in a coma, leaving Kyoko alone and pregnant. At this point the narrative brings in TV reporter Tomoka (Chiharu Niyama), who is doing a special on the haunted house. Somewhere along the line, a psychic student name Chiharu (Yui Ichikawa) enters the picture.
If you’ve never seen a Japanese horror movie before, or very little, then the hauntings in “Juon” may scare or even unnerve you. Alas, I have overdosed on too many of these Dark Hair Ghost Stories in the last few years, and seeing yet another one where a woman with dark hair appears out of the background just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Also, if the concept of a kid ghost in “Dark Water” made me chuckle, I can safely say that the pale boy in “Juon” won’t give me any restless nights. These reactions are based on my familiarity with the genre, allowing me to know what to expect going in — and getting it.
But for everyone else, “Juon” will send shivers up their backs. It’s an intensely atmospheric film and there are a number of good jumps to be had. Of note is the cinematography by Tokusho Kikumura, who knows how to play with the audience’s expectations. The film seems to always be in a master wide shot, with actors standing in one bright location while the other half of the frame is immerse in darkness. One constantly expects something to crawl out of the shadows, but they never do. At least, the fact that nothing ever seems to come out of those shadows only makes the time that they do all the more successful.
Probably the biggest knock I can put on the film is that its hauntings seem to be a bit random. While the characters eventually come into contact with the haunted house — actress Kyoko is hired to “challenge” the house while Tomoka is the on camera reporter — the hauntings begin well before the two even heard of the house. Now, unless the ghosts can see into the future, having them begin the haunting of these women so soon seems more than a tad contrived. Also, since the curse is called a “grudge”, one assumes the ghosts would have it in for its victims; this makes the actress and reporter weak non-contenders for something as vicious as an undying grudge.
While “Juon” is an effective ghost story, sometimes it’s capable of being silly. At one point a wig attacks a character; then there are the multiple appearance of the naked kid ghost, who is really not very scary at all. The mother, on the other hand, is quite something to behold. She’s a visceral figure, a ghost that crawls toward her targets like a lizard moving in uneven speed, with the ability to emerge out of any dark spots. An incoherent guttural sound constantly emanates from the mother’s throat, making her appearance seem beastly as well as ghostly.
The other thing Shimizu does well is throwing the film’s timeline into a jumbled mess, helped by the fact that the ghosts seem to have the power to transverse time and space. Characters see the progression of their deaths play out, but are incapable of understanding or preventing them. It sounds a little confusing, but Shimizu does handle the nonlinear narrative quite well. Although towards the end Shimizu does go overboard on the continuity skipping, especially for a brief period when the focus shifts to psychic Chiharu, whose presence seems little more than an effort to pad out the running time.
Not having seen any of the previous three chapters in the series, I can’t compare this entry to what’s come before it. As a standalone chapter, “Juon: The Grudge 2” is good enough for a lonely dark night. But I suspect that one’s enjoyment of the film and its boo moments will vastly grow if one is not too intimately aware of the conventions of the genre.
Takashi Shimizu (director) / Takashi Shimizu (screenplay)
CAST: Noriko Sakai …. Kyoko Harase
Chiharu NÃ®yama …. Tomoka Miura
Yui Ichikawa …. Chiharu