he 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 fiancé, when they run over something
in the road. The fiancé 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 fiancé
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
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.