Friday, October 31, 2008

REVIEW: Ju-On (The Grudge) - Takashi Shimizu (2003)

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

It happened imperceptibly...Half way through the first time I watched Takashi Shimizu's film "Ju-On: The Grudge" (2003) I realized that I was curled up into a ball on the couch. Ever so slowly its creepy atmosphere worked on me and without a great deal of major "jump scares" along the way, there wasn't much chance for release of tension. It just kept on tightening its grip.

And that's one of my favourite things about many of the Japanese Horror films of the last decade or so - the focus on an atmosphere of dread. Shimizu's Ju-On series (initiated via a made for TV broadcast called "Ju-On: The Curse" in 2000) deals with malevolent spirits that are created when there is a death that results from extreme rage. This rage stays in the environment and takes its toll on anyone who may then wander into it. In the case of the particular spirits in the Ju-On series, they manifest themselves into the ghostly forms of the woman and child who were both brutally murdered by the patriarch of the family. Anyone (and the film is pretty consistent here) who sets foot in the house will suffer the same rage and will be visited by these ghosts.

One of the ways that the dread is built up is the subtle use of both visual and sound cues. The famous ghostly black hair used in many Asian horror films is quite prevalent here as well, but creepier still is the design of the sound field. Barely audible moaning, shrill cat-like mewls, low rumbling, odd clacking and, most disturbingly, complete silence. Drop outs of sound can just suddenly yank the rug right out from under your feet - there's always some kind of ambient sound around you in films, so when it goes away completely it's very noticeable and terribly unsettling.

Shimizu's films are often criticized for being needlessly confusing and non-linear, but that's just another technique that adds to the viewer always being a bit off balance and more susceptible to being scared. And yet, I find the story does hold together when you look back at it. There's no loopholes in this world, the individual episodic stories actually tie into each other's timeframes appropriately and each story works on its own as well. Even if there wasn't much consistency, that's hardly the point of these films is it? It's all about the atmosphere.

Though not as enjoyable as his Japanese films, I actually liked Shimizu's U.S. remakes as well. They were kind of pointless really, but he stuck with the same format and formula that worked in his Ju-On series. The ghosts didn't suddenly become zombie flesh-eating torturers or vampiric sex-crazed hillbillies (not bad things mind you...) - they stayed in their pure form as spirits being born of rage. And yes, I'm looking forward to "The Grudge 3".

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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