FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

May 11, 2006

Ghost Week Day 4: Ju-on

Ju-on: The curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the place where that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born.

There you go. Simple premise, yeah? Like most Asian horror films, Ju-on is short on plot and long on scares. The preceeding paragraph, as written text, opens the picture and gives you everything you need to know. From there, all you can do is sit tight and wait to be horrified.

This isn't to say there's no real plot to the film; it is, however, painfully simple. A man suspects that his wife is cheating on him and his son may be the product of an affair. The man kills his wife and, presumably, the child as well. The house they live in becomes haunted by the spirits of the dead. If they see you, you die. There's no escape, there's nothing you can do about die.

The story is told in vignettes that unwind across time. One of the pleasures of Ju-on is figuring out who relates to whom, where the various scenes fit in the timeline of the big picture, and then piecing together what exactly happened. It's not difficult, really, and the jumping back and forth from place to place and time to time doesn't feel so much like a conceit as it does in, say, Memento.

Were this an American film (and let me qualify that by saying I haven't seen the American remake of Ju-on, The Grudge, starring television's Sarah Michelle Gellar as a journalist or something. I have no idea how that version stacks up or how much of an improvement or bastardization of the original it is, and having seen said original I don't really feel the need to watch it at all. The Ring, on the other hand, well, I saw the American version first and I--wait, where was I? Oh yeah...), an original American film, the plot would most likely spiral out of control with subplots and "reasons" and "explanations" for everything that happens. The Japanese like to keep things simple in their movies, and thus we don't get bogged down in details. It's more like:

Ghosts. Scary image. Die.

And dammit, I like it like that sometimes. These flicks just get to the goods. They're little more than a series of frightening images and sound thrown at you...and I must say, some from Ju-on reduce me to a babbling mess, clutching a pillow to my chest, waiting for it to be over. This movie's got the scary, baby, and sometimes it's the simplest things: the sound of someone shuffling behind you as you walk down a hallway (of course there's no one behind you...); walking into a room with a closet door that's taped shut...then hearing scratching from behind that door; or how about a ghost getting you when you're hiding under your fucking bedsheets? I thought that was a safety zone! No fair!

But that "no fair" is what makes it so good. The conventions of the standard ghost story are turned on their head in Ju-on (and The Ring as well). There's no appeasing a spirit done wrong, a la The Changeling. There's no guiding anyone into the pretty light a la Poltergeist. One character in Ju-on pleads with the spirit "I did what you asked! Stop tormenting me!"...but guess what, folks? This house cannot be cleaned. They will not stop, ever. They're malevolent. They're a curse. And they will kill you.

Most of the ideas behind the Asian horror films come from terrifying folktales that have been passed down through generations. Maybe it's because of this that the movies don't spend alot of time with characters who don't (or won't) believe what's happening before them...there's few, if any, unbelievers or naysayers around. In Ju-on, everyone in the film immediately knows that the house is haunted. The pale woman staring at you from the foot of your bed is simply a fucking ghost. No fuss, no muss, no questions asked, easy, breezy, beautiful. While this approach helps move the plot along more quickly, I think it also helps suck the audience into the action- there's no one on screen constantly playing the cynic card, reminding us that this is all fake. If everyone in the movie simply accepts that this is all real right off the bat, well...couldn't something like this be real?

I can tell you, honestly, that The Ring and Ju-on are the only movies in recent memory that have left me scared long after the credits rolled. Having grown up on ghost movies like Poltergeist, I never figured ghosts to be just plain evil. There was always something to be done to get them off your back, and any "guilty parties" were the only ones who actually paid any price. But these new movies taught me that everything I know is a lie! A LIE! Ghosts hate me- even if I did nothing wrong!- and they will kill me. That's not cool at all. It is, however, quite terrifying.

All this praise for Ju-on doesn't mean I think every Asian horror offering is pure gold. Firstly, I'm not terribly well-versed in the subgenre. Secondly, it seems that the Asian horror scene bites its own tail as much as say, the slasher flicks do. There's some that rock, some that are derivative, and alot that are simply watered-down versions of the classics. Before you say "Meh, seen one long dark-haired girl, seen 'em all!", though, check out Ju-on. It'll get under your skin. I give it 9 out of 10 hold me, mommy!s.


Anonymous said...

The Grudge was terrible. When a movie fails to scare a room full of thirteen year olds, then the PG13 horror remake genre is lost. (As a counterpoint to this, the same pack of thirteen year olds were screaming at every "Shock!" moment in the abysmal The Ring Two )
The worst part is that Sam Raimi had pretty much everything to do with the remake getting made. Then he had everything to do with Boogeyman.

Wow, that was a heck of a tangent.

Anonymous said...

You know I just wrote a massive comment here and somehow it got lost in the shuffle. I can't be bothered to go back into the in-depth explanation of quite how disturbing this is so allow me to summarise:

This film is entirely responsible for my lifetime commitment to never watching any thing featuring dead Japanese people ever again.

Anonymous said...

Takashi Shimizu, when he directed the American version of his movie, was reportedly stunned at the amount of exposition test audiences demanded be put into the film. The Director's Cut of the American version evidently removes some of that exposition and replaces it with yet another puzzling/frightening set piece.

One guy made a comment about how he could not find the film scary because the ghost had to call and ask for directions to a victim's apartment. (He was commenting about the remake, but it occurs in the original as well.) The idea that the spirit was only doing this to torment the victim didn't occur to him.

I quite enjoyed this little thriller and hope to see some more of the Ju-On series at some point. (This is evidently the third film in the series.)

Anonymous said...

Well, all I can say is I never knew little Asian kids were so scary. They really creep me out now.

Have you seen "The Eye"? That's a great J-Horror flick that is soon gonna be ruined by Americans (as only we can seem to do.) Down with cultural imperialism...and Mountain Dew. I hate that stuff.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you...The Ring (the American remake, oddly enough) and Ju-On (the original, of course) still scare me to pieces.

The sounds and images that are used, especially in Ju-On, always send me cowering behind some blankets.

These two horror movies scare me how I want to be scared...slowly and ominously. Like you, I was scared for days after first seeing these films...and that's how it should be with a good horror film.

Have you seen The Tale of Two Sisters? It's a beautifully shot movie with some very creepy moments. I believe it is a Korean film, not Japanese, but it's very well done.

Anonymous said...

Heh. I went to the theater to watch The Grudge and then went home and watched Ju-On. Unlike the Ring, I like Ju-On quite a bit more. I was entertained by The Grudge but it wasn't quite as interesting. I might have to check out the Director's Cut though, that could be entertaining. I still can't believe they're making a sequel to it.

The Grudge took a couple of the vignettes from the movie and turned them into a feature-length film. They cut out some of the more extraneous bits.

Unknown said...

Ju-on is the movie that got me into asian horror. It's the s.o.b. that's to blame! It scarred the crap out of me and I immediatly decided that EVERYONE I knew had to see it.

At this point, I've seen more asian horror movies than I care to remember, mostly because a lot of them just weren't that good. You're right, it's like any other genre of movie. Some is good, some is crap.

But even the good ones haven't been as scary as Ju-on. It was something that wasn't matched in most of the movies since then and it was absent in the remake (which I didn't think was terrible).

Ju-on was really something special.

Goose said...

I am all over the Japanese horror films. I have seen quite a few in this genre. I too enjoy the simplistic way they just try to scare with out all the people stuff. An do they scare? Yes, yes they do. They scare better than all but a few elite modern day American horror films. I think that the sound effects in these films are what gives the genre its punch. The creepy sound the girl makes coming down the stairs? Its just as creepy as the nurse scene in Silent Hill.
This summer we will have yet again another remake. In America it will be called PULSE. It is going to star Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame. Like the Grudge, I am not sure American film makers will do the remake justice. We will have to wait and see.

Stacie Ponder said...

I'm thinking I should do an Asian Horror Week or something, to give me an excuse to watch all these movies. I've heard mostly good things about The Eye and Two Sisters, so I think I definitely need to check those out.

Sounds like I should skip The Grudge, eh? Watching an interview with director Shimizu on the Ju-On DVD, he said that he basically had a bunch of "scares" he wanted in the movie, so he built the vignettes around those. No wonder he was shocked when American audiences demanded more narrative, as Chadwick mentioned. Why? There's more than enough in the original version to let you know what's going on...why bog it down?

That comment from the guy concerning the ghost asking directions is sad and hilarious. What is it they say? Never underestimate the stupidity of your audience?

Anonymous said...

Ju-On had me, alternately, at the edge of my seat or too afraid to get off the couch by the end. Good, good, good movie. The remake was definately a let down and, to me at least, it felt like a Japanese horror movie edited to fit into what someone thought the standard American horror movie style was.

The Eye and Tale of Two Sisters are both quite good as well, not Ju-On good, but they're not too shabby. I think Two Sisters is actually a bit more mystery-ish than The Eye or Ju-On. Pretty though, and a haunting soundtrack too.

I don't know if you've seen it, but Audition is pretty good as well.

Anonymous said...

I don't get it: people say this film isn't scary... I personally have never seen a film with more frightening scenes than this... wouldn't that make it that scariest movie ever, thus implying that those people are desensitized to scaryness? Or perhaps books are more frightening to those people?

I wonder if people who don't get scared by films have less of an imagination than others, in that they cannot imagine those things actually happening to them. Or maybe I'm just a wuss :P

CashBailey said...

Oh God, I hate this movie. Derivative, random crap that's neither intriguing nor scary.

The fact that Shimizu has made about eight of these damn movies and they're still no closer to being good is a testament to what a hack he is.