A Review by Noah Antwiler
I'm gonna spoil the movie for you. But don't worry, I'm not cheating you out of the experience:
If you go in the house, you're SCREWED.
I heard a lot of good things about Ju-On from some folks at Rotten Tomatoes and some Asian horror buffs, and so I searched for months looking for a copy to watch it for myself. I often preach the glories of Asian horror films as far superior to the American offerings. Ringu was an awesome film, remade into The Ring for American audiences. I actually like the American version a little better, if only because the mysterious Death Video was much better made thanks to high production values. But where I really fell in love with it was with The Eye, directed by the Pang Brothers. Sure, it's a little derivative, but most horror is derivative from other films. The Eye was the best legitimately scary film I've seen in a long, long time.
The Asian horror films I've seen so far take a much different tack to scaring people. Gore and splatter aren't horror. Horror isn't personified in some wisecracking weirdo in a striped sweater, or by some lumbering oaf in a hockey mask you could easily outrun. I would argue that horror is more about WAITING for something terrible to happen, and less about actually seeing it happen. It's an atmosphere. It's the fear of something you can't see and can't understand. If you can see Jason lumbering towards you, you've hung a label and an image on the scary thing, and you've just quantified it. It suddenly has limits. Where I find Asian horror really works in that they develop slowly to build an atmosphere of dread, using sound and solitude to hint at some looming terror, rather than just showing you something. When you do see it, it's usually a deceptively mundane sort of creature, such as a small child or an emaciated drowned figure, rather than some purely physical threat that would just stab you with a machete. And you never, ever see it for long.
Ringu and The Eye work because they don't necessarily tell you everything you need to know. You simply know what you've seen; there's no clunky exposition, the origin of what you see is unknown, and it's left to your imagination to fill in the gaps. It's in your imagination where you become engaged in the film, and you end up scaring yourself. Ju-On does all that atmosphere stuff right; there are some legitimately frightening scenes in the film, and the tension is high for a while. But they left the characters and the story in their other pants.
The film initially follows a social worker named Rika as she's investigating some mysterious house, populated by some old lady with Alzheimer's. While poking around, she finds an area of the house taped off and sealed. Inside she meets a creepy young boy with pasty skin and hollow eyes who calls himself Toshio. The old lady starts putting up a fuss and panics, muttering something like "Stop tormenting me!" to which she collapses. Rika witnesses some vague shadowy form looming over grandma, which presumably kills her somehow. Rika passes out. The rest of the family arrives at the house almost on a conveyor belt, single file so that they can be systematically whacked by the malevolent spirit of the house.
See, the opening titles explain that Ju-On is the spirit of someone who dies in the heat of extreme rage that inhabits a place seeking vengeance. Evidently the spirit is still pissed off and goes about killing anyone who is stupid enough to set foot into the house, regardless of their innocence or ignorance. The ghost ends up killing the owners of the house one by one, the young woman's sister, the cops who investigate the murders, some schoolgirls who visit the house on a dare, and lastly Rika who spends most of her time getting stalked by the spirit. I'm never quite sure how it ends up killing its victims. Usually something just jumps out, the camera gets real close in a POV shot, and fades to black as someone screams.
The director tried to get really artsy here, dividing the movie into rougly six sections, each headlined by the name of the character who's going to be killed next. These segments are shown in a non-linear order, sort of like Pulp Fiction, in an attempt to be interesting and to slowly develop the story. But it doesn't work, because most of the characters are very poorly developed and have characters flat as Totino's pizza. The characters really have nothing beyond "Rika is a social worker" and "Koyama is an ex-cop." You never really bother investing any interest in the characters either, since you know after the first two murder sequences that anyone headlining the scene is absolutely, utterly hosed. It's also ineffective because you're basically watching one scene six times: character enters the house, sees something spooky, freaks out, tries to hide, ghost stalks character making creepy noises, ghost kills character. There's no variation to this formula, and so the plot is nearly nonexistent, serving only as a clothesline to string together scenes of random people getting stalked and killed.
The movie also feels like a rehash of every other Asian horror film I've seen to date, only without the interesting story and mystique attached to them. The Japanese and Chinese learned long ago that there are really only three creepy things in the world: little girls with hair hanging over their faces, spooky pale children that make groaning noises, and televisions that kill you. Sure enough, this movie has all three. The Ju-On spirit apparently comes from a murdered family who lived in the house years ago, killed by the husband because he suspected his wife of being unfaithful. From what I gather, he killed the wife, kids, housecat (really), then himself. And so the ghost appears as a little girl with hair hanging over her face, a spooky pale kid that makes groaning noises, and a black cat. Oh, and the ghost also taunts you quite effectively through your television. I've just seen it all before, and it's just not any more creepy seeing them turned into cliché form and mashed all into the same movie at the same time. The ghosts aren't even really all that scary, hindered by bad makeup and a lame gimmick that's supposed to make them scary. The little boy makes "meow" noises and the girl makes some kind of gutteral "uhhhhhh" sound in the back of her throat constantly that's not scary, it just gets old FAST. I found the only really spooky scenes involved the ghost possessing the television, because I know I'd flip out if something like that happened to me.
You probably won't believe me until you see it, but I'm honestly not minimizing the plot in any way. If you go in the house, you're screwed. The reason I say this is because the ghost doesn't really want anything. It has no goal. There is no message. There's no reasoning with it, there's no talking to it, there's no placating it, there's no fighting it. There's just nothing you can do. You step in the damn house, just kiss your ass goodbye. It would help if there were something the characters MIGHT do to save themselves in some way, because then that would mean there's an actual conflict or an evolution in the story. Without that, it's just watching a group of idiots march into a meat grinder.
There's a version of The Grudge in production starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, also helmed by the director of Ju-On (so I hear). I'll spoil that one for you, too. She's screwed.