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Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Are you ready to scream for more?


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

"Japanese horror" has become a hot genre on the international cult-film scene. It hasn't produced its Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan yet, but Hideo Nakata, who launched the boom with his 1998 shocker "Ringu (The Ring)" is its John Woo. "Ring" has spawned a hit Hollywood remake and Nakata is in negotiations to direct a film in the United States. Meanwhile, foreign fans have been eagerly consuming the products of the boom on video and DVD, including Nakata's "Ringu" followups -- "Chaos" (1999) and "Hongurai Mizu no Soko Kara (Dark Water)" (2002).

News photo
Megumi Okina in Takeshi Shimizu's "Juon"

Ironically, while overseas audiences are discovering how good Japanese filmmakers are at making things go bump in the night (or, in Nakata's case, drip from the ceiling), Japanese fans -- after being burned by bad and mediocre films that cashed in on the boom -- have been turning away from horror.

"Juon (Grudge)," the scare-a-minute sensation by newcomer Takashi Shimizu, is drawing them back. Shimizu himself has been hired by Ghost House Pictures, the production company of "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi, to direct a Hollywood remake of "Juon."

The groundwork for this success has been well-laid. Shimizu, who studied under the "Ringu" series scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi and horrormeister Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Cure," "Kairo"), scripted and directed a straight-to-video "Juon" duo in 1999. The films became a cult sensation, and Shimizu later made shorts, TV films and even dramas Webcast on the Internet in the horror genre. His feature debut was the 2001 "Tomie Re-birth" -- the latest entry in a series about a teenage girl with supernormal powers. Finally, with Takahashi and Kurosawa serving as "supervisors," Shimizu scripted and directed "Juon," a feature film that continues the story begun by the two "Juon" videos.

Acquaintance with the videos, however, is not needed to understand the film, which despite its long back-story about the dead wreaking retribution, feels more like a whirl through a house -- or rather a world -- of horror than like entertainment with a beginning, middle and end. Like many films nowadays that aspire to have an edge, "Juon" scrambles its chronology, but once you are in its grip, the plot puzzlers matter less than the atmosphere of impending doom. It's like being caught in a bad dream, with Evil gaining on you and no way out -- save a death too horrible to endure.

But as quickly as Shimizu keeps the shocks coming -- it's the old action formula of one shock every 10 minutes -- he cannot completely mask the chintziness of his production. Against the hyper-realistic ghosts and goblins of Hollywood, little boys in scary makeup don't quite cut it. Shimizu, however, makes a virtue of necessity by emphasizing the very everydayness of his Ghost World, which looks very much like our own, especially if you only get around to cleaning the house once every five years.

The house where most of the film's action takes place is a moldy wood-and-mortar firetrap that sits apart from its neighbors in a jungle of weeds. Its first visitor is Rika (Megumi Okina), a "home helper" come to care for the bedridden woman who is the owner's mother. When she arrives, however, no one answers and when she enters obasan's room, she finds the old girl in a state of shock, unable to utter a word.

Hearing rustling on the second floor, Rika climbs the stairs (which emit the obligatory creaks) and finds, in the children's room, a closet door covered with duct tape. She removes it and sees something that frightens the living daylights out of her.

Backtrack a few days, when obasan's salaryman son, Katsuya (Kanji Tsuda), returns home from work to discover his wife, Kazumi (Risa Matsuda), upstairs -- prostrated and speechless. Knowing all too well that strange things have been happening ever since they moved into this place, he becomes determined to learn why. What he finds, though, is beyond all reason: a boy who looks like a miniature mime -- with terrifyingly empty eyes.

Later Katsuya's sister, Yoshimi (Misaki Ito), arrives to check up on Katsuya and his family -- no one answers her calls and she is getting worried. She finds Katsuya -- now mad and murderous -- and flees for her life, but the ghouls that sucked out his life and soul pursue her. Is there no peace, she starts to wonder, this side of an unquiet grave? What can stop the spread of this unholy circle?

The premise of the angry dead is a creaker, being a standard of Japanese folk stories, popular fiction and films. Also, some of the devices, such as the implacable black shadows and the photo that looks like a reflection in a diabolic fun-house mirror, are familiar from other recent Japanese horror flicks.

Although the film's long daisy chain of death makes it easy to lose track of relationships -- by the time victim No. 10 came along, I was getting dizzy -- it builds a persuasive momentum. Instead of exaggerating for effect -- the typical strategy of Hollywood horror -- it tries for psychological realism. In other words, it reproduces the type of spectral stuff we dream about in our nightmares -- or see out of the corners of our eyes in dark places.

Every good horror movie has a girl with a good scream -- and "Juon" has several, particularly Okina. Though she may not have the decibels of Naomi Watts in "The Ring" (or whoever dubbed those decibels), Okina has the right look -- of someone who can't believe this is happening to her -- and becomes determined to stop it. Does she succeed? Does the screaming stop? Yours will, of course, when the lights go up, but on the train ride home, try not to sit opposite that kid with the creepy stare.

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