Written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2003
I won’t discuss the plot of this movie, as it is virtually identical to that of “the Grudge”. Go there for plot details (and some spoilers). Basic premise: cursed house. Not exactly a haunted house as we usually think of it, but a blood curse that kills everyone who enters the house. Really, that’s all you need to know.
What I’ll concentrate on here is the differences between this and the American remake.
Takashi Shimizu has a very confusing record of Ju-On movies, so let me explain the background, just so everybody knows which version I’m reviewing here. Shimizu first made “Ju-On” as a straight-to-video release in Japan. Then he made a sequel, “Ju-On 2", also for video release. Then he remade both of them for cinematic release, with much bigger budgets, and called the first one “Ju-On: the Grudge” (the version reviewed here) and the second one “Ju-On 2: the Curse” (also known as “Ju-On: the Grudge 2" - getting confused yet?). And finally, he directed an American adaptation of the first movie, which is officially called “the Grudge.” Usually fans of the series simply label these movies Video Ju-On, Video Ju-On 2, Movie Ju-On, Movie Ju-On 2, and American Ju-On (or “the Buffy version”).1
Got all that? Good. Now, I recently reviewed the American version. I didn’t like it much. To recap my review, I felt the movie had no coherent story and used far too many cliched shots and themes from better horror movies - Ringu being the main reference. The movie seemed to have no clear concept of what it wanted its spooks to be, possibly because the writers just had no idea but possibly because the movie had been remade too many times and they weren’t quite sure which ideas were good and which weren’t. Finally, I was extremely annoyed at the invasive FX work and manipulative, shrieking score, which signalled every apparition with Crescendos of Horrifying, Dreadful, Eery Music and Terrifying, Weird-Ass Ghostly Makeup.
(Not to mention CGI enhancements. Hollywood, I would like to inform you that – contrary to what you seem to believe – CGI ghosts are not scary. Ever. When we see a ghost, we’re supposed to think “Jesus Christ that was scary!” NOT “Wow, how did they do that?” Thank you.)
So it was with some reservations that I watched “Movie Ju-On” (the first remake, if you recall) on a DVD that a kind noder sent my way. But I decided to give the thing a chance, because I had heard a lot of good things about this one and I was curious about the differences. And I found that it was, as I expected, better than the Buffy version. The differences are not enormous, but they are big enough to make the experience quite a bit different.
The biggest difference between the two movies is that the Japanese version does not try to tie everything together through its protagonist. In this movie, the common thread is the Grudge itself, not the heroine. The American version tries to make SMG the center of all the action, so that when the POV does jump to another character (as it must if the story is going to work at all) it is jarringly out of place. In this version, it is established from the titles preceding the first scene that the Grudge follows whoever enters the place of death and is passed on from them to the next trespasser, becoming a sort of supernatural virus – a theme which pops up over and over in Japanese horror. The movie is more like a series of short films with a common thread than one long one, and you can tell that this is how it was conceived. (In fact, the original “Video Ju-On” had no unifying protagonist at all, as far as I can tell).
The second big difference is subtlety. In one interview given when American Ju-On was released, Shimizu said “Japanese horror is intended to give audiences more mental scares, while in Hollywood it's more simple surprising scares. I think audiences want to be more scared than in traditional Hollywood films, and Japanese films provide those.”1 True to this statement, The Grudge is all CGI apparitions with over-the-top music, while Ju-On: the Grudge is full of subtle scares. These ghosts don’t float in the air, surrounded by special-effect penumbras. They just show up in the side of the frame where they aren’t supposed to be.
Several of the American version’s sillier killings aren’t in this one, and they’ve been replaced with better visions, in which it’s never quite clear what is real and what isn’t, or who is still human and who is possessed by the curse. Shimizu plays with his audiences a lot more creatively here, with more build-up, and the “creeping unrest” that I complained about missing in the American version is here by the bucketload.
There is one other difference, which seems minor but is rather important: the characters are Japanese. I spent most of American Ju-On waiting for something to happen which would actually use the Stranger in a Strange Land theme to some effect. It never did, and throughout the movie it just annoyed me that we had these people in a foreign country for no relevant reason. It seemed like somebody had orders to “go for that Lost in Translation feeling, because the college kids love that”. Needless to say, this problem does not exist in Movie Ju-On. The characters are simply there, living their lives, and it actually makes sense for them to be there. It’s a lot easier to believe in them as real people, which in turn makes the hauntings much more effective.
(Strangely enough, before he was approached to direct the American version, Shimizu said, “I think a big challenge to re-make these movies in another country would be to make the horror work in a entirely different kind of house.”2 Now that might have been interesting.)
All things considered, Ju-On: the Grudge is not revolutionarily different from the American Grudge, but it is better done. Most horror fans should find it well worth hunting down a copy. For my final rating, I give it 2 Hands of Glory and a furry spider.
1 - belgand tells me that the first two video releases are typically known with the subtitle "The Curse" and the two (Japanese) films are subtitled with "The Grudge". Yeah, that's a whole lot less confusing.
- Dark Horizons interview with Takashi Shimizu, Sep 24, 2004: