Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Ju-On (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 7, 2004

Directed and written by Takashi Shimizu/Lions Gate Home Video

A nurse comes to work for a family whose house is haunted by the spirits of its former owners.

This is the original Japanese film that inspired the recent Sam Raimi-produced remake, The Grudge. Actually, before this there were two straight-to-video movies under the same title, but they haven’t been released in America so I haven’t seen them. I saw the remake first and thought it was pretty good. It had some logic flaws, but I thought it was a decent piece of work overall. I now wish I could’ve seen the original first, so I could see the same movie that Sam Raimi saw when he watched it.

Overall, Ju-On is pretty much the same movie as The Grudge. Of course there are notable differences, which I’ll get into later. But for the first hour or so, you feel like you’re watching the same movie for the most part. Many of the shots and even the sets look the same. The plot is the same for much of the first half. It’s interesting to compare the two at first, but after awhile it gets a little dull because, if you saw The Grudge, you feel like you’ve just seen all of this.

But hang on, because the second half gets interesting as it contains a subplot not used in the remake. Given that this plot concerns Japanese schoolgirls, it’s a little mystifying that this is the one subplot they chose not to duplicate. Japanese schoolgirls are never a bad thing to have in your movie, especially if it’s set in Japan.

Of course it’s unfair to compare the two films in this way, because the original obviously came before the remake, which wouldn’t exist without it. But I can only talk about the experience I had watching the movie. If you didn’t see The Grudge, I would urge you to rent this before seeing it. You’ll probably like it a lot more than I did. But Ju-On is still worth checking out if you’re a fan of the remake as well.

Basically, the story in both films is fragmented so that each victim of the ghost gets their own subplot. In each story we learn how the victim came in contact with the house and what happened to them afterwards. Shimizu (who also directed the remake) goes backwards and forwards in time throughout in a non-linear way, so that we learn new and interesting things with each story. This isn’t the first time this kind of storytelling has been done (Pulp Fiction being the most famous example), but this is the first horror film I can think of that used this method.

A lot of Americans, even critics, didn’t understand this when The Grudge came out. There were many reviews that read like this: “The Grudge is a stupid horror movie with no suspense”. Apparently they were expecting something more straightforward and linear. But most critics give that review to just about every horror movie that comes out, so they probably would’ve said the same thing anyway. I read several reviews where I honestly wondered whether or not the reviewer had even seen the movie.
I think those people would like Ju-On much better, because it’s foreign and all. If they had seen this first, maybe they would “get” The Grudge. I actually admire both movies for doing something different than your average American horror movie, where in most cases you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen at every point. By mixing up the storyline this way, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. Unless of course you’ve seen the other version of the movie.

There are some superficial differences between the two movies, the most obvious one being that in Ju-On, all the actors are Japanese. The Grudge gave us American characters played by well-known actors such as Buffy, Stokely and Tom Cruise’s cousin. Ordinarily that would be a lame move that would serve no purpose other than to Hollywoodize the material. But the remake remained set in Japan, and I actually thought the combination of elements worked very well. The Americans’ unfamiliarity with the country and its customs made everything seem all the more eerie, like a horror version of Lost In Translation. It’s disconcerting enough to be in a completely different country and not knowing what the hell’s going on most of the time – now imagine dealing with the supernatural on top on that. That would really mess you up.

Ju-On obviously doesn’t have that element. But what I like about it, as opposed to the remake, is that there’s more of a sense of widespread insanity going on here, which is more typical of Asian horror. Especially in the second half, it really feels like what’s going on is happening all over the place. It feels like chaos is about to reign and the end is nigh. Parallel universes are meeting, the time-space continuum is warping and the world is imploding in on itself. It’s more like a science-fiction movie in which an experiment has gone horribly wrong than your usual “body count” horror flick. The remake really didn’t explore this, which is kind of a shame, as I think it would’ve freaked people out much more than a simple haunted-house movie.

So which version is better? It’s kind of a toss-up. I actually think they’re about even, strangely enough. I found Ju-On a little hard to follow at times, primarily because many of the actresses in it look so much alike that it was difficult to keep track of who was who at some points (this would not be a problem for the Japanese audience, of course). Yet I didn’t have the same problems with the logic of the film the way I did with the remake. For example, in this version the cop that the heroine goes to doesn’t know about the house beforehand, whereas in the remake he seemed to know all about it. So why didn’t he just go burn it down before it was sold to the new owners? You know there’s a haunted house that someone’s eventually going to move into, and you don’t do anything about it? Come on.

In the end, I think which version you prefer will probably come down to which one you see first. Just like The Ring, I still preferred the remake once I finally got to see the original. But I also liked the original for what it was, and I recognize the fact that it came first and there wouldn’t be a remake without it. Ultimately, I think both versions are worth checking out. This isn’t a case where they took a great foreign film and made an awful Hollywood remake of it. They took a pretty good foreign film…and made a pretty good Hollywood remake. That’s not a bad deal.
The Ju-On DVD also has a commentary track by Raimi and buddy Scott Spiegel (co-writer of Evil Dead 2) in which they basically talk about how great the movie is and how much they admire it. I listened to about half an hour of this. It’s not particularly informative, but it’s actually quite funny listening to them react to the film’s scares like giddy schoolgirls. It’s even funnier when the scares aren’t that incredibly scary, and they still jump and let out the occasional “aaaah!!!” If you’ve ever wanted to hear the director of the Evil Dead movies act like your scaredy-cat little sister, this track is for you.

*** 12/7/04

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