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J-horror is now a recognised force in the Hollywood mainstream. Remakes of The Eye and The Ring have already proved successful, and the latest, The Grudge, is currently doing the rounds (starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and produced by Sam Raimi). It’s the fifth and latest interpretation of a tale from Japanese director Shimizu Takashi. Premier Asia’s Special Collector’s Edition of Ju-On: The Grudge presents the original film that broke so successfully internationally and scared the bejongers out of Raimi himself. What better time to see what those noises are all about?

Rika arrives at the Tokunaga's
Film
The film opens with a simple explanation. The Ju-On is a curse born out of a grudge held by someone who dies in the grip of a powerful anger. It gathers in the places that the person used to frequent when alive, working on those who it then comes into contact with, enabling it to create itself anew. As the credits roll, fevered imagery and jump cuts hint at a horrible crime occurring. It’s a disturbing montage that swiftly sets an unnerving tone for what is to follow.

The rest of Ju-On plays out in a series of overlapping acts, each named after a particular character. The first is Rika, a volunteer home-care support worker. Her latest assignment is to call in on the elderly Sachie at the suburban Tokunaga residence. Rika finds the bed-ridden lady living alone in a domestic mess, apparently suffering from extreme shock. As Rika begins to clean up, noises from above prompt her to cautiously investigate upstairs…

The second act takes us straight to the Tokunaga’s again, several days prior to Rika’s arrival. Husband and wife Katsuya and Kazumi have recently moved in, bringing Katsuya’s mother Sachie with them. The house is not in a prim, clean and traditionally Japanese condition and there are obvious tensions as Kazumi is tired of caring for Sachie while her husband shuffles distractedly off to work. Later as Sachie remains in bed, Kazumi is compelled to follow what looks like a small boy upstairs. When Katsuya returns his wife is catatonic with fear.

The third act introduces Katsuya’s sister, Hitomi, who’s at work and has visited her brother at the new house before. Soon a menacing spirit pursues Hitomi with terrifying consequences. Back at the Tokunaga’s, Rika’s supervisor has called in to check on her…

Katzumi is not alone ...
Ju-On’s disjointed but comprehensible narration adds to our sense of disturbance and perpetual unease as the characters encounter the curse's evil. It also underlines the horrific power of the curse. Distinctly different from the traditional trappings of western horror, this curse is a disturbing phenomenon. It’s not one single bogeyman, but can manifest itself in a variety of guises, disappearing and reappearing. It doesn’t slash nor need a weapon; its knowledge and secrets are terrifying enough. It’s not bound by the confines of the traditional haunted house; once you’ve been there, it will find you, anywhere. It’s not standing in front of you; it’s atmospheric, around you, watching you, moving in closer.

Director Takashi displays real artifice as he constructs unsettling scenes time and again, with an unrelenting onslaught on your nerves. He eschews CGI and gore for basic, scary make-up and more effective camera techniques. At times we only see what the character sees and feel their apprehension, at others we can see what’s behind or around them, coiling up a spring of dread. Most effective are simple, revealing camera movements or, most anguishing, the lingering shots in the face of terror. There’s little relief, even in the final frames, as more people come into contact with the curse. Only slowly do we understand the its nature and the relevance of the opening montage. It all amounts to a truly superior Japanese horror experience.

As with the most supernatural genre pieces, Ju-On also offers comments on the real world in which it is set. Numerous critics have seen the curse as symbolic of modern, more westernised influences seeping into traditional Japanese culture. Order and familial loyalty are usurped by a more egocentric and consumerist way of living that alienates previous generations and undermines future ones.

The cast is excellent in roles where they have to react with believable terror. It’s a credit to their strong performances that what on paper can sound like a risible exercise in schlock is in fact a riveting watch throughout.

Hitomi finds litte comfort from the duvet
Video
This is a digitally re-mastered and restored 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The breadth augments Takashi’s subtly inventiveness and the transfer generally keeps lines defined, especially the halting camera work up the forbidding staircase.

Without resorting to overly gloomy and doomy sets, Takashi keeps the scenarios creepier by having the horror take place in everyday surroundings. All of the domestic settings are imbued with warm, homely colours and these come across well. Some of the (fewer) exterior shots work less well, though, and seem slightly washed out.  Black or darkness is used to judicious effect in the movie and the transfer handles these with only some fine drizzle of grain at times.


Audio
The disc has a dual language format, featuring the original Japanese language version re-mastered with English subtitles, or with English dubbing. I preferred the former, experiencing the film in its native tongue adding to the experience. It’s not a dialogue heavy piece anyway, the subtitles are always unobtrusive and legible, and there’s no need for talk at the chilliest points anyway. The English dubbing is not amateurish but, as always, detracts from losing yourself in the reality of the piece, and so really isn’t needed. There are SDH subtitles for the hard of hearing as well.

The film plays with a very minimal soundtrack. Nothing is superfluous and everything is used to either build the tension incrementally or suddenly make you jump. This is where the optional DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks really prove their worth. All the speakers, especially the sub, build the eerie atmosphere around you as the character of choice takes those oh-no steps nearer, be it with slow-burn rumbles, higher-pitched whining to that 'kind-of-throaty' noise. The surrounds are excellent for running up your spine with isolated but creepily mobile effects—cupboards scratching, doors closing, little feet running and muted voices off-shot are some of the more memorable—that either jump out at you or creep in from a protagonist’s POV shot. The whole system kicks in when you've got the fear proper to really slap you. It’s an exercise in how film and technology can really transport you without resorting to ear-drum-drubbing and overload.

Katsuya returns home
Extras
‘Asian cinema expert’ Bey Logan provides a feature length commentary. Premier Asia also helpfully supply a few written stills as a biography that explain who he is and how his background and experiences to date have lent him such a prestigious title. He talks pretty much non-stop from the word go. It soon becomes apparent that this guy knows what he’s talking about so he manages to keep things interesting most of the time. It’s obvious he’s done some preparatory work as he reels off the various dates of birth of the various players on screen and other minutiae. Perhaps most worthy are his informative insights into the workings of modern Japanese culture and how the Ju-On series has been variously interpreted as a critique of this. Logan also points out some possible inconsistencies in the film's logic that are smartly addressed by some extremely in depth websites out there (one in particular charting the timeline through all of Takashi's Ju-On makeovers.)

As a Special Collector’s edition it would have been fair to expect at least one documentary or a mini-featurette on how the whole series developed and led up to this film edition. Sadly, no. The purist in me respects this lack, letting the film stand alone as successful piece of J-horror in its own right, without a back-story undermining its apparent originality. The fan in me wants more.

Unfortunately Premier Asia tries to buy us off with a selection of ads for their other releases instead. Most have trailers that come from a bygone era when gravel-gargling voice-over man explains all about the film. They’re hugely enjoyable. The fact that each disc release seems to have many more specs than this Ju-On is a bitter pill though. The films promoted are: A Chinese Ghost Story, Full Contact, Bullet in the Head, Wing Chun, Iron Monkey, Ichi the Killer, Champion, Volcano High, Bang-Rajan, Bichunmoo and The Warrior.

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Overall
Ju-On: The Grudge is a masterful slice of modern J-horror. It’s on a par with Ringu, if not more relentless, and few have been that good. If that’s your cup of sake, this admittedly slim Special Collector’s Edition is a must. It more than stands up to comparisons with Takashi’s new remake. The disc will always be worth returning to when the inevitable slew of inferior pastiches come crawling down the stairs towards you.


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