Today, Japan's supernatural cinema can scare the bejesus out of you. In the late 1990s, Japan began gradually releasing a new wave of moody horror films -- some graphically violent, some unnervingly straight-faced -- that ensnared cult followings and Hollywood interest. Formerly the fare of obscure U.S. video stores, Japanese horror received mainstream validation when the spine-tingling Ringu inspired 2002's hit American remake The Ring.
Director Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on: The Grudge may mark the crest of the wave. Not only has Shimizu made an American version with Sarah Michelle Gellar, but the Japanese-language version, which opens Sept. 17, falls back on familiar effects that suggest the once-fresh approach is turning formulaic.
The film has a twisted lineage: Technically, it's Shimizu's third theatrical feature in a franchise begun with a made-for-TV film called Ju-on: The Curse. (The American version, which opens next month, counts as his fifth variation on the theme.) That might explain Shimizu's fiendish resistance to lay out the film's supernatural rules. The audience stays as off-balance as the characters.
After a rapid series of disturbing black-and-white images that hint at unspeakable killings, Ju-on: The Grudge introduces its characters like chapters of a book. The first one is Rika (Megumi Okina), a girlish volunteer social worker who reluctantly pays a home visit to her client, a senile old lady. Inside the woman's squalid house, Rika discovers a closet door mysteriously taped shut, and after she tears it open, she starts glimpsing a small black cat and a chalk-white, emaciated boy.
Ju-on's early scenes reveal the genre's affinity for long takes and sustained silences, building tension to unbearable degrees. And with every appearance of a wraithlike figure that leaves its victims either dead or catatonic, the film switches perspectives. After the Rika chapter, we jump back in time to the old woman's son and his wife, who experience eerie noises and poltergeist phenomena. And later we cut to the old woman's daughter, Hitomi (Misaki Ito), who is stalked by infernal spirits in her office and apartment complex. Ito gives Ju-on's most memorable performance as a whimpering fraidy-cat who hides in bed when the haunting overwhelms her. Eventually the police start investigating the enigmatic deaths, but the authority figures prove as vulnerable as anyone else.
Ju-on's fractured structure doesn't give its characters much time to develop, but it does create lots of "Don't go in there!" moments. Shimizu constructs some memorably unnerving images. Hitomi rides an elevator with a glass door, and as it ascends, we see the same ghostly boy looking in on every floor. During a shower, Rika touches a stranger's fingers -- but nothing else -- while rinsing her hair. Such images have the surreal logic of our worst dreams, but Shimizu forgets the horror film rule that the things we can't see frighten us much more than the things we can. Ju-on's pale, crawling apparitions recall some of the superfluous additions to the re-release of The Exorcist a few years ago.
The film's mixed-up chronology takes a puzzling but intriguing turn when it introduces Izumi (Misa Uehara), the teenage daughter of an obsessed former police officer in charge of earlier investigations. Handbills of her missing friends haunt the girl, who gradually succumbs to the paranoia of those marked by the spirit. Taking place apparently years after some of the film's events, the Izumi episode dislocates the audience, deepens the story -- and also feels like a thin excuse to trot in some Japanese chicks in little uniforms. (The fetishization of Japanese schoolgirls is far creepier than anything in Ju-on and its ilk.)
Ju-on's ambiguous final shots carry the idea to skin-crawling lengths and help redeem the film's less innovative aspects. Like Ringu, Ju-on floats the unsettling idea that ghosts aren't mournful spirits seeking justice for their untimely deaths. Instead, like the demons of Japanese folklore, they are vengeful specters with indiscriminate grudges against the living.