Film Reviews

The Phantom Menace

You're not likely to hear this critic utter the phrases "American remake" and "good idea" in the same breath. Godzilla, anyone? La Femme Nikita bastardized into Point of No Return? The Ladykillers? Just say no! Yet when Hidayo Nakata's shocker Ringu was remade successfully as The Ring by workmanlike Gore Verbinski, that was a happy shock indeed--and a big, fat cha-ching for formula-sniffin' Hollywood. Now there's a domestic push behind some similar but inferior Japanese horror product called Ju-On: The Grudge. Seriously, it sends chills down the spine to admit that the upcoming speedily packaged remake with Sarah Michelle Gellar will probably be an improvement.

Ludicrously raved up as "the most frightening film I've ever seen" by Evil Dead and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi (who is, by amazing coincidence, producing the Ju-On remake), this trifle is better approached as a suburban haunted-house attraction thrown by enthusiastically confused teenagers. It's a little bit eerie, completely disjointed and sporadically amusing--kind of like Lost in Translation, but with wanton slaughter. Do not expect more.

The willfully incomprehensible story involves a social worker named Rika (Megumi Okina) who is assigned, apparently, to help out some suburban folks with the horror of their messy home. In an introductory segment, we have already witnessed some murderous unpleasantness and read a definition of this Ju-On business, stating that it's "the curse of one who dies in the grip of a powerful rage." Thus, we know that something even scarier than a negligent housekeeper is afoot. But what? In and around the home of the Tokunaga family, Rika is going to find out.

Rika's is the first of six chapters in this feature, which is in turn the third of four somewhat related features by writer-director Takashi Shimizu, who is still soaking wet behind the ears. His first two entries in the series were V-films, or video productions, and Ju-On: The Grudge (followed by Ju-On: The Grudge 2) is his first on celluloid. This may contribute to it being received, quite inappropriately, as a classic of modern horror or some such thing, but don't be fooled. While it was clearly made with strong affection for the material (in interviews, Shimizu is fond of repeating that he loves "tricking and scaring people"), it's really only a notch above many student films, and its ADD-driven narrative grows tedious fast.

The film's strengths lie almost entirely in the freak-out department. As we encounter assorted characters related to Rika and the Tokunagas, we learn more about the ghosts. There's a blank-faced little boy named Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) who keeps appearing in the dubious house and elsewhere, usually to the terror of his victims. (One victim, being a particularly bright bulb, senses his approach and decides to disconnect the telephone and hide under her duvet; Toshio is not so easily fooled.) The other ghost, Kayako (Takako Fuji), is Toshio's mother. Crawling crablike on all fours, her lank hair plastered over her pretty face, she is perhaps the least threatening phantasm imaginable, but Shimizu does his best to pump her up with scary angles and a "ghost noise" that's been confirmed to be the director croaking into a microphone.

Since the story makes almost no sense, Shimizu best serves his audience by setting up strange situations to play upon our unease. His basic premise is that anyone who comes in contact with the haunted (but otherwise quite plain) house will be stalked by the ghosts and assorted bogies. My favorite is what appears to be a huge, furry black Muppet lurking in a ladies room. There are several other incidents, including an inexplicable swarm of black cats, a catatonic mother-in-law and even a uniformed schoolgirl (Misa Uehara, mercifully unfetishized) who enjoys screaming a whole lot.

Perhaps what Raimi liked about this franchise--apart from its lucrative remake potential--is that it represents distant echoes of his own humble beginnings, shooting cheapo horror schlock with his friends and brothers somewhere in Michigan. The difference is that even Evil Dead makes a lot more sense than Ju-On, and it's much, much more generous in the effects department. While Shimizu has assembled a large, dedicated cast and clearly enjoys bumping them off or at least scaring the crap out of them, his suburban and sterile environments simply don't sustain an atmosphere of dread, not even when an icy synth xylophone is working on our nerves.

The strongest player here is Daisuke Honda, who plays an investigator with some understanding of these ghosts. While the character isn't particularly well fleshed-out, Honda seizes the role and informs it with deadly seriousness, often pausing for uncomfortable stretches while we read his face and wonder what he's thinking. His presence adds some depth to the otherwise shallow proceedings. Otherwise, Shimizu seems confident that his audience can be invested in--and therefore fearful for--characters who have no character. Now that is disturbing.

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Gregory Weinkauf