A curious experiment in chain-yanking horror-movie dynamics, Ju-on: The Grudge performs the ratchet-release-repeat trick with such metronomic efficiency that it gathers the force of a hallucinatory incantation. An achronological La Ronde, centered around a Tokyo house haunted by a croaking, lank-haired woman and a mewling, Smurf-complexioned boy, Ju-on is less scary than suffocating—an exercise in reiteration and disjunction that does away to a provocative degree with plot, exposition, character development, and connective tissue.
J-horror fans know the Ju-on series as the industry’s most infectious viral strain since Ringu—director Takashi Shimizu’s own Hollywood retread of this 2003 cult phenomenon (the third of four in the franchise, after a pair of straight-to-video titles) is due to open in the fall, with Sam Raimi producing and Sarah Michelle Gellar starring. Though the original Grudge has developed an outsize reputation as a frightfest, its shocks actually arrive with perverse, almost lulling regularity. Which doesn’t mean the net effect isn’t unsettling. Divided into chapters that flit around in time, each introducing a doomed character, Ju-on advances subtly mutating variations on its minimal theme. Every episode plays out essentially the same way: an intensifying mood of trepidation (complete with creaking doors and flickering lights), don’t-look-now intimations of a ghostly presence (a brief glimpse, sometimes barely perceptible), a jump-starting sudden appearance by said ghost (usually the wide-eyed, blue-skinned child, Toshio), and a screeching, death-rattle climax as the victim succumbs to a black vapor or some other equally indistinct fate.
The scare tactics are hardly original (the creepiest scenes, in a patent debt to Ringu, involve TV sets), but the atmosphere of disquiet persists, for reasons that only gradually become clear. Shimizu’s commitment to maxing out the spatial permutations of the haunted-house premise gives Ju-on a distilled, elemental quality. The absence of consistent supernatural laws and the brisk reduction of backstory to incidental broad strokes (a crime of passion, a household of vengeful ghosts) create an irksome unease—one that the film’s nonlinear structure greatly reinforces. The jumbled chronology begs to be untangled, and temporal hints (a phone call here, a news broadcast there) are dropped throughout as evidence of overlapping time frames. But Ju-on never snaps into focus like a Go or a Pulp Fiction, and what at first registers as sloppy plotting starts to seem positively diabolical—the narrative architecture could have been designed by Möbius or Escher. The more the viewer tries to impose order on the events, the less sense they make. Ju-on‘s eeriest feature may be its stubborn unsolvability: Time collapses, identities dissolve, and a sketchy ghost story becomes an alarming ontological impossibility.