Ju-on: The Grudge is another Japanese example of how a low-key approach to horror can be more effective than a gore/special effects laden mega-budget movie.
Ok, when the DVD menu is scary you know you'd better brace yourself for some serious creepiness, and Ju-on: The Grudge doesn't disappoint.
The opening titles are very simple, with a quote stating that "Ju-on is a curse of those who die in the grip of a powerful rage". Now I have to admit that I wasn't sure if that meant it applies if you die at the hands of someone in a rage, or if you were in a rage when you died...
The film opens in black and white in what appears to be a flashback scene indicating a violent murder has, or is in the process of taking place. The use of sound as a creep-inducing device is established right from the outset, as a cat which is annoying the killer is grabbed, taken off-screen, and wet/crunchy sounds immediately follow. From here (after a black screen showing only the name "Rika" in a corner), as do a number of Japanese horror films that I've seen, the film cuts to a thoroughly mundane scene at a social services office where we get to meet Rika. She is a shy volunteer at the office and is talked into visiting a client's home when the case worker is not available.
She arrives to find the door unlocked, garbage and household items strewn completely about the house, and an old woman who seems to be catatonic. Rika proceeds to attend to the old woman and to clean up the house when she hears scratching and knocking noises from upstairs. Now we've all seen this sort of thing a hundred times in horror films, but there is something about the quiet way it is done here that sends chills up your spine. A lack of overt suspense music, with either quiet or just a slight touch of sound lends a sense of reality that makes it seem more like this could be happening to you.
Rika finds a six year old boy in a closet that looks like he's been out of the sun too long, and when she goes down to ask the old woman about it she sees something that terrifies her.
The police eventually get involved, and as the film progesses we discover that there is a curse connected to the house which affects those who live there or are associated with said residents. We are introduced to one female character after another, always preceded by the aforementioned black screen with the character's name. By the third one you pretty much lose all hope of anyone whose name appears surviving the film, and from then on it's like watching a traffic intersection where you know there will be an accident soon.
A detective who was involved with the investigation of the original murder is contacted and he is extremely reluctant to get involved, perhaps knowing that there is more to the house than meets the eye. His hesitancy is well justified as the details of the deaths become more and more clear and end up affecting him personally.
The director (Takashi Shimizu) seems to have borrowed a fair amount from the even creepier Ringu in his use of black and white video monitor shots and the look of the eventually seen source of the multiple deaths. Ju-on: The Grudge is not as effective as Ringu in that there was not really a sense of building tension... more like a number of individual vignettes than a cohesive whole carrying you to a dreaded conclusion. However Shimizu's use of sound will give you the willies... before you see the dreaded scary thing you hear it, and it sounds terrible. Not roaring, snarling terrible, but moving around like it's bones are grinding and things are sloshing around that shouldn't be terrible.
When it was creepy, it was very creepy. Having the film take place in non-glamourous settings with realistic lighting and actors that look like people you meet every day intensifies the dread. Most of the time you feel like you're watching a drama, not a horror flick, so when something happens it just hits you differently. The problem with many horror films is that they're almost self-conscious: So very aware that they are a "Scary Movie" that they seem to take place in an alternate reality instead of here, with us, in our homes and workplaces.
Now I need to check out Shimizu's American remake of his own film, which is simply titled The Grudge and is reviewed here at Screen Rant as well.