Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ten Years of Hate

*Contains spoilers*

Ever since the explosive popularity of Ringu, the J-Horror genre has followed the fast-track to failure as pioneered by 80’s slasher films, a road paved with novel ideas run into the ground by a string of rehashes that end in self parody. No one exemplifies this better than Takashi Shimuzu, director of the Ju-On/Grudge series. He’s managed to remake the same film seven times over the past ten years, suffocating the series with stagnant ideas.

Ju-On was Shimizu’s baby. Its first two V-cinema appearances gave him the momentum that would eventually propel him onto the international stage, but it shouldn't have given him cart blanche to exploit his child. Thankfully, for its 10th birthday the series is receiving new parents—fellow horror filmmakers Mari Asato and Ryuta Miyake, both of whom recently directed their own version of Ju-On. Will their care be able to undo the years of abuse?

The Old Lady in White

The Old Lady in White was by far the stronger of the two offerings. Director/writer Ryuta Miyake’s experience as a script doctor shines through as he adds layers of seemingly unrelated elements to the story that add cohesion, rather than confusion, to the plot. The electrified atmosphere keeps the audience on edge and delivers effective, albeit transparent scares.

It begins ominously with an unidentified man hanging himself in the forest, duffel bag containing a girl’s disembodied head at his feet. The story revolves around a childhood friend of the murdered girl, now an adult, whose clairvoyant powers lead her towards the truth behind the murder-suicide and the ghostly, malevolent old women in white.

The Girl in Black

Compared to the tight narrative and consistent chills of The Old Lady in White, Mari Asato’s The Girl in Black comes off as an amateur production that banks everything on the final payoff. But if utero-centric body horror is your thing, you can double down on this one!

The Girl in Black follows a young girl who is hospitalized after a series of unexplainable convulsions. The Ju-On curse manifests itself as a cyst in her uterus, which is actually her unborn twin sister that was absorbed in the womb! The curse spreads from her nurse, to the nurse’s neighbor, to her father’s co-worker and beyond.

Both films deliver classic elements that we have come to expect from the series. Creepy little girls, serialized story-telling that jumps through time, stomach-churning maternity horror. But as they say, familiarity breeds contempt.

The filmmakers take these motifs and apply them to fresh situations, but Shimizu hanging on as supervisor holds the movies back with needless throwbacks to the original films. Toshio makes cameo appearances with no bearing on the plot. Dead girls croak like Kayako without having their vocal cords cut. The cursed house appears again, only as a sanitized model home.

Voidmare and I were in Japan when the series blew up with the theatrical release of Ju-On, and it saddened me to see the franchised disfigured by a string of increasingly insulting American remakes. I know I'm not the only one glad to see the series come home in an attempt to return to its roots. However, it needs to stop making concessions to the fans if it wants to recapture the creative spark that kept the old films afloat amidst a sea of imitators. Shimizu, its time to let go and let the series walk on its own.

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