Sunday, October 24, 2004

Senseless Criticism: Shimizu vs. Shimizu

Thank you, Japan, for keeping me from sleeping right for what will probably be about a month. Last night I probably had about seven nightmares that I can rememeber, and I'm sure it's not going to end there! The subject of the terror is twofold: Ju-On and The Grudge, which for maximal effect and due to maximal stupidity I saw back to back. 5th and some other were in attendance and they seemed similarly shaken Because, as Edelstein said about another J-horror film, it "gave my willies the willies." Seriously.

First, Ju-On. It was the third iteration of the movie by Shimizu, the first two being TV and video versions. From the basic descriptions, I pretty much expected it to be the typical haunted-house movie. Wrong. While it's true that the house of focus in Ju-On is haunted in the sense that ghosts are there, it's more cursed. Meaning, when your ass crosses the threshold, those ghosts kill you. Whether you're in the house, in your apartment, in your office, or hiding behind a wall of newspaper and tape. The body count in Ju-On, needless to say, is enormous. No matter if they are police investigating the crimes or what, if they cross the threshold, it's over. The narrative format takes advantage of this by telling the story with time distortions. The order of events is shuffled around, and each section of it involves one of the characters, and has several of the others in it, but focuses with laser clarity on how the curse does them in. Shimizu keeps the movie interesting because the terrible experiences each person has are different. They see their own special version of the terrible ghost specters trying to kill them. Some of them go about their lives as if they're just imagining it, some become paranoid and try to hide behind taped up windows and darkness, others get killed so fast they don't have time to do either.

The visual effects themselves are good, but lo-fi by American horror standards. They do the job though. Particularly, the camera angles are effective, often hiding parts of the scene to leave your imagination to what horrible things are happening. Peripheral vision is also manipulated a lot, with things going on to the sides and edges of the camera. The constant and quick prancing through the screen of the trademark freaky little boy is also powerful. The one problem is the fragmentary nature of the narrative makes it difficult to discern the connections between the characters and the movie also lacks much explanation as to where the curse came from and its nature but in brief passing moments.

That was frightening enough. Then Shimizu, with the assistance of the seasoned Sam Raimi, decided to do his fourth version of this story. The Grudge, despite being based on Ju-On, turns out to be a completely different movie. Shimizu drastically trimmed the number of characters, combining several at a time. Sarah Michelle Gellar's character is essentially two (maybe three) of the Ju-On's characters in composite with their own unique spin. The body count is also considerably lower for this reason. The back story receives more attention, and the nature of the events is explained more thoroughly. For that reason, The Grudge hangs together more coherently. The trademark big scary sequences in The Grudge are also done better than in Ju-On in several cases, with more lavish special effects and quicker pacing. Most likely this is done from the director having extra experience choreographic these scenes and shooting a thinner and leaner movie. Several of the freakiest scenes, especially one involving three zombified Japanese school girls, are missing. And the crawling ghoul appears less often as well.

So which version is superior? It's difficult to say. I would say that in the pure quantity of freaky and scary moments, Ju-On clobbers The Grudge with way more death, scares, and jerky and disorienting narrative. In actual movie cohesiveness, though, The Grudge probably wins out. It also focuses a lot more on the few characters it does possess, rendering their deaths more effective. Especially the insertion of several American main characters experiencing a sort of stranger in a strange land gone worse effect creates more pathos. All the same, both will scare the holy shiznight out of you, and both are worth watching because while they're based of a similar story Shimizu goes in very different directions with the two stories.