Ring

*Originally written in 2003

Just when horror movies were slipping back towards mediocrity and worse, after the high of Scream and the many lows which followed, Hideo Nakata decided to bring Koji Suzuki’s hit novel to the big screen. The result is the most terrifying movie of the decade, and one of the most chilling movies of all time. Made on a tiny budget the film is relentlessly evil, the tension never gives in, and you will not forget it for the rest of your life. Stylish, borrowing from other films and surpassing them, Ringu is a demon reincarnated as a movie, its effect on us everlasting, ensuring we spread the word…

The film opens with a Scream-like scene and the tension is already high, our wrists put in a deathly grip from the outset. Two teenage girls are discussing a video one of them claims to have seen, saying it is the scariest thing she has ever see. Once you watch it the phone rings, and a voice tells you you will die in seven days. The girl though says she is joking. Then the TV switches itself on and she hears scratching noises. It has been seven days. We cut to a reporter, Reiko Asakawa who is doing a story about the video curse. She investigates some local deaths, including her niece and soon realises that all her niece’s friends are dead too, having watched a mysterious video. Leaving her son behind she goes in search of the video. Eventually she finds it, watches it and answers the ringing phone. Convinced she is going to die she contacts her ex-husband and tries to find a way to save herself. He is not convinced, and watches it as well. However, later that night their son Yoichi also watches, so they all try to solve the curse, uncovering the story of the Yamamuras, in particular – Sadako.

Aside from having one of the most frightening climaxes in movie history, one which the recent remake completely failed to resurrect, there is an eerie atmosphere throughout the film. There are many other moments which add to the atmosphere and build towards the infamous final scare. The last 15 minutes are extremely scary as Reiko and Ryuji search for Sadako and feature some of extremely nail-biting scenes. Everything in the film is designed to unsettle – the unearthly soundtrack reminiscent of Argento and Goblin’s works, the fixed and cornered camera angles so we can never see what is near, the grim surroundings, the complete lack of humour, the use of colour etc. The performances are all very good as well, Nanako Matsushima as Reiko swiftly moves from confident to frantic wreck, and exudes every possible emotion. Hiroyuki Sanada is extremely strong, slowly coming to realise the truth, conveying guilt over his son and remaining both mysterious and strong when his ex-wife gives up. His final scene is perfectly acted, heightening the overall effect. Rikiya Otaka as Yoichi manages to be creepy, but his role becomes more central in the second film. The rest of the cast are all immensely good. The inclusion of the timer is also highly effective, ensuring the tension rises as we know time is running out.

Of course the film has its flaws. Some people will be put off by the slow nature. Some people will feel the need to have every question answered, and Ringu leaves many unanswered – that is the point. If we were in this situation we would be looking for answers – anything to help us, to relieve the fear, something real to hold on to, but nothing is given. As we are left wondering, the film will stay with us, continuing to haunt us over time, ensuring we do not escape the ring. As it was adapted from a novel, certain inherent difficulties arise. In the novel it is a man who is the reporter, his wife is barely around, and his near-sadist friend takes up the Ryuji role, hoping to put some excitement into his life. In the book, beware all reflective surfaces. The curse is more of a disease than a ghost. Nakata takes the best elements, and makes the story his own. There will be some confusing moments, but the constant threat of something happening will mean you will continually be focused on the film.

The sense of isolation is strong, and there is a coldness surrounding the film. Many rooms are blank, places lack expression, and people speak in monotone, and avoid eye contact. Nakata explores Japanese culture and mythology, showing the intrusion of the West via moments which remind us of past films. There is more than one reference to The Terminator – the final shot, the dates, the relentless evil of Sadako, technology backfiring, and it recalls other films such as Videodrome, Eraserhead, Straw Dogs, and there is veiled thanks to Stephen King. (Translate the name of a certain familiar Stephen King town into Japanese). Nakata shows himself to be the new master of tension, and along with Miike, Kitano and others is proving that Japanese cinema is a force not to be taken lightly. I first saw this around 5 years ago, and it is still rewarding and scary today. The themes of abandonment, fear and guilt stay with the viewer, coming out more with each viewing, once the initial fear has gone. This is one horror movie everyone should see, vastly superior to the remake which opted for cheap scares, flashy camera-work and loud noises. This is subtle, both nightmarish and real, and uses one of the most effective themes of horror movies to the fullest – the inevitability of death. We are doomed and there is no escape, but that should not stop us fighting for each other and ourselves, no matter how invincible our enemy.

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Ju On – White Ghost

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It has been quite some time since I first watched The Grudge and loved every second of it. Since then I watched the original Japanese TV movies (which The Grudge is a sequel of even though it seems like a remake) and the director Takashi Shimizu’s own US remake. I haven’t actually watched the US The Grudge 2 (also directed by Shimizu) and US The Grudge 3 (not Shimizu) partly due to bad reviews and partly due to Part 3 sounding like a straight to video mess. And of course partly because I was burned out on J Horror by that time. Black Ghost and White Ghost had been popping up on my Amazon Prime Viewer for quite some time but I’d avoided them as they sounded like even worse straight to video cash ins, but I finally relented and gave them a shot. Made to honour the 10th Anniversary of the series, these are two stories which deviate from the main plot of the main series, but are they any good!?

White Ghost, like it’s partner and predecessors has a labyrinthine plot which unravels in a deliberately non-linear fashion – events at the start of the film may happen weeks or months after events shown at the end, and vice versa, and more than that there appear to be certain elements which transcend time – echos of events which have not yet occurred. The story follows a group of characters who come into contact with a curse – a man murders his family, an old friend investigates, and several randomers are drawn into the pit. As I said in my review for Black Ghost, it is definitely worth watching each movie twice to appreciate the finer points and attempt to bring together a timeline in your head. Ironically, I fond this plot even more dense than Black Ghost but it appears to be handled more professionally. There is a lot of leaping about from time to time to character to place and back again, but it is engrossing.

There is some fairly dark stuff at work here – the murders and the curse of course, but an unsettling lump of incest, pedophilia, and suicide, none of which are shied away from. It’s unusual for a film in the Ju On universe to dwell much on the events which kicked everything off – mostly it’s shown in brief flashbacks, but here we are front row witnesses to the slaughter. This one is less atmospheric than Black Ghost, but still has plenty of tension and has more jump scares. The actual character of the White Ghost is not on par with Kayako, but her appearances rarely fail to scare to the point that you are dreading her next pop up. A few of these moments don’t quite work, and end up being almost funny, but for the most part the scares are particularly effective. That strange shimmering effect I mentioned in the other review is present here too. Again the performances are good, the soundtrack works well, and there is a grimy worn out look to proceedings. I watched Black Ghost first, but the stories don’t link together in any way so feel free to pick whichever you wish. BG has the atmosphere, WG has the bulk of the scares, but both are well worth a go for J-Horror fans.

So, who would I recommend this to? Grudge fans obviously, first and foremost. This doesn’t fill in any gaps from the main series or provide any resolution, rather it seems to be a similar story set in the same universe. There isn’t enough time to form much attachment to the characters, the plot is convoluted and non-linear, and the scares don’t offer anything new. With all that said, I enjoyed it, I was a little scared in places, and the idea still intrigues me as much as the execution. You won’t lose much by sacrificing an hour – so if you find this on streaming, give it a shot.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of White Ghost and how it compares to Black Ghost and the other movies in The Grudge franchise.

Ju On: Black Ghost

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It has been quite some time since I first watched The Grudge and loved every second of it. Since then I watched the original Japanese TV movies (which The Grudge is a sequel of even though it seems like a remake) and the director Takashi Shimizu’s own US remake. I haven’t actually watched the US The Grudge 2 (also directed by Shimizu) and US The Grudge 3 (not Shimizu) partly due to bad reviews and partly due to Part 3 sounding like a straight to video mess. And of course partly because I was burned out on J Horror by that time. Black Ghost and White Ghost had been popping up on my Amazon Prime Viewer for quite some time but I’d avoided them as they sounded like even worse straight to video cash ins, but I finally relented and gave them a shot. Made to honour the 10th Anniversary of the series, these are two stories which deviate from the main plot of the main series, but are they any good!?

Black Ghost focuses on a young girl who has some sort of seizure and ends up in hospital. Her mum and dad have marital problems and the nurse looking after the girl begins to see, hear, and experience spooky things. In the grand Ju On tradition, this is only one piece of the puzzle and the film is split into interweaving chapters centering on a specific character. Each chapter may only be a few minutes long, generally less than 10, and as the movie progresses the overlapping becomes more pronounced. What does and will continue to put viewers off the series is its unwillingness to assist the viewer through the non-linear narrative; there is no Present Day marker, followed by 2 Months Earlier or any indication of date – the story jumps around and the clock keeps ticking, leaving it up to the viewer to work out the true sequence of events. Indeed, there may not be one true sequence as we have seen in the main stream of films that time itself is a loose notion and the sound of a dying character may be heard an investigated by that same character hours, days, or weeks before it actually happens. This lends a certain replay value to the movies – it is confusing and disorienting first time around, but a second watch smooths a lot of the edges while also serving to immerse you even more fully in a plot which doesn’t try or need to make sense – death is coming and there is no escape.

Discussion of plot aside, most will want to know if the film is scary. This sort of thing is subjective, but if you were creeped out by the originals then I don’t see why you wouldn’t at the least find unsettling moments here. The series has always relied on jump scares and atmosphere and we get both of these in the opening moments thanks to a school kid and a window. Black Ghost is more atmosphere heavy than laden with jump scares – cameras straining at some shadow just around the corner, something moving under a blanket or behind a curtain, and of course a soundtrack of gurgles, cries, and death rattles. The old familiar sound returns and while it still chills the bones, it doesn’t have the same impact without Kayako clawing her way towards the screen. In essence it is a retreading of the same old scares, but they are still effective especially if you are susceptible to such things, as I am. Adding to this atmosphere are a couple of notable additions – the performances are all strong, real, which is important given the actors don’t have a lot of screen time, though an argument could be made for there being too many characters for such a short running time. Finally there is a strange effect or glitch on screen in certain scenes; I assume this was not a fault of my streaming but a deliberate choice similar to the film glitches in The Ring. In some scenes there was a weird wavering around the edges of the frame akin to a mirage or some atmospheric refraction. That’s the best way I can describe unfortunately, a shaking around the edges as if something was trying to break through into our reality – there wasn’t any consistency which I could pick out – I assume it was added to make things more ominous or warn of an upcoming scare, but sometimes it happened when two characters were talking – no scare or sense of tension. oh yes, there is one truly excellent make-up/special effect towards the end.

So, who would I recommend this to? Grudge fans obviously, first and foremost. This doesn’t fill in any gaps from the main series or provide any resolution, rather it seems to be a similar story set in the same universe. There isn’t enough time to form much attachment to the characters, the plot is convoluted and non-linear, and the scares don’t offer anything new. With all that said, I enjoyed it, I was a little scared in places, and the idea still intrigues me as much as the execution. You won’t lose much by sacrificing an hour – so if you find this on streaming, give it a shot.

The Grudge: Woman, Cat, Boy

To be honest this film doesn’t have an awful lot going for it. It’s Chinese, it has too many women in it, and the order is all jumbled up so you don’t know what day it is or if someone is alive or dead or both. At least it bucks the recent trend of hilarious screamers which started with Scream, you know, those films that try to scare you and make you funny at the same time. There is no comedy here (though the wee boy in the cupboard was quite funny) and unfortunately there are no scares here either (though the wee boy in the cupboard was quite scary). It is a remake of the Chinese TV series ‘Why Does This Lady With The Hair Have An Angry Against Me, Daddy?’ There isn’t really a plot or, it’s just a pile of things happening involving a haunted house. One girl goes to the house; she thinks it’s evil, has a look around, and gets sucked into the attic by a big hairy woman. Another girl replaces the last one, goes to the house and meets a little boy who seems to be made of chalk and speaks like a cat. The big hairy woman comes out and gets her too. The rest of the film involves police, school girls, and others going to the house and getting chased from room to room by the big hairy woman. In one frankly bizarre scene, one girl who escaped the house goes home and goes to the toilet. She sits down and begins doing her business. She knows something is amiss. The scary music starts. Is she alone? Is she safe? The door creaks! Everyone jumps. Her phone rings! Everyone jumps. Plop! Everyone jumps. She looks around the house, but no-one is there so she goes back to the toilet for more. She twitches, thinking something is tickling her bum. Again. And again. She gets up and looks down the toilet (dirty girl) and suddenly- BOO! The hairy woman is in the toilet! She grabs the girl and pulls her down into the darkness. Later, when her boyfriend comes home he goes to the toilet, opens the lid only to find his dead girlfriends head poking round the U bend, one leg bent beside her ear.

As enjoyable as that sounds it really isn’t. I haven’t been able to go to the toilet sitting down since. Yes, I have to stand, facing the toilet at all times. I’m sure you can imagine the shapes I’ve had to put myself into in order to successfully deposit my mail. The rest of the film had less impact, and raised more questions than answers- why was the woman there? Why had the boy swallowed his cat? Why did everyone start crawling around the house, and why didn’t someone just chuck a few grenades down the chimney and be done with it?

Interestingly this Buffy spin off doesn’t feature Gellar at her toughest. It would have been better if she’s called in Giles, Willow, and Xander and they could have talked out the problem and then stake ass. Maybe it was all a nightmare.

Best Scene: When the Chinese woman was walking up the stairs and you could almost see her pants.