"Ju-On: The Grudge" isn't particularly scary. No, it's much harder on you than mere fright: It's . . . creepy.
Creepy isn't where you think you'll die at any moment and you can't breathe! -- but then it's over. That's only scary. No, creepy is subtler, more disturbing, much harder to achieve, and it won't let you sleep for weeks afterward. Creepy comes in on little cat feet through an open window at 4 a.m. Creepy is the sense that the skin on your body is someone else's or that there's someone in the closet and he has been there a long time. Creepy is a sense that your knees probably aren't strong enough to get up the stairs when that, you know, that snake thing in the basement that moves really fast, comes after you and for some reason it likes to begin with the soft skin of your face and . . .
"Ju-On," as it turns out, is famously creepy. The legendary Japanese horror classic has been around, in one form or another, for at least five years. The original, made in 2000, was what the Japanese call a V-movie, meaning straight-to-video (straight-to-video is a bigger phenomenon there than here); it was seen here mostly on bootlegged DVDs, passed from creep fan to creep fan. In fact, it's so old that one of the key parts is played by a much younger Chiaki Kuriyama, who became famous as "Kill Bill: Vol. 1's" Gogo Yubari, she of the Japanese schoolgirl plaid and the ball-and-chain kung fu technique (and probably the Next Big Thing).
Then there was a sequel -- I guess that's a V-quel. Then the film was remade for theatrical release, with a different cast and more elaborate special effects in 2003; that's this version. Then there was a sequel to that as well. But wait . . . there's more to come.
As for the movie, it certainly has flaws. Most of all, it lacks any interest in conventional narrative and doesn't bother with hero or heroine, or with any sense of coherency, of any mechanism of solution of its mystery. It is, I suppose, a ghost story of a particular kind: the haunted-house kind.
It uses a place where a jealous husband killed his wife (he thought she cheated), his son (to be tidy, I guess) and then himself. But in such anger is a curse, and the blasphemed dwelling is forever haunted by these three sundered beings.
The movie takes some time to establish those facts, and for the most part is content to merely document the unfortunate results that occur when this or that person comes into the house and comes under its spell. It even divides into subchapters, naming the starring victim of the upcoming five-minute segment. Needless to say, most of the victims are extremely attractive young women.
As you can see from the foregoing, it has certain things in common with the more banal American slasher film, which usually features a group of handsome young women getting wasted in various despicable ways. But the director, Takashi Shimizu, isn't really interested in the money shot. There's no spasm of gore as the blade penetrates, no spurt of arteries emptying themselves. You almost never see blood; there's no real violence of assault. Instead there's the continuous feeling of other presences in the house, so disturbing in appearance and meaning that to see them is to suffer instant, mortal hysteria.
It takes a while before we see what the characters are seeing and, of course, I can't spoil it for those cinema samurai among you who will brave the experience. I can only say: Think of a chalk-white visage, eyes blank with animal death, an implacable need to have company in hell . . . and a sense of being pulled along, screaming, to a terrible fate. I think it's the pulling. There's never any sense of overwhelming strength of the oppressor, merely that his presence is so horrifying that resistance is futile. Nobody ever pulls a Tanto knife and stabs him in the eye; if he wants you, he pulls you along and that's the end of that chapter.
Shimizu has certainly ridden this train for all its worth. He has essentially made the same film five times -- twice as a V (video), twice as a Japanese theatrical release, and finally, he's making it with an American cast in Tokyo.
But Sarah Michelle Gellar in the Gogo Yubari role? I wasn't a Buffy fan, but based on her wan big-screen appearances, I don't know how she can compete with Kuriyama's incredible charisma.
Ju-On: The Grudge (92 minutes, at Landmark E Street) is rated R for psychological intensity and intimations of violence.