With The Ring (a sleek Americanization of the Japanese cult favorite Ringu), crossing over to huge success in the U.S., J-horror has officially infiltrated the mainstream. For neophytes, the trend opens up a refreshing new alternative to stale American slasher movies, introducing scare tactics that move beyond cheap shocks and affect psyches more deeply and suggestively. And yet, like all trends, the genre is losing its novelty through overuse. Tropes that once seemed unbelievably frightening begin to lose their impact when they're recycled ad nauseam. Five years ago, Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On: The Grudge (soon to be remade in America) might have been cause to scurry under the theater seats, but now it seems rote and manufactured, an overstuffed compendium of the genre's clichés.
Which isn't to say that those clichés aren't still good for a few jolts. The Japanese ghosts in Ju-On (and others) are somewhere between the apparitions in old-fashioned American ghost stories and slow-moving zombies, capable of flitting across the screen or approaching in a crab-like, hypnotic crawl. They don't need to be murderous when they're this creepy, since they overcome victims with enough fright to leave them paralyzed. Perhaps conscious of the way these films play on audiences, Shimizu spins this fear into the film's one original conceit: People are only in real danger when they avert their eyes.
Both too obvious and needlessly complicated, Ju-On juggles several non-chronological chapters based on different characters, ensuring that none of the corpses-to-be make much of an impression. The title refers to a spirit that dies in anger and seeks revenge from beyond the grave, in this case a young mother murdered by her husband. When easily spooked social worker Megumi Okina visits the haunted house to take care of a virtually catatonic elderly woman, she discovers a pale boy huddled behind a sealed closet door. As it turns out, the house has been the site of many deaths and disappearances, and the renewed mayhem beckons detective Yoji Tanaka to resume his old investigation.
Though Shimizu never really establishes any hard-and-fast laws dictating what these evil spirits want and what they can do, one rule should be clear: Stay out of the damn house! Yet the place becomes a trap for countless characters, minor and major, either attached to people who have been in the house, or intent to solve a mystery that's a cinch from the start. Having made incarnations of this story twice previously in 2000, Shimizu knows all the right buttons to push, and he gets under viewers' skin through brief jolts and persistently droning sound design. But the cumulative effect amounts to nothing.