The contenders: Ju-on, directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2002; and The Grudge, directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2004
The story: When a person dies in a state of extreme rage, and that state of rage is made into a feature-length film, it leaves a terrible curse upon the place where the death occurred. Any person who enters that place is marked for death, doomed to return to the theater for the remake and/or subsequent sequels. The curse is relentless, inescapable... and now it's coming for you.
The battle: Remember when J-horror was a novelty? Hard to believe that a scant five years ago, Japanese horror had clawed its way to ascendancy, thanks to a set of (now) cliche attributes: pale-skinned and long-haired ghosts, a creeping sense of dread, and a return to the prototypical ghost story. Since then, of course, these tropes have become so common, they've even been mocked in the Scary Movie series. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And even though Ju-on came at the crest of the J-horror craze, it was itself a sequel, coming on the heels of two direct-to-video precursors.
Shimizu divides Ju-on into several episodes, each heralded with a title card naming the cursed victim. He jumps backwards and forwards in time, letting the viewer piece together the connections and the chronology. And, in an fascinating moment, one victim, a father who has entered the house in order to burn it down, encounters a vision of his daughter in the future. It's an off-putting moment that relies more on displacement than any jump scares, and I would almost say that it's the most eerie and effective scene in the film.
Ju-on also touches upon an extremely sensitive topic for the Japanese: elder abuse. Our social-worker heroine, Rika, first comes onto the scene when she makes a home visit to an elderly Japanese woman, who, by the looks of it, has been neglected. Shimizu's panning shots of urine-soaked sheets and the inset shot of a dark smear of unrecognizable filth certainly elicits a protean sense of horrific disgust, but for the Japanese, who generally revere and take excellent care of aging parents, it touches on a culturally-specific horror.
Unfortunately, the titular curse seems to spread, all Romero-zombie-like. So instead of having just Kayako (the deceased wife) and Toshio (the dead son) paying people unexpected visits, the curse infects a trio of schoolgirls. If one pale girl ghost is scary, than three must be three times as scary, right? Especially when they're wearing knee-high socks! On the DVD, Shimizu, in describing his deleted scenes, explains how the final shots of an emptied-out Tokyo harkens to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo, implying, perhaps, that the curse has spread wide enough to wipe out the population. Indeed, it's pretty effective at trimming down the city's inhabitants. Who needs population control when you've got a cursed house to do it for you? (Interestingly enough, even though the film uses Kayako, the deceased wife, and Toshio, the son, as the main bugaboos, Rika's final moments points more squarely at the murderous father, Takeo, as the true malevolence.)
With Sam Raimi's Ghosthouse Picture at his back, Shimizu was able to direct his own remake. Honestly, it's difficult to say whether or not this is a good idea. It's good if you want to control and honor the artistry of the original, but I wonder if a different set of eyes would have created a new vision -- so to speak -- of the original concept.
The Grudge focuses on American expats living in Japan, particularly Karen (the Rika role, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her boyfriend Doug. And even though screenwriter Stephen Susco tries to milk "zomg i can't read any of the signs" for all it's worth, he doesn't quite capture the sense of displacement in a way that enhances the terror.
As well, the episodic nature of Ju-on has been scaled back to center more around Karen, and in order to make up the time lost by eliminating the non-Rika segments in the original, Susco falls back on two all-American standbys: the love story and the detective story. How do we know Karen and Doug are American? Because they're always on the verge of getting it on at every possible moment. (Imagine Canadians doing that. Or the Swiss.) Once Karen discovers her cursed nature, it's a race against time (too reminiscent of Ringu) to neutralize the source of the curse.
Kayako in The Grudge is a much more menacing presence -- but not in her ghost form, strangely enough. Instead, Kayako is shown to be somewhat of a stalker, following around an American professor and popping up in all sorts of casual photographs. She's like the drunk dude in the background that you can't crop out. Her Madama Butterfly-like obsession sets her squarely on the road to spooksville, and even though it's the husband who's responsible for her death, her craziness over a white man (Bill Pullman, of all people! couldn't she have chosen Hugh Jackman or someone?) sets her up as a villianness.
White American men: the cause of curses everywhere.
The Grudge also suffers from over-Hollywoodization, including abuse of CGI effects and abuse of soundtrack. There's a sudden loud, build-up of strings and then... a door opens! Granted, Ju-on had its own soundtrack abuses, particularly a high-pitched tinnitus headache, but at least the ambient sounds were allowed to suffuse the atmosphere, rather than having an orchestra introduce herald each jump scare.
The verdict: Ju-on wins. The mental discombobulation from the fractured timeline adds a chronological je ne sais quoi to the horror quotient. Plus, it's difficult to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar face off with a ghost and just sort of cower. Now, I abhor typecasting as much as the next person, but I kept thinking, "Buffy, come on! Just kick her ectoplasmic ass!"