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In a world where over-polished corporate products dominate the media landscape while the ever-growing threat of AI-generated “art” haunts the horizon, I can’t help but remember a story about how Wes Anderson insisted on using real fur on the stop-motion puppets of his animated opus, Fantastic Mr. Fox. When the animators complained that using fur would result in obvious thumbprints and erratic hair movement that would ruin the “illusion” of lifelike movement, the filmmaker explained that these imperfections were the point.

Why am I bringing this up on a horror website? Well, I’ve always been of the opinion that low production value is simply part of the appeal of independent cinema, and nowhere is this more evident than in the horror genre. Rubber monster suits and watery blood effects are a big part of what make even the cheapest scary movies so endearing, and horror fans are uniquely predisposed to look beyond technical limitations in order to appreciate a good story.

One of my favorite examples of this is a certain micro-budget duology that kicked off one of the scariest film series of all time despite some undeniably janky presentation. And as a lifelong fan of low-budget scares, I’d like to invite you to join me down a J-Horror rabbit hole as we explore the criminally underrated origins of the Ju-On/The Grudge franchise.

While most of you are likely already familiar with 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge, the film that helped to kick off the J-Horror craze and established Takashi Shimizu as a master of the craft, a lot of folks don’t realize that this was actually the filmmaker’s third attempt at telling the Saeki family story. In fact, the very first appearance of Kayako and her ghostly son occurred in a couple of 1998 short films made by Shimizu while he was still in film school.

Part of a made-for-TV anthology showcasing the work of up-and-coming Japanese filmmakers (Gakkô no Kaidan G), the shorts attempted to update classic Japanese folk tales for a new generation by incorporating modern elements like helpless high-schoolers and cellphones into old-fashioned ghost stories.

The original Toshio!

Despite some cheap camerawork and drama class make-up effects, Shimizu’s Katasumi and 4444444444 (so titled because the Japanese pronunciation of the number 4 is similar to that of death) were the clear highlights of the spooky collection despite being much shorter than the other segments. That’s why it was only natural that the director’s next project would be a feature-length expansion of these ideas produced for the direct-to-video market.

Coming up with an extensive mythology surrounding his murderous ghosts and realizing that he had a potential hit on his hands, Shimizu ended up making the risky decision to split his original two-hour story into two smaller films shot back-to-back. And while the sequel would suffer from this decision, the focus on serialized storytelling is what would ultimately turn this indie experiment into a global phenomenon.

Released in 2000, the first entry in this duology, simply titled Ju-On: The Curse, weaves an interconnected web of paranormal incidents surrounding a cursed house and the ill-fated families that inhabit it. While the film would actually reference the events of Shimizu’s shorts, it’s here that audiences were first introduced to the iconic opening text explaining how a violent death may spawn an infectious curse that self-perpetuates by causing even more deaths in a never-ending cycle of violence.

At first glance, The Curse feels a lot like an anthology meant to repurpose Shimizu’s existing ideas for ghostly short films into a feature format, but narrative details eventually add up as worried teachers, unsuspecting teenagers and psychic realtors unravel bits and pieces of the Saeki family history in a tragic tapestry of death. Curiously, this attempt at crafting a complex narrative puzzle would become a staple of the franchise as future entries (and even the video game) used non-linear storytelling to breathe new life into familiar yarns.

Of course, it’s really the scares that put this franchise on the map, and that’s why you’ll find plenty of expertly orchestrated frights here. Sure, the pale makeup effects and stock sound design aren’t that much better than what we saw in Gakkô no Kaidan G, but the suspenseful execution of moments like Toshio’s slow undead reveal and Kayako’s first contortionist crawl down the stairs – not to mention the incredibly disturbing sequence with a baby inside of a trash bag – are the stuff of horror legend regardless of budget.

I’d even argue that the low production value actually adds to the experience by making everything feel that much more down to earth. The Saeki house isn’t a stylish haunted manor from the Vincent Price era, it’s just a regular Japanese home inhabited by regular people, making it easier to believe that this modern urban legend could also happen to you. Hell, I even think Toshio is scarier when he can pass as a living kid even if the screaming cat effects aren’t as good as the sequels.

Cheap can still be scary.

Unfortunately, quality scares can’t solve everything, and that’s where Ju-On: The Curse 2 comes in. Released the same year as its predecessor, this bizarre sequel only features about 45 minutes of new footage, with the rest being recycled segments from the first film meant to pad out the runtime. While this is a surprisingly dishonest move on Shimizu’s part, with the decision likely resulting in confused viewers thinking that there was something wrong with their rented videotapes, it’s still pretty hard to call this a bad movie.

That’s why I’ve come to respect the flick as a rare instance of a cinematic expansion pack, as the first film didn’t really need to be any longer, but the new segments still do a great job of adding to the existing mythology. This time around, we learn that you don’t even have to come into direct contact with the haunted house in order to be affected by the curse, with characters only tangentially connected to the Saeki tragedy still meeting terrible fates.

That final shot featuring multiple Kayakos is also one of the most incredibly chilling moments in the entire franchise, with the amount of care put into these scenes suggesting that this was probably all meant to have been included in the first film before Shimizu decided otherwise. Either way, I’d still recommend watching this one immediately after Part I in a condensed double-feature – so long as you skip the first thirty minutes.

Despite their humble origins, these low-budget scare-fests would go on to inspire a ghostly media empire, with Shimizu eventually being given the chance to bring his creations to the big screen with one of the best J-Horror flicks of all time. And while I won’t argue that these direct-to-video precursors are necessarily better than 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge (or even the American duology which was also helmed by Shimizu), I still think that something special was lost each time the series was tasked with pleasing a wider audience, as the story slowly became glossier and less real.

That’s why I’d urge hardcore horror fans to seek out Shimizu’s early experiments, as his creative fingerprints are the duct-tape that keeps this janky collection of horrific vignettes together. It may not always be pretty, but I’ll take the grimy actors caked in cheap blood and white clown makeup over corporate-approved movie monsters any day of the week.

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