The imagination of Western horror fans has been captivated in recent years by a brand new horror sub-genre that first slithered out of Japan at the beginning of the Twenty-first Century in the form of Hideo Nakata's International smash-hit "Ringu". In just a few short years, the new "Kaidan" genre -- atmospheric tales of ancient curses brought forth by creeping long-haired ghost women and pale-faced, large-eyed spirit-children; where the atavistic beliefs of traditional folklore often materialise to wreak psychic havoc on the dysfunctional inhabitants of a modern, technological society -- has spawned some of the most popular and highly regarded examples of supernatural horror, with the Japanese directors of "Ju-On: The Grudge" and "Ringu 2" using their movies' cult success as a springboard for mainstream international acclaim through their own, high-profile, US remakes of the originals. The genre has undoubtedly given Western horror movie-makers a kick up the arse as well: demonstrating that there are basic terrors lodged deep in the human psyche that seem to transcend culture -- but which have been almost ignored in recent Western horror output in favour of formulaic, wisecracking teen slashers and the like.
Despite the success of the Western remakes, part of what attracted horror fans to these Japanese ghost films in the first place was the fact that they exposed us to the trappings of contemporary Japanese culture, often for the first time. It soon becomes apparent to even the casual viewer that there seems to be a tension expressed in these films between tradition and modernity which is quite unique to the Japanese and makes their horror seem somewhat exotic as well as scary to Western eyes: ubiquitous modern innovations such as mobile phones and video cassettes often "store" or transmit "energies" of a spirit nature as well as the physical kind; while -- possibly -- still the most recognisable image from any recent Kaidan, "Ringu", famously saw a television set becoming the gateway to a malevolent spirit. (A complete example of this tendency for mixing modern fears and ancient superstitions came in "Ringu's" little-known and confusing follow up, "The Spiral" -- later replaced as the official sequel by Hideo Nakata's own "Ringu 2".)
The protagonists of nearly all of these films seem to be single, often divorced or separated young females struggling to look after a small child alone. School girls also seem to be a popular choice for lead characters, indicating an ambivalent fascination with the role of young women in today's Japan. The popularity of these slick but atmospheric tales of Japanese terror (at home and abroad) has inevitably led to a glut of such movies appearing, and it has got to the point where we now know pretty much what to expect: long-haired creeping ghost women, curses passed along like biological viruses, threatened children and struggling single-mothers. But, although they may have lost the element of surprise, these films are developing a lingering appeal as a sub-genre thanks to their predictable elements in much the same way as the accoutrements of the giallo genre (black gloves, fetishistic murder weapons etc.) have helped create an identifiable fan-base for seventies Italian psychological thrillers.
The rise of Digital Video as a cheap alternative to film has been another recent development and young Japanese directors have exploited this, as have many Western filmmakers. Even the prolific and well respected cult director Takashi Miike (who seems to churn out at least two new films a week!) has worked in the Digital Video medium. The Uk's Screen Entertainment have managed a world premiere release for the latest entry in the ever-expanding Kaidan genre and the film is an obvious example of low budget production aesthetics. Filmed on Digital Video and then (by the look of it) transferred to film, Yoshihiro Hoshino's "Cursed" (the director does not appear to have an entry in IMDb as of yet, and only the writer of "Cursed" is credited!) is full of everything we have come to associate with recent Japanese horror, although the DV medium struggles to reproduce the stylishness of the more well-known examples of the genre.
The main source of menace for this particular outing into the supernatural is a very ordinary-looking roadside convenience store. Part-time cashier, Nao, whiles away the days under the sterilised glare of fluorescent lights with only the store's strangely behaving owners for company ... and they spend most their time silently staring at her on the CCTV monitors in the store's dingy stock room! Shelves of common-or-garden food produce and racks of gaudy Japanese magazines with primary coloured covers are there to tempt occasional passers-by but things are about to change -- the zombie-like owners have signed a franchise deal with a larger company and young business woman, Ryoko, has been dispatched to do an inventory of the store's goods and to assess its future prospects. It doesn't take her long to realise there is something a little odd about the place: one of the many crows, that congregate on the telephone masts outside, smashes into the storefront window and the store-owners' behaviour gets stranger all the time!
The Digital Video filming medium is very noticeable in these store scenes: it seems to struggle with the quality of light and the image often looks a bit over exposed. But the slightly degraded look is not necessarily a bad thing and only helps illustrate the initial unassuming ordinariness of the setting. Screen Entertainment's anamorphic transfer is quite impressive and although it only possesses a Dolby Stereo audio track it still captures the atmospherics of the sound mix very nicely. There is a quirky, offbeat form of humour present throughout the film which often recalls "Twin Peaks". In particular, the store-owners -- with their odd appearances and strange, antisocial behaviour -- are a constant source of bizarre non-sequiturs and appear to have the ability to suddenly pop up anywhere! The quirkiness extends to the goings on inside the store: a pair of staring eyes emerge from the darkness, and a strange customer in a face-obscuring hood stands quivering in the middle of the store; check out girl, Nano glimpses a ghostly figure which suddenly disappears, and many of the store's customers find themselves meeting an unpleasant end!
Like many Asian films, the plot of "Cursed" never seems to develop along conventional lines: instead, things just get progressively weirder and weirder with little attempt to explain events or make them coherent. Fans of the genre will be used to this of course, and I didn't find it particularly off-putting. Really, the film becomes a series of set-pieces with the store used as a framing device in which its (often socially isolated) casual customers find themselves assailed by a disparate series of malevolent supernatural events. While the events inside the store are mainly just bizarre and weird, these set-pieces tend to be more typical of Japanese Kaidan horror, and several of them are extremely effective. One in particular is the scariest, most suspenseful scene I've seen in any film for some time and, on its own, makes this low budget effort well worth seeing. This is the sequence where an office worker finds herself pursued through an apartment building at night by a zombie-like man whose face is entirely swathed in bloodstained bandages and who drags a heavy metal mallet on the floor behind him! This whole sequence is organised with the imaginative flair of Argento and the visual griminess of Zombie-era Fulci -- and its surreal, nightmarish tone is utterly terrifying!
Other standout sequences include a school girl having a drastic encounter with a bus; Nao's meeting with the store's hooded menace on her way home and his attempt to drag her into the path of an oncoming train; and a typical long-haired ghostie who, in almost a parody of the original "Ringu", crawls out of a fridge! There is a half-hearted attempt to draw together all of this inexplicable strangeness when another quirky character -- a cranky woman who lovingly tends a Japanese doll in a pram -- explains that the store was built on foundations which were made from crushed grave stones, leading to the store becoming a repository of lost spirits as well as groceries, but this doesn't go even halfway to explaining everything that goes on in the film. Best just to go with it -- and enjoy this patchy but enjoyable low budget Japanese hodgepodge of horror, offbeat humour and atmospheric chills!