There are horror movies that get under your skin and horror movies that get in your head. Takashi Shimizu's "Ju-on: The Grudge" is one that gets on your nerves. What happens isn't as important as why, and we never get much of an answer about that.
The movie, a smash in Japan, treats us to some odd curse that leaps from victim to victim, leaving each one catatonic or angry or, in the case of three prep-school teens, totally zombified. We get a partial explanation for the source of the curse -- a house haunted by a murdered woman and her son -- that's insubstantial enough to leave you ticking off questions.
While we puzzle over the facts and their vagaries, the very undead lady (Takako Fuji), who has a rat's nest for a hairdo, and her pale little boy (Yuya Ozeki) make a nifty tag team. He pads around the house and hides under tables, and she pops by to say "boo," dragging her victims (though it's unclear what victimhood entails) kicking and screaming around corners. She also shows up in the darnedest places, like a stall in the ladies' room or on the steps of her old place. That last feat is so captivating for characters who witness it that they sit on the floor shivering and paralyzed with amazement, instead of getting up and running out the front door.
Even if you have no idea what the devil is going on in "Ju-on," it holds up as a finely crafted little freakout movie. It's not as randomly spooky as "Ringu," the Japanese creep show that gave us "The Ring." But "Ju-on" has a mostly better cast, which includes Megumi Okina as Rika, the volunteer caregiver who for some reason is spared the actual curse. The movie is admirable for its structure, too. Shimizu uses a circular narrative that moves the curse, like a chain letter, from person to person, and some people are connected to others. Daylight is effectively used. A lot of the mayhem happens during office hours.
Shimizu has just wrapped up his own American version of "Ju-on," simply called "The Grudge," which is scheduled to open next month. Maybe he'll bring his clean, relatively clear style to the new production and save the studio from paying for noisy, screwy montages that junk up most of the genre. Maybe he'll also bring you closer to the terror and iron out some of the plot mysteries, which this movie's more gruesome sequel doesn't do.
"Ju-on" is certainly effective at heightening your awareness. You recognize the terror as it flashes across people's faces. You know why they scream in dread of whatever evil is about to befall them. You understand that no matter how often that snaky, sneaky dead woman shows up between people's sheets, she hasn't slept in a long time. Yet watching the nightmares unfurl doesn't always produce a visceral chill. It's the equivalent of a meticulously prepared meal where you just can't taste anything. The movie is scary, but only when you think about it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ju-on: The Grudge
Written and directed by: Takashi Shimizu
Starring: Megumi Okina, Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji, Misaki Ito, Misa Uehara
At: Kendall Square, through Sept. 23
Running time: 92 minutes
In Japanese, with subtitles
Rated: R (disturbing images)