It’s a very nice house.

“It’s practically new,” says real-estate agent Tatsuya Suzuki. “And,” he adds, “it’s near the train station.” Also, it’s on the market for a song.

The only problem is the previous occupants. They’re still there. There’s Kayako Saeki—she’s dead—and her little boy Toshio—he’s dead, too—along with Mar the housecat—dead as well. They died, implies the film, “in a powerful rage,” and their deaths unleashed a ju-on or curse, so that anyone who so much as steps foot in the house receives a phone call or a visit from one of the deceased and winds up just as dead as they are, “and a new curse is born,” or so the film explains.

As it happens, at least five other curses were born, and that’s only if you count the sequels.

Ju-on (2000) comes by way of writer/director Takashi Shimizu, who went on to helm all the films in the series, including, miraculously, the American remakes. His images are most potent in this direct-to-video debut.

The tale tells of the residents of the Saeki house (both deceased and soon-to-be-deceased) and a half-dozen others who are just passing through, among them a teacher, a tutor, some police detectives, and the real-estate broker’s ghost-savvy sister. Gradually, the source of the curse emerges, and the story takes on surprising depth and texture. This is a horror flick, mind—a direct-to-video horror flick. It’s not supposed to invite discussion afterward.

Shimizu’s concept borrows from Ringu (1998), which in turn borrows from Japanese folklore, but his take on the material is purely his own, right down to the name for the ghostly phenomenon. He stitched together ju-on Dr. Frankenstein-style from pieces of the words for curse and grudge, and his filmmaking shows the same sort of ingenuity.

Given what must have been a miniscule budget, he sets the camera down and lets his scenes unfold before it, building the tension to deliver the scares. Unfortunately, the one big-money shot reveals just how small the money was, but he leads up to it with such understated skill that the moment is terrifying anyway. And he chops up the narrative into little vignettes, which he strings back together out of chronological order, all the better to disorient and unnerve a guy.

The result is a film far more satisfying than it should be. Watch it twice. And leave the lights on. | ●●●●○

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