From low-budget straight-to-video quickie to Hollywood hot property, the rapid rise of the Juon series is one of the more remarkable success stories in Japanese cinema of recent years. Starting its overseas reputation as a buzz among a handful of western film critics in tune with Japanese genre cinema, it quickly spread after one such writer proclaimed it, in no lesser forum than America's well-respected Film Comment magazine, to be one of the most frightening movies ever made.
Sequels followed in rapid succession, with this fourth instalment (and second theatrical outing) arriving less than three years after the original. And, well, not much has changed in those three years. The little smurf-skinned Toshio and his mum are still on the prowl, haunting their family home and driving any hapless visitor into insanity and death. This time, it's a TV crew that has invited a disillusioned schlock horror actress to present a staged report on the supposed bad vibes in the deserted Saeki homestead. Although she is supposed to fake the reception of signals from the netherworld, Kyoko the actress starts sensing something is seriously awry before she has even crossed the doorstep. The creepy sounds from the attic and the black stains on the floorboards are only an omen of what is to come as, in trusted haunted house fashion, the members of the TV crew are visited one by one by the vengeful ghosts of Toshio and his mother Kayako.
Juon 2 is, relatively speaking, the most strongly plotted entry in the series. Shimizu avoids falling into an entirely episodic storyline by intermingling the main plot with a subplot about a young girl making her debut as an extra on the set of Kyoko's new film. The director mixes scenes from this horror film within a horror film with his core plotline, achieving some good scares and effective fake shocks with his cross-dimensional leaps. The film's atmosphere is effectively creepy throughout, resulting in some very effective moments. Unfortunately though, Shimizu regularly forgets about atmosphere and wanders too far into the grotesque or the downright silly in an attempt to deliver the goods. And a crawling toupee is unlikely to scare anyone.
Containing just the right balance between formula, craftsmanship and brief running times, Takashi Shimizu can probably keep churning out the Juons well into the next decade, if not until his retirement. But between two made-for-video films, two theatrical features and an upcoming Hollywood remake, it's about time he moved on to something else. I have no doubt Shimizu is capable of it.