“I guess it’s too late for all of us.”
Noroi has a little bit of a reputation. Initially released in Japan in 2005 it came at the tail end of the J-Horror boom in the US and never received a physical release here. Instead, it became an underground, cult experience. Shared on file-swapping sites and bootleg DVDs on eBay. Viewing it as a grainy, low-quality dub could only have enhanced its low-fi charms. It became almost an urban legend – the found-footage movie that was actually scary.
Not that I was aware of that reputation. My first experience with Noroi was almost casual. I had been looking for something J-Horror (or K-Horror or any Asian horror really) and stumbled across Sadako vs Kayako on Shudder. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it – I really enjoyed Ringu, Ju-On and their US remakes and I senses only disappointment coming from watching a film where those two characters clashed. (And I say this as someone who actually enjoyed Freddy vs Jason.)
I did see that they had a film called Noroi: The Curse by the same director, Kôji Shiraishi. Not necessarily a high recommendation, I know, but it looked like an early Japanese found footage horror film, which is an uncommon genre. (If you’re watching J-Horror found-footage it’s probably a Kôji Shiraishi film, actually.) I looked up the director, and realized I’d seen at least one of his films, Shirome, another found footage flick. I didn’t remember much about it (other than the butterfly imagery and a lot of screaming girls), but it was enough to make me take the plunge. “Five minutes,” I thought. “if it doesn’t catch me in five minutes I’ll bail and find something else.”
Well, it caught me.
It was only later that I realized the film was “internet famous” in certain horror circles. I’m glad I stumbled on it, rather than having it built up for me into something that couldn’t possibly live up to the hype, as underground as that hype might be. Which, I do realize, I’m engaging in a bit of with this introduction. Let me just wrap up this ramble by saying that, while it’s not the scariest found footage movie I’ve ever seen, it’s very effective, creepy and unsettling in a way most found-footage films are not and it’s become one of my favorites of the genre.
Noroi is a Shudder exclusive and has been for a few years now. The quality is as good as you can expect for a film that appears to have been shot in standard definition on various media (including VHS tape). (That’s consistent with the context of the film, and not a budget consideration.)
In the US you can only rent or purchase the film via iTunes. There are no DVD or Blu-ray releases.
Noroi: The Curse is a film-within-a-film, in that the framing sequence – a matter of a few minutes introduction and ending – is presenting the final work of a ‘well known’ journalist and paranormal expert, Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki). The majority of the film is presented as the actual documentary – finished before Kobayashi disappeared after a fire at his home that resulted in the death of his wife.
This is a great choice and allows for pacing, music, repetitive visuals, slow motion and generally all of the filmmaking tricks one uses when creating a documentary to try and tell a story. (An approach used in one of my other favorite found-footage films, Lake Mungo.) There’s no need to have long sequences of running through the woods with vague shouting (although, to be fair, there is a bit of that) or people saying things people would never actually say in order to get information across. We get newspaper clippings, segments from Japanese reality TV shows, interviews and footage from various sources edited together to create tension and mood, while still maintaining that ‘realistic’ feeling. And of course you’ve got a cameraman and a documentary filmmaker – the perfect excuse to keep the cameras rolling when most people would have dropped the damn thing and beat feet.
Kobayashi’s documentary is called The Curse (natch) and details his final investigation, starting with a woman’s call about a strange neighbor and developing through to a final exploration of the events in and around a ‘drowned’ village (flooded by a damn). Along the way we’ll see psychic kids, tinfoil hat (and clothes) wearing conspiracy theorists, strange knots, possessed TV stars, suicidal pigeons, ancient shrines and much more besides. It sounds like a lot – and it is – but here the films length actually works for it, allowing all these disparate threads to slowly weave together, forming a tapestry of unsettling events and people.
At nearly two hours the film is perhaps overlong, but it works for me. Noroi is not a film that depends on the usual half-glimpsed figures in the background or lound-noise jump scares. It’s filmed as a documentary, so if you see something weird they’re going to rewind and show it to you again in slow motion. The weird noise will get taken to an audio specialist and isolated so we can get a clear idea of what we heard. It’s the bright lights and accumulating mass of information that lead to the unease and dread, and you need time to build that up. I started off a little bored and ended up creeped out in the dark in my basement, unable to pinpoint the exact moment that I’d bought in again.
I’m avoiding a clear discussion of the plot of the film, in part because this is a movie the relies on the journey more than most. It’s how you start to put the events, people and images together in your own head that makes for much of the horror.
There are a few missteps in execution and not every actor is as good as the leads, but to be honest I’m only thinking about those things in retrospect. They didn’t bother me while I was watching – I was pretty engrossed. There’s also one dodgy piece of CGI, but it was horrific enough in context that I didn’t notice until the film re-used it later. The scares are more in a growing sense of unease and the creepiness of realizing what’s going on. There are some jump scares, but they’re few and used to good effect. I found the ending pretty clear (and horrifying), but some might find it either too ambiguous or too flat.
The Bottom Line
Noroi is an extremely effective horror movie – in mood and execution it reminds me of Junji Ito’s work, though not as gory or bizarre as they tend to end up. There’s a great mood and the sense of being unsettled by what you’re seeing. It’s in the unsaid things that slowly add up and the implications you’re led to. One of the best found footage movies I’ve seen and highly recommended.
Still not up for watching Sadako vs Kayako, though.