Noroi: The Curse is a helluva thing. Before I get to the review, you can view the film in its entirety here. The review contains some minor spoilers, but nothing too specific.
This movie is all the things that I love: it is explicitly folkloric; it is scary and full of supernatural stuff without being unnecessarily violent; and it is, most critically, intelligent. Some will no doubt balk at the familiar structure of the narrative (obscure Shinto ritual fails, demonic force is released, people get possessed and several people die) or at the Blair Witch-inspired found footage/documentary film cinematography. To those critics, I say, originality is not necessarily the key to successful, effective, evocative art. I also say screw you.
I love this film. It evokes a sense of creeping dread, that delightful dull tingling that stays with you and is expertly evoked–in this, as in other films of its kind–through dusty stacks of books or old scrolls, feverish studying of local lore, a belated sense of hollow victory as the mystery is solved, and the eventual crescendo of panic and despair as the bad shit you were specifically trying to prevent went ahead and happened anyway, the jerk. It vindicates local, vernacular knowledge (a jargony way of saying folklore): the person with the most information about what’s going on is an old guy who is conveniently obsessed with local history, and happens to have an old scroll lying around that he like totally forgot about until the protagonists came snooping around Scooby-Doo-style. And it makes clever use of a combination of found footage, clips from Japanese variety shows, and the Unsolved Mysteries-genre of episodic TV documentaries. The whole thing, in fact, is framed as a documentary about the main character, Kobayashi, a paranormal investigator who disappeared after filming his latest project.
Fear is evoked not through violence, but thoughtful and generally convincing performances by the leads, two out of the three of whom have the unenviable job of portraying psychically sensitive people who react violently to unseen forces. One of them, Hori-san, is a powerful psychic driven crazy by his visions, and is easily my favorite character. Hori is really crazy, like, old-school crazy: throughout the film he wears clothing covered in tinfoil, and mutters and growls and generally behaves like a Japanese Renfield. While actor Jitsunashi Satoru’s performance is almost comical, the inevitable watershed moment–when the horror becomes personal, instead of just an object of study for the protagonists–is especially chilling given the somewhat goofy nature of the character.
If you’re looking for groundbreaking, entirely innovative storytelling, or multiple possible interpretations, look elsewhere. While Noroi has a kind of sparse sophistication, it is not a symbolically complex film. It also suffers in at least one scene from badly dated CGI (there are mercifully few of these, however). But if you’re in the mood for an intelligent, unsettling film that makes creative use of folklore and vernacular religion, and is very much in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project and Rec, you could do far worse than Noroi.
[Edited 8/9/14–new rating system]