Juon: The Beginning of the End (Japan, 2014)
Over the past sixteen years the lucrative Juon franchise has produced eight Japanese movies and three English-language remakes, becoming one of the cornerstones of the Japanese horror industry. Original creator Takashi Shimizu stepped down in 2006, having directed the first four Japanese instalments and two of the remakes. 2010 saw the release of Juon: Black Ghost and Juon: White Ghost, two tenth anniversary films, directed by Mari Asato and Ryuta Miyake respectively. Although the latest two films, Juon: The Beginning of the End (2014) and Juon: The Final (2015), were obviously intended as some form of closing act, the Ring series crossover Sadako vs. Kayako is already in production, with The Curse (2005) director Koji Shiraishi at the helm.
Unlike the V-cinema Black Ghost and White Ghost, both of the latest films are theatrical releases and both were directed by Japanese horror veteran Masayuki Ochiai, director of Parasite Eve (1997) and Hypnosis (1999). Although they retain the same set-up and names as Shimizu’s originals, the mythology has been reworked, with Ochiai and producer Takashige Ichise writing the scripts.
Substitute teacher Yui (Nozomi Sasaki) is pleasantly surprised to find herself given a position as a homeroom teacher, thanks to the sudden resignation of her predecessor. Her most immediate concern is one of her new pupils, Toshio Saeki (Kai Kobayashi), who hasn’t been to school in some time. After visiting Toshio’s home and meeting his apparently unstable mother, Yui becomes convinced that there is something very wrong at the Saeki household. Unfortunately, Yui’s own strange behaviour is beginning to worry her aspiring scriptwriter boyfriend, who begins discretely asking questions about her current problem child.
Rumours about a haunted house have been circulating, so four school friends decide to check it out. Only one of them, a nervous girl called Nanami (Reina Triendl), believes the rumours, but her friends drag her inside anyway. They find nothing of interest in the house, but Nanami encounters something strange. Soon afterwards one of the friends disappears, while another breaks down and barricades herself in her room.
For followers of the series, the main problem with The Beginning of the End will be immediately apparent upon reading the synopsis above. Most of the major plotlines (and most of the key scenes as well) are drawn from the first four films, and Juon (2000) and Juon: The Grudge (2002) in particular. The only major character who doesn’t have an earlier equivalent is Naoto, the scriptwriting fiancé. The primary difference is that Ochiai shows us much more of Kayako when she was alive and the chain of events that led to her death. To be fair, some of the death scenes are different, though the others are all straight renditions of scenes from Shimizu’s films.
Of course, this is the primary flaw, the persistent suspicion that things are going to turn out exactly as you expect. Leaving that aside, The Beginning of the End works quite well, mainly thanks to Ochiai’s efficient handling of the scares and a generally solid cast. The types of houses used are quite different; instead of the cramped middle class Nerima home that Shimizu used, Ochiai’s Saeki family occupy a quite sumptuous, well-lit house. Shimizu brought his horrors to a location that was thoroughly mundane and could have been any one of millions of ordinary family homes across Japan. In contrast, Ochiai’s ghost house boasts a front door that Count Dracula would have been proud to own. The changes were no doubt made for practical as well as aesthetic considerations: The Beginning of the End boasts a much more mobile style of camerawork that would have been impossible to accommodate in the original Juon house.
Although The Beginning of the End doesn’t manage to assert its own identity as a new chapter in the series (to be fair, it’s unlikely it was ever intended to), it is at least a moderately scary horror film with decent acting and a few interesting new scenes. If nothing else, it’s at least considerably better than the recent Sadako reboots of the Ring series (2012/2013).