I’m a sucker for horror films with an element of mystery. I don’t just mean stories that are themselves a mystery, but also films that are a mystery to me. I don’t like to think of myself as jaded (which seems to be a pretty popular pose for the horror-film enthusiast to take), and I try to avoid as much information about films as possible once I've made the decision to try and see them. Like, I’ll read a quick synopsis and think “yeah, that sounds like something I’d dig” and then I try to forget all about it so I can go in as blind as possible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but I try to be as open to what any given film is trying to do as I can and judge it on those merits. The less I know, the less I have to expect, the more I’m capable of responding honestly to what I see.
So it’s nice when I run across a film that hits both types of mystery - one that’s about mysterious events, and about which I know next to nothing. I’m deprived of pretty much all of the expectations I've built up from spending hours watching scary films, and every now and then that pays off.
Noroi (The Curse) is, by and large, one of those films. Despite some shortcomings, it’s a well-crafted exercise in taking disparate, seemingly unconnected stories and characters and drawing them together into a horrible conclusion.
The film is presented as a documentary (one that we are warned is “too disturbing for public viewing”) about the mysterious disappearance of a paranormal investigator named Masafumi Kobayashi. He’s host of a Ghost Hunters-type show, where every week he investigates some supernatural phenomenon. And then, a week or so after finishing his most recent episode, his house burns to the ground, killing his wife in the process. Masafumi is nowhere to be found.
All that’s left is the completed last episode, which, in essence, documents his final days.
Okaruto - found-footage shot on a pretty low budget, people trying to document the supernatural and getting more than they bargained for, ancient spirits and evil working their way back into the modern world - but I’d argue that Noroi pulls off what it’s trying to do more successfully. Okaruto was in some ways maybe more inventive in how it used the supernatural as the engine for a very real-world horror, but I think Noroi is maybe more narratively sophisticated and doesn’t blow its ending through overreach the way Okaruto did.
We're essentially watching a special about the special - his disappearance is the story, and it is told through the documentary he made about one family's experience of ghostly voices. After some introductory footage, the majority of Noroi is the unaired special which itself combines firsthand interviews with archival footage from various game shows, talk shows, and historical films. So it's nominally a found-footage film, but it’s sort of a nested narrative, with a frequently shifting point of view. It works because for most of its runtime it all seems grounded in the real world, and the end effect is one of having all kinds of seemingly unconnected events (a reclusive woman and her son, a “psychic” who seems more like he’s suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, the disappearance of a young girl, unexplained group suicides, strange images and sleepwalking behavior) all converging on a single point. Movement from scene to scene shifts from story to story and footage source to footage source, so it really feels like we’re viewing an assemblage of evidence, rather than one slightly (or very) improbable cameraman following people from plot point to plot point. It’s one of the ways in which I think the found-footage conceit can be most effective.
This approach seems really disconnected at first, but the film does a good job of taking its time putting all of the pieces together, so that new revelations increase the feeling of mounting dread as we see how all of these seemingly unrelated things are actually related and what they suggest about what's going on. Things brought up early come into focus very late in some cases, and not everything is completely explained, but it works - what we don't know we can fill in pretty easily, and our imaginations are probably capable of coming up with worse things than the filmmakers could have given their fairly small budget.
That said, there are a few weak spots - in a couple of cases the filmmakers can't let the creepy things stand on their own, they have to repeat them and zoom in on them. This diminishes some of the power of these moments, especially since the effects don't necessarily hold up to close scrutiny. Sometimes it’s just scarier to let weird shit happen in the background and let the viewer pick up on it, and in at least a couple of places, what could have been really chilling moments sort of fall flat because of rewinding and slow motion and tight zooms. It makes sense for the sort of program we’re supposed to be watching - television specials are going to be as unsubtle as possible for unobservant viewers - but it still compromises the film’s effectiveness. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between. Most of it holds up very well, because the film relies more on people, events, and discovery than creepy shit on camera.
Apart from the premise and the budget, it does have one other thing in common with Okaruto, in that it blows the end a little. It’s not to the movie-ruining extent that Okaruto does; it’s just narratively fragmented where it needs to be clear and definite. There's a last-minute new discovery that’s intended to shed light on some things (and takes advantage of a pretty hard-to-believe third-act decision), but it doesn't really tell us anything we wouldn't have suspected given the circumstances and what we've already seen. In a more nitpicky way, it ends falling into the "why are you still filming?" problem attached to any found-footage film. There are a couple of moments elsewhere in the film that are tricky in this respect, but the end really calls attention to it, and what is intended to be the moment when we find out what happened to the filmmaker ends up not really shedding any new light on the subject at all, so it ends with kind of a thud. But everything that comes before it is nicely tense and does a great job of taking all of these scattered bits of strangeness, television ephemera and mysterious happenings, and getting them to converge on one horrible conclusion, pictures in a jigsaw puzzle revealing a terrible whole.