Noroi: The Curse Is My Pick For Scariest Movie Ever Made, And It Has No Jump Scares
Perhaps, like me, you have a very tenuous relationship with the horror genre. “Weird Guy Has a Knife” begins to wear a little thin once you’ve seen it for the nine-hundredth time. Haunted houses, murderers in masks, twins with poor interpersonal skills – after you’ve been exposed to the same scary twins over and over again, you start to build up a spooky tolerance, and then the next thing you know you’re Googling videos of Russian chemical train explosions just to feel something, anything.
Fear not, my friends, for starting today (and for the next four days) I’ll be bringing you a horror movie from a different continent each day. (We're calling this BOO-nited Nations or whatever, advance apologies to Australia and Antarctica, as this series only scored five days of calendar.) Today, we’ll be diving right into the deep end with my pick for Asia: Japan’s 2005 masterpiece Noroi: The Curse. (As of publication, it's on Amazon Prime and Roku.)
So What Is This Movie About?
Kōji Shiraishi’s 2005 masterpiece Noroi: The Curse (Japanese for “The Curse: The Curse”) is a Blair Witch Project-style found-footage film, although that particular comparison is like saying a man-eating tiger is a heckin' good kitter or an Illinois governor is somewhat crooked.
The film presents itself as being a documentary pieced together after the fact from “real” footage shot by Masafumi Kobayashi, a sort of Japanese Zak Baggans sans Affliction t-shirt and fauxhawk, and his mostly-unseen camera operator Miyajima. The film starts with Kobayashi documenting an investigation into a woman who claims she hears voices at night coming from her neighbor Junko Ishii’s house. Our hapless investigators attempt to interview the neighbor, who simply very sanely screams at them and slams the door in their face – this is considered a polite greeting in Chicagoland, but apparently it’s bizarre enough in Tokyo to warrant inclusion in a paranormal investigator’s film.
Kobayashi and company make some recordings and have them analyzed by their sound engineer friend, who is inexplicably wearing a labcoat. I’ve met a lot of sound engineers in my life, and maybe one in ten of them owns a pair of pants that doesn’t have a drawstring. The audio engineer cleans up the files and plays what is clearly the sound of babies crying, which he, insanely, initially suggests might be the sound of neighborhood cats.
Kobayashi returns to the house soon after and finds that Junko Ishii, the weird neighbor, has apparently moved away. Looking around the house, Kobayashi finds a pile of dead pigeons. Wait, shit, maybe that sound was cats? Their investigation having hit a dead end, Kobayashi leaves, and we’re told that the woman seeking his help died mysteriously a few days later. (Way to drop the ball, Kobayashi.)
These scenes are but the tip of the iceberg of Kobayashi's misadventure/waking nightmare. I don’t want to spoil the film’s terrifying climax for you, but for a man who is ostensibly a seasoned paranormal investigator, you’d think Kobayashi-san would know better than to make a rookie mistake like adopting a mute child he found lurking in a grisly suicide shrine.
What Manner of Monster Is This?
Curses are everywhere in Japan. Some shrines offer cursing services, usually to help one separate oneself from an annoying or dangerous person. If the Catholic Church ever starts to run out of stolen pagan gold, maybe offering drive-through curses would be a way to build their flagging finances back up?
In addition to this, there’s also the wara ningyo, straw dolls that are roughly analogous to voodoo dolls. Wara Ningyo are still popular today, especially as revenge against an unfaithful lover. They’d be instantly recognizable to any Japanese person (or sufficiently nerdy stateside otaku). My point here is that the concept of hexes are as culturally recognizable in Japan as Santa Claus, good guys with a gun, and upward economic mobility are in the United States. Stories of vengeful spirits and curses in Japanese cinema may even have their roots in traditional Noh theater, as well as the more egalitarian Kabuki plays of centuries past.
Noroi also has a slew of abandoned shrines. “Abandoned shrines” are the Japanese version of “Native American burial grounds,” in that they are a convenient shorthand in movies for a place where there are all manner of spooky goings-on and you can’t go ten feet without tripping over one, and also maybe as symbols of past rife with unspeakable horror that the modern world has yet to fully reconcile with.
Ghost stories in Japan, even very old ones, seem much more modern than other folklore, which lends itself to filmic formats. In the mid-seventeenth century, a game known as hyakumonogatari gained popularity as a way for samurai and other members of the upper classes test their courage by basically having a sleepover and taking turns telling scary stories (called kaidan) in the dark, blowing out a candle, and looking in a mirror after each story. (This was to prepare the samurai to courageously face hitchhikers with hooks for hands and telephone calls coming from inside the house.) These self-contained stories feel surprisingly modern both in content and how they’re delivered, and it seems like a natural evolution to have them influence film.
But Is It Scary?
Let me put it this way: Noroi is the ultimate way to increase your productivity. You’ll have so much time to get shit done when you never sleep again!
So the answer is an emphatic yes. Noroi: The Curse might be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen A Serbian Film. It uses the “found footage” aesthetic to bring a horrible, crushing realism to the film. Most of the people in it live normal lives in their cramped, normal apartments. There are no haunted mansions being inherited. The rough-around-the-edges quality, such as how the English subtitles are sometimes amateurishly superimposed over existing Japanese superimpositions, lend the whole thing an unheimlich air of credibility. There are intentional mistakes which give the whole thing an air of something you’d stumble across on YouTube or the depths of a documentary-focused streaming service.
Part of the horror of Noroi comes from the documentary form itself. As Kobayashi delves deeper into the mystery, he finds a past that becomes murkier and murkier, more and more frightening. For a country with a past as checkered as Japan’s, it is perhaps unsurprising to see the shadows cast by the past as a vehicle for horror. Noroi is diegetically a VHS film containing 16mm home videos of a ritual we’re told by an amateur historian reading a degraded scroll is traditionally done to appease a demon which, according to oral history, perhaps maybe came from a group of sorcerers in the distant past. The ritual cannot be completed because the temple is at the bottom of a man-made lake: when history is erased, healing cannot occur. The more you look into history, the deeper you dive, the more inexplicable it becomes, like ASMR videos on YouTube. It elevates the “found footage” aspect above novelty and budget practicality into a commentary on the form.
Noroi is a film with no real jumpscares and no slick special effects, a film where not a drop of blood is spilt and all violence is mostly implied or happening off-screen. It is not frightening in spite of this: it’s precisely so don’t-watch-when-you-have-diarrhea terrifying because of this. The framing is tight, with subjects often breaking the boundaries of the screen, and the amateur camerman’s moves are herky-jerky and often unfocused, imparting upon the film a suffocating sense of claustrophobia.
In Japanese Shinto belief, the world is made of two components: the physical and the spiritual, the living and the dead – and the barriers between them are permeable. It’s no accident that one of the film’s few direct depictions of a ghost is seen under a Torii gate. Noroi depicts the quotidian workaday life of people in Tokyo and what happens when their world brushes up against the unknowable. Mundane and madness are presented as antipodes, and the film’s gut wrenching, bilious climax happens not in a scary forest or an abandoned shrine but Koabayashi’s living room. When the anodyne and abominable are brought together is the film’s most horrifying moment: the unknowable invading the sanctity of the familiar.
The ultimate lesson of Noroi, and what makes it such a compelling work of horror, is sometimes less is more. No glamorous lighting or painstakingly-staged mise-en-scene (a French term meaning “your film degree cost HOW MUCH?!”). Just incredibly affecting acting and glimpses of the unknown. The plot is meandering and there’s never a completely satisfactory explanation given.
To me, something much American studio-driven horror doesn’t understand is that what we find frightening is robbed of its power once it becomes explicable, quantifiable. The artistic flourishes of modern horror filmmaking do more than just enhance the sensual experience of film-going; they provide a level of abstraction in which we can take comfort, knowing that none of this is “real.” It’s why my friends are perfectly okay coming with me to a ticketed haunted house at Knott’s Berry Farm, but all of a sudden when I invite them to come explore the abandoned Orphan Refinery and Uranium Mining Interest outside of town, I’m suddenly some sort of weirdo. When the abstractions of classic Hollywood filmmaking are stripped from horror, the skeleton left behind is something much more visceral and frightening.
Overall, I give Noroi: The Curse ten out of ten sweaty buttholes.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, or even to be staffed on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.