There’s a certain degree of ambiguity that writing a book or short story allows you, where concepts can exist directly on the page without the need for images to convey them. It’s in that ambiguity where cosmic horror dwells — not in horror’s presence but its absence of it, in the knowledge that something deep and dark and terrible lies just beyond the limits of understanding itself.
That ambiguity has made cosmic horror a fixture of horror literature for as long as the genre’s existed… but film’s another matter. It’s a deeply concrete medium, one where even the abstract needs to be visual — for all the talk of film being “what’s in the frame and what’s out,” what we don’t show still requires something to be shown for us to understand what’s absent. This is where cosmic horror ends up running into translation problems: put simply, a genre about the unseen and unknowable has to adapt to a form that’s defined by the act of seeing.
Finding that right angle of translation isn’t easy, which is why a lot of filmmakers choose to skip the ambiguity altogether when adapting cosmic horror. (Is it any wonder the average Lovecraft homage tends to be jam-packed with mucus and tentacles?) There are films that try to represent the genre more faithfully, of course, but there’s still a level of physicality that the act of translation forces into the process — your Prince of Darknesses and Event Horizons might be undeniably cosmic horror, but they’re still stories driven by physical monstrosities, things you can touch and see. Far more fascinating, though, are the films like Phantasm and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre whose orbits ever-so-slightly intersect with cosmic horror — and, in doing so, often represent its literary qualities better than any direct adaptation
Like TCM, Ju-On: The Grudge doesn’t really seem like cosmic horror on a surface level. If anything, it’s a relatively classic J-horror ghost story, characteristic of the genre’s early-2000s boom in its slate-grey atmosphere and brooding tone and overcast atmosphere. That’s not to say it’s conventional, though, as Ju-On is unusually fragmented for a mainstream horror film. Writer/director Takashi Shimizu fractures his story into different hauntings and paranormal incidents scattered through time, all spiraling outward from the abandoned suburban home of the murdered Saeki family.
That spiral structure isn’t arbitrary, either, but reflects the mythology of the titular grudge itself. In any other ghost story, the murder of Kayako and Toshio Saeki by deranged patriarch Takeo would likely result in something self-contained, a mystery resolved by bringing the truth to light — but here, the victims’ pain and anger grows so great it takes on a life of its own, deepening into a black hole of supernatural activity that raises Kayako and Toshio as its pallid, rattling avatars. And, like a virus, it spreads, each death it causes sparking a new grudge of its own, any hope of escape for our many protagonists fading as the pattern repeats time and time again.
This frayed, quietly apocalyptic quality isn’t just something Ju-On possesses, but a characteristic of its time and place in Japanese media. Ju-On’s release places it near the tail end of the prominent new wave of J-horror, one responsible for launching filmmakers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideo Nakata, and Takashi Miike and writers like Koji Suzuki and Junji Ito to prominence. While their works cover the spectrum from gruesome body horror to spartan psychological horror to unadulterated extremity, there’s a shared sense of aesthetic and artistic values that ties them all together, uncanniness and urban decay serving as the norm. In Ito’s work, innocuous details from oddly shaped faces to simple spirals slowly blossom into body horror of the most gruesome kind; Miike’s Audition twists a rom-com setup into a perverse psychosexual nightmare; Kurosawa’s Cure transforms a deadpan-voiced, lighter-flicking drifter into a symbol of indefinable evil. The places you thought you knew have changed, but you can’t say how or why — and you’re not sure you want to know.
Like his contemporaries, Shimizu approaches cosmic horror by bordering on it, threading the needle between the unfamiliar and the familiar — which, in his case, happens to be the conventions of the typical ghost story. For as impressionistic as it can get, Ju-On is still a first-class crowdpleaser when it comes to scares, walking us through some of the most immaculately crafted setups and punchlines of any 21st-century horror film. There’s a patience and subtlety to Shimizu’s work here, making the most out of tiny details and repeated actions; the camera often lingers long before the scare itself enters the shot, forcing us to try and figure out where the horror will come from. One early-film setpiece in an apartment building stands out as a masterclass in horror directing, steadily ratcheting up the tension from an impossible reflection in an elevator window to a too-close-for-comfort encounter underneath a character’s bedsheets.
None of this is revolutionary, just precise craftsmanship at work…but that’s what makes Shimizu’s divergences from the norm stand out even more. As the film goes on, its structure branching outwards with increasing complexity, that cosmic-horror influence slowly unveils itself — Ju-On is as much an epistolary narrative as an anthology, its shifting perspectives and sub-stories akin to The King in Yellow and The Call of Cthulhu. Its ghosts are murky and indefinable, either refusing to speak or parroting croaked phrases with no clear comprehension. In the end, it’s ambiguous as to who’s really in control — Kayako and Toshio, or the grudge itself.
In the end, though, whether or not Ju-On is cosmic horror comes down to the indefinable. Cosmic horror isn’t always about archetypes — the esoteric metafiction of Robert Chambers is about as far from the carnal punk-rock shock of Clive Barker as you can get, and yet both undeniably write cosmic horror. It’s about how it makes you feel, about the implacable dread it leaves in your gut with each new revelation, about the things you realize might be missing. In its final images, Ju-On delivers that absence — abandoned Tokyo streets, piles of missing persons posters that will never be answered, a body that lives long after its host is gone.
The world is ending, and death won’t let us escape. If that’s not cosmic horror, then what is?