Released in 2003, Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on: The Grudge” and “Ju-on: The Grudge 2” both had a simple premise — vengeful ghosts turn an ordinary suburban house into a death trap — but the scares, such as a kohl-eyed dead boy with a terrifying grip, were fresh and effective.
The films were hits and Shimizu went to Hollywood to work on patchy remakes. Back home, he struggled to equal his early successes, hitting bottom with “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” a clunky 2014 live-action reworking of a beloved Hayao Miyazaki animation that was savaged by critics and died at the box office.
His latest horror, “Innocent Curse,” is not likely to reverse his fortunes. Based on an original story, this pastiche of tired J-horror tropes and the Pied Piper of Hamelin story apes the atmospherics of David Lynch, but is more puerile than petrifying.
Hearing about mysterious deaths in a suburban town that have set the internet abuzz, eager young reporter Shunya Ezaki (Daiki Arioka) investigates. The deaths, he learns, are somehow connected to missing children; three days after a kid goes astray, an adult dies, seemingly as payback for offenses against the child.
Then Shunya’s girlfriend Naomi (Mugi Kadowaki) angers Ren (Haruto Nakano), a boy at the nursery school where she works. Soon after, Ren’s mother dies and he is sent to an orphanage, where he promptly vanishes. When he reappears, he is singing the same eerie tune as the other disappeared kids. Another three-day countdown to death has begun — and Shunya and Naomi try frantically to stop it.
This set-up is familiar from “Ring,” the 1998 Hideo Nakata hit that launched the J-horror boom. But in place of that film’s haunted video tape, which kills all who watch it in seven days, Shimizu’s film posits a child’s fatal curse while keeping the earlier film’s idea of a deadline.
Rather than try to explain it with anything resembling logic, the film plunges into an alternative fantasy world populated by the Kodomo Tsukai (a “child whisperer” that acts like a scary Pied Piper). Played by theater star Hideaki Takizawa in his first leading film role, he is a Johnny Depp-type figure sporting a wide-brimmed hat, black cape and all-knowing grin. His familiars are spooky kids with milky eyeballs who could have been adopted from the “Village of the Damned.” And to complete the creep-out trifecta, there’s a circus seemingly inspired by Tod Browning’s horror classic “Freaks.”
How the Kodomo Tsukai, kids and circus connect to each other — and to the desperate Shunya and Naomi — I will not say, only that as the story progresses deeper into its alterative universe, the element of shock dissipates into the ether. The film’s cause isn’t helped by Arioka, a member of pop group Hey! Say! Jump, who is nice but negligible as Shunya, nor Kadowaki, whose reactions to the shocks and threats she encounters range from mild annoyance to vague alarm — neither very convincing.
Perhaps it’s time for Shimizu to reboot yet again and release his inner J. M. Barrie. Better a scary Peter Pan than this dire Pied Piper.