Noroi: The Curse opens with a warning: "This video documentary is deemed too disturbing for public viewing.” It spends the subsequent two hours living up to that warning.
I don’t want to say too much about Noroi’s plot, because one key to its success is throwing so many different things at the audience before revealing how they all come together. But broadly: Noroi is a 2005 horror movie presented as a polished but incomplete documentary by an independent journalist named Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki). Kobayashi specializes in the supernatural, and his latest project tackles a series of seemingly disconnected mysteries: a creepy house where neighbors always hear the sound of crying babies, a string of sudden and bizarre deaths, an adolescent girl with apparent psychic powers, and a ghost-hunting reality TV show that goes very, very wrong. Chasing these threads ultimately leads Kobayashi to an old ritual tied to a demon named Kagutaba. What follows is a strange mishmash of surreal imagery presented in a disarmingly straightforward way—dead pigeons, braided ropes, barking dogs—and a dread-inducing downward spiral.
It is not a spoiler to say that things don’t end well for Kobayashi; Noroi literally opens by explaining that Kobayashi’s house has burned down with his wife inside, and that Kobayashi himself has vanished. So ultimately, the question isn’t what happens to these characters. It’s why and how it happens, and what it means.
Found-footage movies have a bad reputation among horror fans—which is fair, since most of them are terrible. So what makes Noroi stand out from the dozens of bad, cheap imitators that cropped up in the wake of The Blair Witch Project, which came out five years earlier? Director Kōji Shiraishi makes one brilliant choice upfront: Unlike most found-footage movies—which are usually presented as raw footage shot by a doomed amateur—Noroi is introduced as a mostly-completed "documentary" crafted by a seasoned journalist. This immediately fixes several problems that typically plague found-footage movies. Because the character holding the camera is supposed to be a professional cameraman, Noroi largely avoids the headache-inducing shaky-cam popularized by legions of Blair Witch Project imitators. And because Kobayashi is experienced, the "found footage" is edited more like a conventional documentary meant to entertain and inform a mass audience, which means that Noroi—even at nearly two hours—is paced more like a real film than some weirdo’s old home movie.
Noroi’s commitment to documentary conventions is so absolute that it can be jarring if you’re not prepared for it. One early scene shows a ghostly figure briefly appearing in the woods. In a normal horror movie, this would be a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment designed to make you go, Did I really just see that? But just as you’re turning that moment over in your head, Noroi rewinds and freeze-frames the image of the figure in the woods and analyzes it closely—as, of course, any responsible documentarian would.
This is the unconventional but successful trick at the heart of Noroi: By refusing to follow the beats and tropes of a normal horror movie, it ends up feeling real. In theory, this is what most found-footage horror movies attempt to do—but Noroi’s purity is rarer than you might think. Most found-footage movies at least try to sneak in a few traditional cinematic building blocks, like character arcs. The Blair Witch Project’s Heather begins the story as an overconfident amateur filmmaker, and ends by admitting she’s in way over her head. Cloverfield’s Rob and Beth begin the story by pretending they’re not in love, and confess they love each other just before the bombs start to drop.
Noroi doesn’t bother with anything like that. Masafumi Kobayashi and his ally Marika Matsumoto—an actress, like The Blair Witch Project’s Heather, playing a fictionalized version of herself under her real name—are perfectly credible protagonists. But we don’t really learn anything about them, and they don’t change or grow from their encounters with the demon Kagutaba. They just (WARNING: possible spoiler, but also not really a spoiler) get devoured by it. Even if the movie didn’t tell you about its closing tragedy in its opening text, it’s obvious that Kobayashi and Matsumoto have walked into a trap they can’t recognize until they’re already caught, and that everyone around them will be dragged in as well.
So if it’s so great, why haven’t you already seen Noroi? Because until earlier this year, it was very, very difficult for anyone who wasn’t in Japan to track it down. For the better part of 15 years, Noroi was the subject of only occasional international screenings, and it never got a physical release in the United States. But the absence of an official release had an unintentional but potent side effect: It allowed Noroi to spread across the internet like an urban legend. Many people encountered Noroi for the first time in bootleg subtitled copies that were uploaded in full to torrent sites or YouTube by devoted fans.
I would, uh, never endorse watching a movie this way (and for the record: Now that it’s on Shudder, or for purchase on iTunes, that’s how you should watch it). But you can also see how obscurity only fanned the flames of Noroi’s cult appeal. When viewed through a YouTube window, some of Noroi’s more off-putting qualities—like the incredibly grainy VHS-style picture quality, which stands out even more in the HD era—are sneaky assets, helping the movie camouflage the fact that it’s a movie at all. And it’s hard to imagine a better way to enhance this movie’s already disturbing sense of realism than dropping it on YouTube devoid of any context, where curious, brave viewers could swap the link on message boards and debate just how much of it was real.
If I have one complaint, it’s that—as great as Noroi: The Curse is—putting it on Shudder alongside horror classics like Night of the Living Dead and Halloween also gives the game away. In an ideal world, this movie would still be hiding among all the amateur documentaries you can find on YouTube, ready to make anyone who stumbles onto it spend some sleepless nights wondering just how much of it was real.
Originally Appeared on GQ