Film Analysis: ‘Noroi’, A Nightmare-Inducing Lesson on Suspension of Disbelief in the Found Footage Genre
Found footage films: love them, hate them or love to hate them, there was a time where it didn’t hold the notoriety it does now. The subgenre can trace its roots to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, with the film’s critical success propelling the subgenre’s popularity to the mainstream.
Initially well received and praised for its ability to bend reality, especially in an era before the widespread use of the Internet, found footage films soon became an established format.
The subgenre’s low budgets and high profits margins would lead to a legion of imitators. However, some that have emerged, such as the Spanish horror series Rec, would push the boundaries of the subgenre to new terrifying heights. Still, oversaturation would lead to today’s perception of the subgenre being derivative and overdone – the complete opposite of how audiences felt when The Blair Witch Project first terrified audiences with its fresh and unique approach to horror.
When The Blair Witch Project was first released, it was thought to be a true-to-life documentary went wrong. Paired with the fact that their marketing campaigns involved missing posters for the characters and faux police reports, the film became somewhat of a phenomenon – the campaign is still lauded today as one of the industry’s best.
Audiences genuinely believed that what they saw was real and with that, found footage became a staple of horror films. It was this ability to suspend disbelief and immerse viewers in the horror that spawned several similarly-styled films including the once-incredibly popular Paranormal Activity franchise.
However, with the ever-increasing ease of access to the Internet nowadays, audiences have become desensitised by such tactics. Found footage is no longer able to capture what it was that made it great in the past, with the subgenre commonly associated with low budget films looking to make a quick buck. Found footage films as of late give you shots that are all too typical: A shaky cam shot of someone running (through the woods), a slow pan and jump scare and a close up of someone crying/panicking. No longer do they immerse you in the horror, opting for cheap tactics instead.
Yet through the years, we get the uncommon but “self-aware” found footage such as Lake Mungo (2008). These films diverge from the ‘traditional’ found footage format including things such as talking heads and b-roll to make it seem more like a documentary.
While these films use this well, each giving chilling and suspenseful experiences, it can be said that no other film has perfected this style like Noroi: The Curse (2005). Even in the age of the Internet, it will remain etched in the recesses of audiences’ mind long after the end credits roll.
Riding the wave of both the J-Horror boom and the rise of popularity of found footage films, Noroi came at the perfect time. Released in Japan in 2005, its distribution outside of Japan remains limited, never having a DVD or Blu-ray release in the United States. All this, paired with great reviews from critics gives it an almost cult status and till today, it is hailed as the best the subgenre has to offer.
Noroi, as alluded earlier, is not your typical found footage film. The first thing audiences will notice is that the film plays out as a ‘faux documentary’ rather than a ‘true’ found footage film. It is unlike anything else. Contrasting with the more polished, ‘produced’ feel of its contemporaries, we see in Noroi quirks such as B-roll footage and intercut scenes from television programmes. The film is prefaced with a narrator stating that the ‘documentary’ is the last work of paranormal researcher Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki).
By opening the film in this fashion, we are given a narrative within a narrative. It is in this layered storytelling that the strength of the film lies. Noroi outright revolts against the mantra of “show, don’t tell”, doing the exact opposite and is – strangely enough – all the better for it.
Rarely do we see anything happen until the climax. Instead, we learn of happenings through rumours and hearsay. This, on its own, adds to the film’s realism, mirroring how we often hear of supernatural occurrences as second- or third-hand accounts. This use gives us a degree of separation, which in turn creates the same unsettling feeling of being told a scary story by a friend.
The film continues with second-hand accounts, building up an immersive aura of horror and fear. All this eventually boils over and blurs the line separating fiction and reality, making it oh-so-easy for audiences to slip into accepting the film’s events as fact.
Suspension of disbelief is something most horror films are unable to do. Logically, we know that what we see on screens are highly-produced, highly manicured experiences confined within the films’ worlds. As in the 2016 sequel The Blair Witch, we watch outlandish events occur, such as brambles growing inside a person – it’s far-fetched moments like these that make it difficult to suspend disbelief.
Noroi, on the other hand, creates a tangible creeping fear that seeps into your subconscious, leaving you uncomfortably unsettled long after the film ends. While we know the events are unreal, the film does so much to convince you otherwise.
The actresses in the film, Marika Matsumoto and Maria Takagi, play themselves. They aren’t given characters but instead are referred to by their real names. This further blurs the line between the real and the fictional, making it seem as if the documentary we are watching is based on reality.
Kobayashi, as a paranormal investigator, does well to build upon the lore. It is through his investigations that lends a documentary feel to the film. An intricate web of information is woven with every professional Kobayashi interviews and with every cross-reference he makes. It is exactly this investigative touch that gives the film a sense of objective reality.
The film also takes into account the camera. Being carried around by a nameless, faceless man, the camera doubles as both a character and an entry point for audiences. It gives us a certain sense of voyeurism, where we are able to see what is happening but is too powerless to respond.
This diverges from most found footage films, where they often opt for having characters carrying handheld camcorders or GoPros, speaking directly to the camera. In making the cameraman a blank slate, it gives us someone to project ourselves onto, making it feel as though we are immersed in the story and is part of the process.
On top of that, being set in the early 2000s, Noroi exploits the common issue of camera glitches to inject horror. The glitches, often morphing into terrifying imagery, are hinted to be caused by supernatural manipulation – this is likely a nod to the picture distortions in Ringu (1998).
As Noroi hardly falls into repeating regular horror conventions and tropes, the film uses its brand of slow-burning, insidious horror to draw out the fear. Refusing to fall into the cliches of horror movies (i.e. jump scares), the film lets each moment simmer, allowing the atmosphere to stew and fester before the tension becomes outright unbearable.
This is where horror films usually fail; the same idea of “biting off more than you can chew”. Creating such an intricate plot and using this type of slow-burn horror, films may end up being unable to live up to the expectation or ‘hype’ they create. This, in itself, is a major pitfall of the genre, where audiences may crave for explanations and happy endings, which would clash with the pre-established narrative.
In 2018’s South Korean found footage horror film Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, we see an equally elaborate setup, paranormal investigators explore an abandoned asylum to capture evidence of supernatural forces. While the start of the film is great, giving you a slow immersive scares, eventually it relegates itself to typical horror conventions to get quick scares. It has a tonal disconnect to the pre-established story and instead uses typical horror imagery and jump scares.
So the question becomes, how do exceptional horror films form their satisfying endings and payoffs?
Noroi gives you the answer. With foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the film, Noroi weaves it all together and culminates in an exciting climax. This in turn wraps up Kobayashi’s documentary/investigation – although we know that the larger story does not end here. With what’s left of the runtime, Noroi gives us an insane reveal and explanation. That doesn’t mean it wraps up the story, no. It instead wraps up Kobayashi’s story but leaves even more loose threads and questions.
While it is easy to draw the line between fact and fiction on screen, it is different for Noroi. Being grounded in reality, the film subtly persuades you into believing the events. It creates an insidious kind of fear in you, one that bleeds into your psyche and affects you unconsciously.
I would argue that Noroi is truly the most terrifying film I have ever watched. Its overall unsettling nature and uncanny imagery resonated with me. While I consider myself a person that isn’t easily scared once the film fades to black, I find that the chilling terror of Noroi sticks with me. As much as I am unwilling to admit it, I can’t help but be wary of lurking entities in the dark.
Noroi: The Curse is available for rental streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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