Reading Time: 4 minutes Image courtesy Daiei Film
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Do you need jump scares to have a scary film?

As I look through the catalog of horror films that have had the strongest impact on me, it is almost always the films whose images of horror linger on screen. Jump scares rely on surprise, a sudden shift in tone. There are some films with perfect jump scares (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws), but it’s an added trick to the director’s playbook. Many horror films use them as the basis of their work.

Cure is a horror film that might not have a single, traditional jump scare. It is composed of long, slow-moving shots, mostly in single takes. Rather than quick cuts or surprise, it relies on atmosphere, and the slow-building terror that something much worse than a monster is lurking around the corner.

Released in 1997, Cure is the story of a detective whose personal life is falling apart. His wife is suicidal and has had to be institutionalized on several occasions. He’s investigating a series of murders in which the victims have an “X” cut into their throats. Each murder is committed by a different person who has no idea why they committed the crime.

A young man named Mamiya appears on a beach with no memory of how he got there. He has the ability to hypnotize people after studying hypnosis and human psychology. Tapes are found of a man in the early 20th century hypnotizing women for experiments. Has Mamiya been using these for his research? Is he responsible, somehow, for these killings?

Where did he come from

The story is told abstractly. We are meant to infer certain details, never rushed forward toward the horror. We sit and wait, watching painterly-composed shots of dark, dimly-lit interrogation rooms. We see the horror coming toward us and cannot stop it.

Cure is the film equivalent of wanting to run in your dreams but being unable to move.

The more I have watched horror, the more I find its power comes from its nihilism. In our culture, we have come to see nihilism as a joke about emo kids who think that life is meaningless, that nothing matters. It has become a punchline.

Cure is the film equivalent of wanting to run in your dreams but being unable to move.

But nihilism can give horror its true power. That essence of horror is not that a monster is coming to get us. It is that something awful can happen to us, something irrevocable, and no matter what we’ve done in our lives or how much we try and stop it, the horror comes for us anyway.

Lead detective Takabe (played by the always-excellent Koji Yakusho), is doing everything right. He’s a good detective. He’s a good husband. He wants to catch the killer.

It does not matter.

As the hypnosis spreads and more victims are found, our weary yet earnest detective is broken down. He can rail and rage at the circumstances he’s in, but he’s ultimately powerless. Ari Aster described his film Hereditary as being like watching lambs to the slaughter. The same is true in Cure.

Kioyshi Kurosawa is in many ways the grandfather of modern horror. Cure presages the great explosion of horror films from Japan in the late 90s and early 2000s, paving the way for films like Audition, The Ring, and Ju-On: The Grudge. Kurosawa directed a film called Sweet Home, which was the inspiration for the horror video game series Resident Evil. In many ways, he is the most unsung horror director of his generation.

Of all the horror filmmakers to come out of Japan during this period, Kurosawa is the most disciplined. His shots are patient, his buildups restrained. He trusts his story, his atmosphere, and his rhythm to not just scare but terrify you.

His films always feel like they’re on the precipice of an apocalypse. We enter his stories just as a seed of destruction is growing, and often it will blossom to envelop the whole world. His film Pulse has the same growing sense of dread. A small group of friends find themselves being haunted through the internet. We begin to realize that this haunting might spread far beyond this small group, and that the stakes are greater than any of them could have imagined.

But it is Cure that haunts me to this day. Some of the shots in the final few minutes bring me chills when I recall them. It is a film that should be spoken on in the same breath as The Exorcist and The Shining. Bong Joon-ho, director of Parasite, called it one of his favorite films ever.

It is a pure distillation of what horror is. Never has a horror film been so draped in an atmosphere of dread. Never has characters who have been deserving of more gotten so little. Never has the apocalypse snuck up on a viewer the same way.

Cure is not only one of the most unsung horror films.

It’s the greatest.  

Avatar photo

Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...