Like all upstanding, movie-obsessed nations, Japan has a long and colorful history in the realm of horror and fantasy. For many of us the earliest exposure we had to the Japanese movie industry was the 1954 classic monster movie Gojira (better known in America as Godzilla). In recent years, we've had a certifiable tsunami of Japanese horror imports to savor, enough that the cool kids dubbed the trend "J-Horror." But which titles should a newcomer track down first? Here are the classics you need to see.
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The certifiably insane director Takashi Miike has long been a favorite among American horror fans who aren't afraid of a few subtitles. Audition, about a lonely man who agrees to trick women into "auditioning" for the role of his new lover, is the prolific, unpredictable filmmaker's best film. As you might imagine, the man's plan goes fairly well at first, but the love affair doesn't last all that long. Audition is a textbook example of how to deliver a "slow-burn" horror story without being dull, with a finale you won't soon forget. Where to watch it: Stream on Shudder
If your knowledge of horror anthologies is limited to American films (Creepshow, V/H/S, etc.) or British productions (like the amazing Asylum or Tales from the Crypt), prepare to settle in with a wonderfully creepy four-story omnibus based on a 1902 collection of eerie Japanese folktales. "Miniature" horror stories have always been well-received in Japanese pop culture, so if Kwaidan (aka Kaidan) tickles your fancy, you'll find no shortage of Japanese films (and especially TV shows) that offer similar treats. But start here first, as it's not only a great introduction to creepy old Japanese ghost stories, but also a remarkably lovely film to look at. Where to watch it: Stream on FilmStruck; rent on iTunes, Amazon
Hideo Nakata's Ringu (aka Ring) kickstarted America's J-Horror obsession. All it took was a remarkably clever hook to break down the language barrier: In Ringu, there's a mysterious videotape that, if viewed, will kill the viewer one week later. So of course an investigative journalist simply has to dig into the story, right? Loaded with creepy ideas and some very creative visual touches, Ringu proved to be one of the more accessible imports of the late 1990s. The movie spawned a ton of sequels and a few remakes, including this month's Rings. Where to watch it: Currently not available via streaming options
Call it a romantic drama or a wartime horror story -- it's hard to pin down Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba to one specific genre. The movie is about two women who stay afloat by murdering local soldiers who come wandering into their village and selling their armor and weapons for food. When a young man enters the picture, and a horrifying, mask-wearing stranger is spotted roaming around town, the routine complicates and the plot thickens. Perhaps a bit slow in comparison to today's thrillers, but Onibaba is also quietly fascinating, starkly beautiful, and occasionally pretty damn scary. Where to watch it: Stream on FilmStruck; rent on iTunes, Amazon
One of the more underrated J-Horror crossovers, Hideo Nakata's simple "haunted apartment" story is about a single mother, a little girl, and a mysterious upstairs apartment that sure seems to be inhabited, but clearly is not. Dark Water lacks the body count and overt freakiness of well-known Japanese horror films, but it earns a lot of points for mood, pacing, atmosphere, and character. I'm also a fan of the 2005 American remake from Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries) and actress Jennifer Connelly. Where to watch it: Stream on Amazon Prime
Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
A unabashed haunted-house horror story through and through. Writer/director Takashi Shimizu doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel with this tale of numerous tenants and two tenacious ghosts, but he does manage to wring several great scares out of a potentially over-familiar premise. Like Ringu, this one would go on to spawn all sorts of remakes, sequels, and shrieky spinoffs. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon
Pulse (aka Kairo) follows a group of friends who contend with a computer virus that causes people to either commit suicide or disappear off the face of the planet. A bit quieter, drier, and (yes) weirder than some of the other J-Horror films from this era, Pulse is a darkly compelling and provocative cautionary tale about our ceaseless over-reliance on technology. Choose this over the 2006 remake from Wes Craven and Kristen Bell. Where to watch it: Stream on Shudder; rent on iTunes, Amazon
Suicide Circle (2001)
Half horror spectacle, half social satire, Sion Sono's Suicide Circle (released as Suicide Club) is an intelligent, maddening, entirely unpredictable genre movie. It's about a horrific rash of mass suicides that seem to have no discernible pattern... or do they? A bizarre rock band may hold the secret... or not. It's hard to tell. Sion Sono is a bizarre and fascinating filmmaker, and Suicide Circle is the type of movie that didn't get the remake treatment for a reason. Where to watch it: Rent on iTunes, Amazon
Do not mistake this for some sort of Japanese spin on Marvel's Iron Man because, hoo boy, that would be a nasty shock. This disturbing, virtually plotless cyberpunk tale is more or less a must-see for hardcore horror fans. Shot in stark 16mm black-and-white, it's about a guy who starts turning into a metal man after running over another... metal guy. Look, it's really weird. But if you're feeling adventurous... Where to watch it: Stream on Shudder; rent on iTunes, Amazon
A half-dozen teenage girls decide to spend some time at an aunt's creepy old farmhouse, only to discover that it's (you guessed it) haunted! Sounds like a pretty basic, simple horror movie, right? Wrong. You simply won't find a weirder, sillier, or more bizarre haunted-house movie anywhere than Hausu. Best recommended for watching with a group, many beers, and a sense of humor. Where to watch it: Stream on FilmStruck; rent on iTunes, Amazon
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Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, Nerdist, and many others. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.