The Grudge
directed by Takashi Shimizu
(Sony, 2004)

I must admit I was rather disappointed by The Grudge. I've watched a lot of horror movies, and The Grudge just didn't strike me as very scary at all -- it's creepy enough on occasion to make some viewers jump, but I didn't find anything actually hair-raising about any of it -- unless you think Japanese women and little boys wearing black mascara in Tammy Faye proportions is scary.

It would have helped if more of the "scary" moments hadn't been preceded by an obvious, ridiculously loud crescendo of the music. I wasn't all that impressed with the story, either -- it hangs together just fine, but it didn't seem to have much substance. I wouldn't even begin to compare this film with The Ring, which was much, much scarier and emotionally powerful. I have a lot of respect for Japanese horror films, so I'm not blaming any type of cultural differences between Japanese audiences and myself for my dissatisfaction. To me, this film just wasn't nearly as different or original as the filmmakers assert in all of the making-of featurettes. Just because The Grudge serves up a non-linear presentation of the plot and doesn't employ gore to impart its most visceral effects doesn't mean the film is automatically excellent (in the same way that a gory film is not automatically bad just because of the gore). It all comes down to the story, and this just isn't that great of a story.

Sarah Michelle Gellar (who has, by the way, looked better than she does here) stars as a sort-of nurse who has moved to Tokyo with her boyfriend (who, unfortunately, seems to have graduated from the Ashton Kutcher school of fashion). She helps care for infirm patients, and she has to fill in at a certain house one day -- while there, she displays an unhealthy curiosity for a series of strange noises, which leads her to a creepy little boy and his fierce cat; before the day is through, she sees something much more frightening than that. Well, it turns out that this particular house was the scene of a violent crime, and the emotional angst that accompanied that terrible event remains in the house, marking for death everyone who dares cross over the threshold. We're soon off on the first of several flashbacks. By the midpoint of the film, it's obvious what is going on here, but that doesn't stop the onslaught of flashbacks. The ending is a little different than what you might expect -- but I found it rather unsatisfying (although it does furnish some of the film's creepier -- but still not scary -- moments).

I just think this movie needed something more, especially at the end; the whole thing felt more like a number of related scenes thrown together than a full-fledged movie. Part of my frustration probably stems from the fact that Gellar's character is absent from a good chunk of the first hour of the film. Gellar seemed really excited about this film in her interviews, but that wonderful Gellar magic seemed bottled up in every one of her scenes. Her whole character never seemed to develop fully -- actually, that's a problem with the movie as a whole. I really didn't care about any of these characters, be they innocent or guilty. And I really don't think there is anything complex about the plot -- the filmmakers tried to make it seem complicated by the nonlinear storyline, but the final big flashback at the end was almost boring because it wasn't showing me anything I hadn't already figured out. I'm not buying the argument that The Grudge is comparatively deeper or more intellectual than many a good western horror film, either -- a film like The Others beats The Grudge hands down, in my opinion.

The movie does come with some 45 minutes of interviews and behind-the-scenes materials, as well as a 12-minute lecture on the psychological nature of fear. There was a little bit of overkill with all this. I got the impression I was expected to love this film just because it was rooted in Japanese culture, made by the Japanese director and film crew of Ju-on and different than typical Hollywood horror movies. I'm sorry, but as much as I love Gellar, The Grudge just didn't impress me all that much.

Who are these people who simply assume that Japanese films in their original Japanese formats won't fly in America? I'm sure Ju-on is a much better film that this Americanized remake -- how about slapping some subtitles on the originals and giving American audiences a chance to prove whether or not films like Ringu and Ju-on can fill the seats of American movie houses?

by Daniel Jolley
21 May 2005

Rooted in Eastern spirituality, The Grudge is a remake of Japanese horror film Ju-On 3, made the previous year by the same director, but now with American actors in the primary roles.

It begins when a visibly agitated professor, Peter Kirk (Bill Pullman), plummets to his death from his apartment in Tokyo without apparent cause. Then we see Yoko (Yoko Maki), a caregiver with a social services firm, run afoul of supernatural forces in a home leased by American businessman Matthew Williams (William Mapother) and his family: wife Jennifer (Clea DuVall), sister Susan (KaDee Strickland) and mother Emma (Grace Zabriskie). Those same forces haunt the Williams family, as well as anyone else who comes in contact with the house: social worker Alex (Ted Raimi), replacement caregiver Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), her boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr) and investigating police detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi).

Susan in particular is effectively stalked, both at her brightly lit place of employment and her high-rise apartment, while Alex faces one of the film's greatest visual terrors.

The plot, which revolves largely around Karen, is based on the Japanese belief that victims of a great homicidal rage or sorrow may haunt the place of their deaths and murder those they encounter there. In this case, we gradually learn about the house's previous residents, Takeo Saeki (Takashi Matsuyama), his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji) and their son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki). Kayako and Toshio (along with the family cat) seem to still be around, and it's the sights and sounds they produce that give this low-tech film its horror.

It's especially notable that the victims in this film are all innocents, who've done nothing to deserve the violence and terror they face. These are just ordinary people, often who were trying to help others, who happened to cross the wrong threshold. The spirits here are not motivated by feelings of vengeance or justice; they operate on a level of pure, merciless hate.

Director Takashi Shimizu relies very little on special effects, but the makeup, lighting effects and freakish body language of his actors -- particularly the talented Takako Fuji -- are guaranteed to creep out most audiences. It's disquieting more than scary in most scenes, making great use of eerie noises and flashes of things partly or too quickly seen.

The movie is filmed in a confusing, non-linear fashion, but it all becomes clear as Shimizu fills in the pieces as the plot unfolds. In fact, much of the film's tension relies on the audience's lack of awareness of what's truly going on. While it's not the deepest foundation I've seen a horror film built upon, it makes sufficient use of atmosphere and abruptness to keep most viewers creeped out.

Special features on the DVD include some very interesting "making of" documentaries that contrast American and Japanese conceptions of horror and styles of movie-making. These are definitely worth watching while winding down from the film.

by Tom Knapp
18 February 2006

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