Director: Takashi Shimizu
Any American who's seen an Asian horror movie can attest to the fact that the land of the rising sun churns out some very different horror movies, ones that we Americans aren't really used to seeing. Horror movies here in the States usually deal with some serial killer with a sharp object looking to kill people for their transgressions. Have sex, you're gonna die. Do drugs, you're gonna die. Kick a puppy, you're gonna die. Cheat on your algebra midterm, you're probably still gonna die (sorry). If you do something naughty in any way, shape, or form, you're bound for certain doom. Encounter the villain, and you might be able to live. But in Asian horror movies, everybody's screwed. Everyone from the cute four-year-old kid you saw at Toys 'R' Us to that prick who cut you off in traffic on your way to work, they don't stand an ice cube's chance in Hell of surviving if they encounter an Asian horror movie villain. You don't even have to really do anything to incur the wrath of the villain. Just look at the villain, and thanks for playing, your prize is a toe tag and a one-way ticket to Morgue City. The guilty suffer, the innocent suffer, animals suffer, everybody suffers. And not only that, but Asian horror movies like to seriously mess with your head. We Americans also like to know the whys and the hows of our horror movies. We like everything explained to us and wrapped up with a cute little bow. Why is the mass murderer mass murdering? Where did that icky flesh-consuming virus come from? However, it seems as if Asian horror movies worry less about telling us WHY something is happening. They just tell us that it IS happening and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Asian horror is all about atmosphere and building up as much dread as possible before giving viewers a payoff intended to make you leap out of your skin.
Dreamworks Pictures saw the upside in bringing such a film to American multiplexes when they bought the remake rights to Hideo Nakata's popular Japanese ghost story Ringu, originally released in 1998. Remade as The Ring in 2002, it grossed $128,579,698 at the American box office and prompted studios to buy the remake rights to as many Asian horror movies as they could. Such was the case with Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on. Its title a play off the Japanese words for "grudge" and "curse," it was at first a popular direct-to-video movie that Shimizu himself remade for theatrical audiences in 2003. It was this remake that Sam Raimi (the director of the Evil Dead and the Spider-Man trilogies) proclaimed the scariest movie he'd ever seen. Raimi's Ghost House Pictures quickly purchased the remake rights, brought Shimizu on to direct once again, and headed to Japan to tell the tale of a quaint little house that's pissed off at everybody.
The movie begins with a few lines of text, setting up the movie's universe. When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born. This curse manifests itself as ghosts that hold a grudge against anyone unlucky or just plain stupid enough to enter the domains they reside in, stalking its victims until they finally perish and pass along their grudge to some other unfortunate person. Exposition aside, let's get to the plot at hand. Our primary story follows Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a foreign exchange student living in Tokyo with her boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr). Karen works as a social worker and hospice nurse in her spare time, and when her coworker Yoko (Yoko Maki) doesn't show up for her shift, she's asked her to be Yoko's temporary substitute.
Karen heads to the house Yoko was assigned to, populated by Matthew Williams (William Mapother), his wife Jennifer (Clea DuVall), and his senile mother Emma (Grace Sabriskie). However, Karen finds the house in complete disarray. The place looks trashed, and the only person there is the near-catatonic Emma. However, there's more in the house than just a mess and a crazy old lady. Karen soon discovers the house is haunted by two malevolent spirits, and as various unusual and increasingly disturbing events occur around her, she and Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi) search to find the house's connection to a series of mysterious deaths and the disappearance of Matthew's sister Susan (KaDee Strickland), and how they're all related to a pair of murders and the suicide of an American college professor (Bill Pullman) three years earlier.
The Grudge has gotten a lot of knocks against it for its similarities to The Ring, mainly because they're both horror movies that feature female ghosts with long nasty hair covering their faces. And I'll be the first to admit, some scenes in The Grudge are eerily similar to scenes from The Ring. However, both films are seemingly inspired by Japanese ghost stories about the spirits of wronged women returning from the grave to seek vengeance for their deaths. That said, I loved The Grudge. Loved it. The 2003 version of Ju-on was a frightening enough experience, and this thoroughly faithful remake maintains that same level of fear. I must admit that the American Grudge joins the extremely short list of horror movies that have scared the living crap out of me.
Takashi Shimizu and screenwriter Stephen Susco utilize a Quentin Tarantino trademark in the movie, using a nonlinear style of filmmaking as they jump around the film's timeline to show various points in the story at different times. While it sounds rather confusing and hard to follow, it works to help set the off-kilter atmosphere of the movie. It makes sense if you look at it this way: As Sarah Michelle Gellar's story progresses forward, the story of the house progresses backward. The end of Sarah's story meets the beginning of the house's story in the finale, and it all makes sense in the end. Also fun are Shimizu's mix of quiet dread and jump scares. Jump scares have become horror clichés over the years, but The Grudge makes very good use of them, and there's not a wasted scare in the movie. And the way Shimizu frames shots (with a little help from the gorgeous work of cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto and production designer Iwao Saito) allow the jump scares to sneak up on us. Even though I thought the ending was a bit of a letdown, every minute of the movie was entertaining. The effects are superb, from the wisps of smoke that ooze out of a wall to the undead thing that crawls down a flight of stairs (perhaps an homage to a famous deleted scene from The Exorcist?). Though the one thing that bothered me was the insanely high number of Americans in the movie. The movie takes place in Japan, yet there's more Americans in the main cast than there are Japanese people. Is it so hard to find Japanese actors? Maybe they could have called up Tarantino and asked him which casting agency he found Kill Bill's Crazy 88s at.
The crew and most of the cast do a commendable job with what they're given to work with. Sarah Michelle Gellar is watchable, yet she just seems really bland. After seven seasons of having a TV show built around her, it's hard to picture her as a leading lady in a big Hollywood production. And the reputation she developed from Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn't help her here, either. Her character here is a weak and scared young lady in an unfamiliar land, as opposed to the sarcastic bad-ass demon killer that everyone recognizes her as. I just kept waiting for her to whip out some of her slayer moves and dropkick the ghosts into next Tuesday, and it never happened. It looks like she's descended into Mark Hamill/Luke Skywalker territory: no matter what she does from now on, she'll always be under the shadow of Buffy Summers. On the other hand, Jason Behr was a complete failure as Gellar's on-screen love interest. He doesn't have too many scenes, and when he does, he's just awful. He just stands there and looks all Ashton Kutcher-y and has absolutely no personality whatsoever. Casting Takako Fuji and Yuya Ozeki to reprise their roles as the malicious mother-and-son ghosts from the Ju-on movies was a fun and welcome touch, but perhaps the highlight of the cast was Ryo Ishibashi as the grizzled yet curious Detective Nakagawa. Somebody needs to send Ishibashi to the set of Law & Order or C.S.I. quick, because he did a great job here, and I hope he gets more work in the States. Also wonderful is the film's score, composed by Christopher Young. If Shimizu's work is frightening visually, then Young's score is frightening audibly. The music is absolutely great.
Despite a paper-thin plot and characters that aren't exactly paragons of complexity, The Grudge is one of those movies that can scare the pants off even the most jaded horror movie viewers. The Grudge literally made me jump out of my seat and scream, and I never do that. The recent trend of remakes has irked a lot of people (including myself), but if they can be as good as The Ring and The Grudge, I say Hollywood should start remaking all the Asian horror movies they can. In spite of its flaws, I'll give The Grudge four stars. Sutton says check it out.
Final Rating: ****