A Grungy Grudge
Remakes of Asian horror imports are the new slashers. Just as the popularity of John Carpenter's Halloween led to imitators like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, the success of The Ring inspired Hollywood to revisit a whole new crop of movies that really don't need to be made over again. Dark Water is awaiting release: The Eye is set for the remake treatment, and just in time to fuel the Halloween box office, director Takashi Shimizu presented The Grudge, a re-do of his own acclaimed horror film Ju-On. Unfortunately, it's pulled off with nowhere near as much class or panache. The Grudge goes through all the horror movie motions, rattling off nearly every genre cliche without providing much new to say for itself.
A title card informs the viewers that when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, the intense emotions experienced stick around, gestate, and effect anybody they come into contact with. In this case, the breeding ground for supernatural trouble is a seemingly-normal house in Tokyo, an abode that's been home to many a spooky occurrence. The house's new owners haven't shown up for a while; the girl who tends to the old lady (Grace Zabriskie) living there hasn't reported for work; and, years ago, a horrible tragedy took place that still resonates three years later. American exchange student Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who's sent to fill-in for the missing caretaker, soon discovers the curse of the house. Haunted by vengeful spirits, Karen must get to the bottom of what's going on before becoming the next victim.
The structure of The Grudge can best be compared to some guy doing the same routine to scare his friends every Halloween: for the first few times, it's effective, but after a while, his pals end up just wanting their blankety-blank candy already. I was tempted to watch The Grudge a second time, taking a checklist to determine if there were any horror flick staples Shimizu didn't include. Spooky house? Got it. Nearly-nude heroine? Got it. "It's only a cat"? You bet. Still, it's not that The Grudge crams as many of these instances into the 96-minute running time as it can that let me down the most. It's the fact that even though Shimizu fills the movie with an effective aura of fear and dread, he lets the scares go by without much backbone put into them. He gives us a very atmospheric flick that doesn't pack the punch it should, primarily because numerous opportunities for truly intense sequences go by in favor of dipping into the same bag of tricks most other horror directors incorporate into their films.
Disappointing also is the film's jittery structure. Events are presented out of chronological order for no real reason, which creates more than a few gaping plotholes (who did tape up the door, after all?). The Grudge has its moments, especially when the ghosts are as perfectly freaky as they are, but on the whole, there's nothing special about it, nothing that jumps out and says, "Here's why I'm better than those other movies!"
Actingwise, The Grudge is as successful as Stephen Susco's scattershot script. Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance is nothing special -- the filmmakers could've taken any starlet, given her the role, and still have ended up with the wan impact Gellar leaves. The same goes for Bill Pullman, given a thankless role that could've been filled by anyone, as well as for Jason Behr as Karen's boyfriend and Ted Raimi (brother of Spider-Man director Sam Raimi) as Karen's boss. On the other hand, I did enjoy the work of Clea DuVall and William Mapother as the house's owners. Kudos also to Yuya Ozeki and Takako Fuji, who deliver chilling performances as the murderous spooks.
I love the recent resurgence in horror films, and I'm optimistic about this genre reaching great heights in the future. It's not so much that I disliked The Grudge -- I was simply disappointed with it. After seeing the creative remake of The Ring, my expectations were high for this similar movie. Sadly, it turned out to be nothing I hadn't seen before.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Sony Pictures Entertainment and rated "PG-13" for mature thematic material, disturbing images, terror, violence and some sensuality.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.