Director : Takashi Shimizu
Screenplay : Stephen Susco (based on the Ju-on The Grudge by Takashi Shimizu)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Sarah Michelle Gellar (Karen Davis), Jason Behr (Doug), William Mapother (Matthew Williams), Clea DuVall (Jennifer Williams), KaDee Strickland (Susan Williams), Grace Zabriskie (Emma), Bill Pullman (Peter), Rosa Blasi (Maria), Ted Raimi (Alex), Ryo Ishibashi (Detective Nakagawa), Yoko Maki (Yoko), Yuya Ozeki (Toshio Saeki), Takako Fuji (Kayako Saeki), Takashi Matsuyama (Takeo Saeki)
Director Takashi Shimizu is so good at generating scenes of escalating dread and tension punctuated by sharp, nerve-rattling, jump-in-your-seat jolts that it's hard to begrudge him the fact that his English-language debut The Grudge is composed of almost nothing but such scenes, making it a rigorous exercise in highly stylized audience punishment. This is horror at its masochistic best or worst, depending on your viewpoint.
The Grudge's flimsy plot and numerous gaps in logic suggest a slasher film, in which the main goal of the narrative is to draw unsuspecting victims into dangerous circumstances and then goose the audience with their impending doom. Yet, unlike most slasher films, there is a sleek, intoxicating artistry to Shimizu's film that makes you forget about things like cause and effect and character motivation because you're sucked so deep into the moment. This is a film that's perpetually, relentlessly in the now; what happened before and what happens after come across as mere afterthoughts.
The Grudge is actually a remake of Shimizu's 2003 Japanese film Ju-on: The Grudge, which is the third in a series of four Ju-on films (five counting this remake), the first two of which were made for Japanese TV. The fact that there is two previous films' worth of backstory that gets more or less discarded for this American remake is testament to how irrelevant the story really is. All we need to know is the bare minimum, namely that there is a split-level house in Tokyo where something very bad once happened and the house is now cursed with angry ghosts who take out their vengeance on whoever is unlucky enough to cross through the doorway. This aligns the film more closely with modern Japanese horror, which frequently privileges affect over logic (one of the biggest weaknesses of the 2001 American remake of the Japanese horror hit Ringu was its insistence on trying to explain everything).
The advertising campaign has tried to make it look like Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the lead, but The Grudge is really more of an ensemble piece in which Gellar is but one of many would-be victims (although her character does adopt some of the "final girl" traits associated with slasher films). She plays Karen, an American foreign exchange student living in Tokyo with her architecture student boyfriend (Jason Behr). She goes to the cursed house when she is assigned by the care service for which she works to take assist an invalid woman who lives there.
Karen's narrative arc is actually the third segment of a three-part story that unfolds in reverse chronological order. We also see what happens when an American husband and wife (William Mapother and Clea DuVall) make the mistake of moving into the house (it is his mother whom Karen is called on to care for). The curse itself is explained in a final flashback that took place three years earlier involving an American professor (Bill Pullman) who we know is in for bad things because the film's opening scene shows him throwing himself off a balcony to his death.
First-time screenwriter Stephen Susco keeps the basic formula of Takashi Shimizu's original screenplay, but gives the film an added dimension by making most of the main characters displaced Americans. On the surface, of course, there is a purely market-driven decision, as American audiences are biased toward going to see films in which Americans are the main characters, even when the story is set in Tokyo. Yet, this cultural displacement accentuates the film's horror by making the victims uneasy and out of place to begin with, which is accentuated in several mundane scenes, including one where Clea DuVall's character shops in vain in a supermarket where she can't even tell what she's buying without opening the packaging. Thus, the supernatural terrors become extensions of the characters' feelings of isolation and confusion.
Shimizu is above all a first-rate visual stylist with an excellent sense of how sound and image go together (this is the kind of horror film with a chilling, uncanny soundscape that absolutely demands surround sound). He knows just how to use the frame to evoke the maximum amount of tension from any given moment. He playfully changes up his tactics, sometimes allowing a ghostly presence to leap suddenly into the frame, but also using the technique John Carpenter employed so effectively in Halloween (1978) in which the horrific imagery comes slowly into focus, perhaps in a back corner of the frame, which draws out the suspense to often unbearable extremes. There is one such moment that is immediately evocative of Ringu (1998) and its American remake, in which a dark, ghostly shape slowly appears on a closed-circuit television monitor. It is without doubt the film's supremely creepiest moment, with the low-resolution image giving the fantastical vision a strangely convincing realism.
By the end of The Grudge, some audience members may be simply worn down by the constant tensing and releasing, which comes with an almost mechanical rhythm. Thus, the film's final shock moment may wear thin. However, the film's accumulated store of horrific imagery -- some sudden, some deliberately drawn out - is composed of the kind of stuff that isn't easy to shake out of your mind's eye when you're going to bed that night, which is always the mark of a good horror film.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Sony Pictures Entertainment