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The Grudge   B+

Columbia Pictures / Ghost House Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Writer: Stephen Susco
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, KaDee Strickland, Clea DuVall, Bill Pullman, Grace Zabriskie, Rosa Blasi, William Mapother.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Grudge earns its keep by realizing the worth of its source material. The latest embodiment of Hollywood's ongoing fixation with Japanese horror, it understands that simple mimicry isn't enough to make a good movie. Ju-On, the film upon which it is based, went through several Japanese incarnations under the helm of its director, Takashi Shimizu. So when the inevitable English-language version was proposed, the producers decided not to fix what wasn't broken. Rather than hiring an American director, they simply tasked Shimizu to do it again. The results impressively reproduce the white-knuckle chills of the original, reimagined for a Western audience.

Ju-On was essentially just an exercise in craftsmanship, with briefly sketched characters and a virtually plot-free structure. It functioned on a very basic level; its sole task was to see how many times it could make us jump. In that aspect, it succeeded astonishingly well. Shimizu's uncanny handling of the camera allowed him to conjure terrifying scares almost at will, replaying the same basic scenario with a new and different twist each time. We knew what was coming with every permutation, but thanks to the director's instinctive understanding of the medium, it didn't matter. While it lacked the eerie subtext of Ringu, its jolts were relentless and imaginative, turning the experience into an unparalleled funhouse ride.

For the American version, Shimizu has added the modicum of a storyline, though the action is quite simple and still follows the same boo-gotcha framework. The setting is a normal-seeming house in suburban Tokyo haunted by a pair of unquiet spirits (Takako Fuji and Yuya Ozeki). As the pre-credits sequence informs us, when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage or sorrow, it fosters a curse that consumes all who come into contact with it. Each new victim encounters the source of the curse, and then passes it on to those near to them, creating an extending chain of horror and death. In a shrewd move, The Grudge sets its version of events among American expatriates living in Japan -- headed by a pretty student nurse (Sarah Michelle Gellar) asked to look in on the invalid old woman (Grace Zabriski) living in the house. By making the bulk of the cast Westerners while retaining the eastern locale, Shimizu adds a new layer of alienation to the proceedings. The ghosts' victims are already strangers in a strange land, set apart from those around them and unable to readily seek comfort or aid. It works brilliantly with the already-potent atmosphere, retaining the feel of Ju-On while providing characters to whom a multiplex audience will more easily relate.

The purpose of the exercise, like the original, is eliciting an endless stream of scares; thrills and shocks are the only thing on its mind, and nuances beyond that are simply not part of the program. Shimizu is extremely well-suited for such work. His technique is elegant and haunting, using simple elements like camera placement and blocking to maximize the eeriness. As the ghosts stalk their victims one by one, we're treated to a clinic of old-fashioned fright-inducers, as the unseen, the off-kilter, and the suggestive crawl gleefully beneath our skin. High-tech special effects are rare; instead, makeup and sound do most of the work. Like all good horror films, The Grudge is most effective when it lets our imaginations help out, eliciting a constant array of I-don't-know-what's-making-that-noise-and-I-really-don't-want-to-find-out panic attacks. Indeed, it's lucky to be so good at the nuts and bolts, because -- when looked at as a whole -- the film is really little more than a series of variations on the same basic sequence.

But where The Grudge truly gets a leg up on its competition is its adherence to the essence of its progenitors. With an entirely Japanese crew and the unique experience of having told this tale several times before, Shimizu transfers his Asian sensibilities whole cloth onto this new version. The results are appealing and easily digestible, but have a pace and a feeling -- over and above the scares -- that would have been lost with a Western director. The decision to keep The Grudge in Shimizu's hands makes it an admirable companion to the already potent original, and a supremely frightening way to spend this Halloween.

Review published 10.20.2004.

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