It is now early November and so far this year, I have seen nearly four hundred films. Some have been first time viewings, some have been new experiences. But by far the scariest film I've seen so far this year is 2003's JU-ON: THE GRUDGE. The only reason I have not sung this films praises in a long, rambling review was that two other Horror Express writers beat me to the punch. JU-ON was one of the first films I saw purely on the recommendation of our writers and I was blown away. For my money, it will become a modern horror classic.
In an age where people are wondering when the Asian horror boom will finally run out of steam, Takashi Shimizu proved there was still plenty of juice left in the movement. He has explored the same premise several times over. JU-ON started out in the form of a couple V-movies before making a blockbuster switch to the big screen. Shimizu did a sequel to that film which hasn't met with the same success, but still gets some positive notes. Switch to America, where Sam Raimi was riding high from his SPIDER-MAN success. Using his influence, he opened Ghost House Productions, a company solely designed to give interesting low-budget horror filmmakers a shot in a larger arena. When the idea of remaking JU-ON came about, who better to handle it than the man who engineered its success overseas?
THE GRUDGE is the American remake of JU-ON. It will be difficult to review this film without comparing it to another recent remake THE RING. It will be impossible to review it without comparing it to the original. So, just to prepare you now, you'll be reading a lot of comparisons here.
The basic premise of THE GRUDGE is one that has been repeated throughout Japan's history. It stems from the idea that negative energy is a malignant force that can consume someone's mind, body and soul. The films take it one step further, that if someone dies in a state of rage or anguish, their spirit lives on to torment everyone who forms a connection to them.
JU-ON was completely non-linear and seemed to wholly ignore any plot progression that you'd find in a Syd Field book. There was no first, second and third act. Rather, the film played like a series of vignettes. It came complete with title cards named after the person we would follow for the next five to ten minutes, before the film moved onto someone else. THE GRUDGE follows a more linear approach, but just barely.
Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Karen Davis (no relation), a home care specialist assigned to her first solo job after another girl fails to report to work. She heads off to a house only to be confronted by the overall eeriness of the situation. The people she encounters, the strange things she sees all lead up to a horrible confrontation and she knows she has been touched by something truly evil. The film then goes into a series of flashbacks that describe what has happened to the former occupants of the house. Even being connected to the family or stepping foot into the house makes you a target of this creature and there is no safe refuge. One by one, the grudge consumes them and we are forced to watch. It is never made clear what the grudge does. Some appear to die of fright, while others are mutilated or just absorbed. That we can't put a finger on what makes this monster tick is part of what makes the whole concept so unsettling. The film is episodic, and okay it doesn't always work. Each person deals with a slow build as the terror just escalates and escalates finally reaching a fever pitch. But all is not well after that. THE GRUDGE is a film that does not let you catch much of a breath. We witness these horrific moments only to have the cycle immediately begin again with someone else. In this regard, the film is very much like its source material.
What is different is that the mystery is clearer. JU-ON offered very few answers and it was not always easy to tell what was going on. That was part of what made is so creepy, but even I had to admit it was a little frustrating. We left the film with shreds of an idea, but no clear picture as to what happened. The remake balances this out more. It is now possible to leave the theatre, knowing the who and the why if not the how. It offers explanations, but is still vague enough to leave a lot to our imaginations, no doubt knowing we would rack our brains over several macabre details hence scaring ourselves all the more. There is also a more natural progression to the story. While the original didn't have a lead to speak of, we regularly return to Gellar's character here. She fills in a lot of the holes as she investigates the nature of the grudge, tracing it all to the house (the fact that it is essentially a haunted house movie is also something new). There is an increased urgency so that the film doesn't simply jump from person to person before ending (although I must say that the ending on display here is quite disappointing). By the closing moments of the film, Gellar is racing for her life and we're running with her.
Fortunately, she has the acting chops to pull this one off. This is her first post-BUFFY solo project and the first time she's had to carry a film solo since SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE. As Karen, she begins the film as someone naive and optimistic yet unsure of herself. As the film progresses, she is at first terrified and then slowly becomes almost numb with fear. The film's use of character is great. Very few people stay on screen very long before getting their grudge on, but we get to know them anyway. The film is subtle and precise enough that we feel we know each character. THE GRUDGE does a better job at characterization than many slasher films who have 90 full minutes and still come up short. However the nature of Asian horror, even when translated to English, is what isn't said. Most of the performances work through restraint, so don't expect any big Oscar speeches and don't expect many publications to appreciate the fine cast. By the way, this is a cast that is a virtual who's who of talented and underrated performers - Clea DuVall (underrated star of many equally underrated horror and indie projects), KaDee Strickland (ANACONDAS: THE HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID, much better than you'd expect), Bill Pullman (criminally overlooked in ZERO EFFECT), Ted Raimi (best work to date) and Ryo Ishibashi (AUDITION, and thank God his wounds have healed).
But if the Asian sensibility that less is more translates to the script and the performances, it sadly does not work with the special effects. Like Gore Verbinski's THE RING, it is still a fine film but like Verbinski's film it also adds a bit too much flash. Each scare is represented by a "sting" on the soundtrack, when half the time we would have been better off without. Sound was a central element of terror in the original and it is here too, but it does lose some of it's charm. A perfect example is the croaking sound from JU-ON. It was something amazingly basic, able to be imitated by just about anyone (I imagine that made for some spooky crank calls in Japan). But the way it was placed in the story was so perfect that is scared the living daylights out of us. The croak is still present in the American version, but it has been further distorted by static and digital sound effects. The joys of ProTools have made it into THE GRUDGE and it just feels a bit more fabricated than it should. Likewise, while digital effects created the long black cascading hair and lifeforce of the grudge in JU-ON, here they pump it up a bit more, adding flickers and shadow effects that are actually less effective.
Which is not to say the film isn't scary. Trust me, it is. When I saw JU-ON, I told anyone that would listen that if the remake were half as creepy, it would be a smash hit. Thankfully, the film is probably around three-quarters as creepy and THE GRUDGE has turned out to be a success that has stunned everyone except myself and a cult of loyal fans. This film offers scares, real honest-to-goodness scares. There are a lot of sudden jolts here, and jolt me they did. Have you ever jumped back with so much force, it feels like you took the theatre seat a few inches with you? THE GRUDGE made me do that and more than once.
It would be difficult to remake this film for an American market, so the question was how Shimizu would make the transition stateside. In a simple yet unprecedented move, he didn't. THE GRUDGE still takes place in Tokyo, Japan. The cast is mostly American. In fact, it seems like every poor yank within a ten block radius of this center of evil winds up as meat for the beast. But in addition to this, it adds a subtle new dimension to the story. There is a definite feeling of culture clash. The Americans are out of their element, and realize that the world is bigger and more diverse than they could have imagined. The Americans in the story stick to their own. Most of their friends, lovers and immediate superiors also hail from the west. An unfortunate bit of irony is that this continues into the actual marketing of the film. The studio, oblivious to the ramifications, has listed all English speaking actors first, even if some of their roles are smaller than members of the Japanese cast.
Regardless, the effect on screen is powerful. In one sequence, Clea DuVall searches through the grocery store only to find she cannot read any of the labels. She goes to the ramen noodle aisle, a favorite dish of college students and impoverished Horror Express writers. Still, she cannot distinguish the labels. She must poke a hole in one of the containers, sniffing the package for something familiar. To her relief she finds it and rather than go through the whole ordeal again, she simply loads her basket full of the noodles like a scene out of LA FEMME NIKITA. In another sequence, Sarah Michelle Gellar asks for directions. While the woman she asks is helpful, her child is frightened, shying away from her. The message at this point in the story is clear: you are a pleasant but dangerous person to be around, ill prepared to deal with what's coming.
Shimizu deserves credit for doing what few directors could. This is his fifth attempt at tackling the same material. Each time, he winds up with something that is just different enough to keep things interesting, while relishing in a talent for the horrific. Shimizu will next move onto something else, a completely original horror film again made in his native Japan. Hopefully, we is not a one trick pony. The time has come for him to branch out, frightening us with new worlds and new tapestries of terror. If my hopes are justified and he really is the new talent to watch, then THE GRUDGE could be just the beginning.