Modern Hollywood doesn't have the greatest track record when it comes to remaking foreign films. During the glory days of the studio system, the Seven Samurai could be reconfigured into The Magnificent Seven and no one batted a coarse or critical eye. But today, every attempt at retrofitting an exotic entertainment usually results in the classic concept called 'dumbing down'. Apparently, American audiences have a brain the size of a chick pea, and need everything spelled out for them, passed through their own personal preference filter and laced with jokes, pop cultural references, product placement, and the ever-present happy ending before they'll actually accept it.
The examples of this erratic overhauling are as perplexing as they are painful. Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders wonderful mediation on humanity and immortality became a dopey, derivative love story between Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan called City of Angels. La Femme Nikita was a stark, energetic French action film that turned into a soupy star vehicle for the up and coming (soon to be over and done with) Bridget Fonda entitled Point of No Return. Even when the same creative team is employed, the results can still shame all involved. George Sluzier created a masterpiece of mind-bending suspense with his classic disappearance thriller The Vanishing. Yet, when the director himself was brought to America to redo his practically perfect film, the results were less than spectacular. Frankly, it sucked.
So when it was announced that Shimizu Takashi, the creator and director of the original Ju-On films, had been hired by Sam Raimi and his Ghost House Pictures production company to remake these movies for the American audience there was both anticipation and trepidation. The pedigree was solid (after all, Raimi has been responsible for The Evil Dead and the wildly successful Spider-man blockbusters) and the Japanese take on horror was original and stylistic. Still, the fear was that by extracting the story out of its element, by trying to tune in to a Western mindset, the power of Shimizu's vision would be diminished. Interestingly enough, The Grudge needn't have worried about getting lost in the translation. The Tokyo tenets of the original arrive more or less intact. It's all the American elements, from the creation to the cast, that offer the most irritating irregularities.
Yoko, a social worker, stops by the house of an invalid American woman who she is caring for. When the young woman is not heard from after a couple of days, the agency sends Karen, an exchange student, to the same place to see what has happened. Karen finds the place in disarray, but no sign of Yoko. She also discovers a little boy named Toshio who appears badly beaten. She calls for help. When the police arrive, they find the invalid old woman dead and Karen in shock. An investigation ensues. It turns out that this home was the scene of a violent crime some years before, and according to Japanese culture, it now carries a curse. Whoever interacts with the location is destined to die at the hands of a vengeful spirit determined to spread her spectral power from beyond the grave. No one is safe from her vendetta. Eventually, everyone will be taken by The Grudge.
In order to enjoy The Grudge, it is perhaps best not to be a fan of the original films. It is probably good that you have not seen any of them (there are four different variations in total), have very little working knowledge of what they have to offer in the way of horror, and aren't familiar with their inventive qualities and stylistic conceits. When viewed outside or exclusive of the remake's shadow, the initial movies show a truly unique view of what makes something suspenseful or scary. Shimizu played with narrative ideals, Japanese iconography and the juxtaposition of light with dark to conceive a fairly exceptional, subtle sense of terror. While there are some who thought he was simply feeding a commercial need with the ongoing Ju-On series (the original versions were TV films that were later made into features), most agree that Shimizu and others of his ilk were leading a kind of renaissance in Asian based fright.
So it's not hard to see why The Grudge would be primed for a Western reimagining. After the success of Gore Verbinski's The Ring (itself taken from the Hideo Nakata film Ringu), you can just see the Tinsel Town suits, like cinematic carpetbaggers, looking over the wealth of available Eastern horror and feeling like corrupt kids in an eye candy store. So when Ghost House picked up Ju-On for the remake, there was the potential for something great, or inversely, something grating, to be created. In truth, The Grudge actually lies somewhere in the middle. It is an evocative, enigmatic film with a stunning visual sense and an even more interesting mythology of the macabre. It is also a weak, watered down disappointment, a PG-13 product pandering to the lowest – and largest – demographic denominator in hopes of proving that there is an available and eager audience for fright flicks with foreign facets at their core. It is spellbinding and it is static. It reinvents the language of horror as it indulges in the most derivative aspects of mainstream moviemaking.
It's to Raimi's credit that he fought to have Shimizu make this movie. His directorial work is the absolute best thing about The Grudge. From the way he moves the camera to the manner in which he selects and intercuts his shots, this film announces Shimizu as an emerging talent in a currently unfocused field. It is easy to imagine, watching some of his work here, that given a fantastic script and unlimited control, Shimizu would make some manner of masterpiece. His attention to detail and the illustrative nature of his near-silent narrative are so acute, so keenly observed, that he never really makes a misstep from a directorial dimension. Certainly, there are times when we feel him being hemmed in, when the mandates of an American rating or profit margin are dictating a kind of caution that would not exist otherwise. Yet even with the competing cultural differences and social stigmas between East and West firmly in place, Shimizu sure knows disturbing. The Grudge is less a horror film than a good old fashioned creep-out, the kind of movie that is light on shocks, but filled to bursting with freakishness.
Of course, most of the oddball sense of the sinister comes from the demented imagery Shimizu uses. While the ghastly ghost girl does occasionally come across as more gorgeous than grotesque (especially during the middle third of the film) her long black hair and haunting, wide-eyed stare are very effective visual cues. To a lesser extent, the cat calling boy, also blessed with the same befuddling glance and a mouth that opens a little too wide for comfort, creates a nice nuance of the nasty. All the corpses, both motionless (and animated) in The Grudge are zombie-rific, and the disturbingly claustrophobic nature of Japanese architecture makes all the locations seem that much more menacing. With his deft handling of framing and composition, Shimizu has all the optical elements anyone could want from a creature feature, and he highlights them often throughout The Grudge.
Unfortunately, it is all in service of Stephen Susco's rather routine reinvention of the Ju-On series. Carving out the best bits from all four previous films (even if Shimizu's narrative drive in all his work is for something more suggestive than logical and linear) and trying to jerry-rig them into a semblance of salience while still supportive of the director's piecemeal prerogatives, Susco kind of makes a mess of things. He is so worried about issues that are, frankly, ancillary to a successful scary movie that you can see the obvious nods and adjustments to such dimensionless directives. In interviews, Raimi professed a fear that Western audiences would just not accept outright a bunch of Americans living in Japan. There had to be a reason, a rationale for why they are there. So Susco is forced to walk a tepid tightrope of exposition, giving his fish out of water individuals their dull and unexciting acclimation moments in the sun. Sometimes, they work out just fine (Sarah Michelle Gellar asking for directions), while others seem strangely condescending to the Japanese way of life (a newly relocated housewife frightened and scared of shopping in a grocery store). This 'stranger in a strange land' ideal could have been used to punctuate the power of the scares. Nothing is more frightening than fear of the unknown. Sadly, The Grudge makes such ignorance exclusively cultural, never once applying it to the spine tingling.
Also, it appears that the writer spent so much time trying to match Shimizu's understated, alluding manner of intersecting stories that he forget to craft some characters. Like other horror films where the players merely become part of an ongoing battle between evil and exposition, most of the individuals here are flat, lifeless plot pawns. We have to have people enter the home and become enveloped in its malevolence, so in walks generic American couple number one. There must be a relative or best friend who finds himself or herself inexplicably drawn into the drama. Enter the bland blond businesswoman. From the invalid old lady saddled with some malady we are never privy to, to the boyfriend who treats Karen like she's a combination back pack and significant other, we really have no idea what these individuals stand for or believe. In his original films, Shimizu made sure to give his characters moments, actual or inferred, that provided us with just a little three-dimensional insight. But Susco is just too busy pawing through the previous storylines, selecting the sellable bits, to offer up anyone we can truly root for.
So that leaves us at the devices of the actors to get us on their side. Sadly, aside from Grace Zabriskie (as the invalid) and the Japanese members of the cast (both Yoko Maki as Yoko and Ryo Ishibashi as the police detective are excellent) everyone else here is terribly tedious. Sarah Michelle Gellar, looking haggard and completely lost, registers only one single emotion on her face throughout the entire film (call it incremental fear) and does very little to win us over to her problems or predicament. Jason Behr gets the thankless role of afterthought boyfriend, a character seemingly created to get Gellar back into the spooky haunted home once she's already experienced its wrath. The American couple seen in the flashback is so non-descript as to barely register as a viable aspect of the narrative, and the entire Bill Pullman subplot, while lifted from the original films, seems superficial and incredibly underdeveloped. Indeed, anyone who's seen the DVD release of Ju-On will notice how this narrative knotting sticks out like a strange circumstance. Had the performances been stronger, or the actors more iconic, The Grudge could have potentially overcome its derivative detriments and really soared. As it stands, it is up to Shimizu alone to save this film. And he almost does.
Throughout the various versions of Ju-On, Shimizu treats the concepts of storyline and plotting like parts of the puzzle, as ways of keeping the audience off balance and anxious. There are websites devoted to deciphering the flashbacks and twisted timelines of his films (though they really don't need them, frankly) but the most important aspect of this movie making mannerism is to get the audience involved in the deduction. Like Pulp Fiction, part of the fun of Ju-On is seeing how situations crisscross and match-up, how certain circumstances stall, only to pay off later. The Grudge suffers from only attempting a half-hearted scuttling of the viewer. It never takes Shimizu's methods seriously, resorting to stupid scenes of investigation and explanation (why do bystanders to terror take it upon themselves to become Carl Kolchak, macabre mystery solver?). When the police detective spends five minutes telling Gellar about the meaning of "the grudge", even though we've been setup for it thanks to the opening credits crawl, there is a definite illiterate moviegoer ethic at play. It is Hollywood hinting that Americans are just too dopey to understand something subtle. Equally disquieting is the flummoxing finale daydream sequence, when Gellar stumbles upon a fleshed-out flashback playing right before her bubble-headed boyfriend seeking eyes. The sudden appearance of Pullman, and the clarification of his role in the film just stops all the suspense dead.
Yet thanks to the director's visual flair and way with an image, The Grudge is still a fascinating experience. There will be moments when you are terrified, and times when you can guess exactly what will happen next. You will feel the eerie presence of Japan and its spirit world wandering through nearly every frame, just like you will witness the half-assed Hollywood hindrances tossed at the director via the scattered screenplay. You will start to understand why Asian horror is the next big wave in scary movie making, and experience the reasons why it will probably end up being nothing more than a few film fad. If it does nothing else, The Grudge will allow Shimizu Takashi a chance to move beyond this fright formula (although it is one he helped develop and champion) and stretch his artistic wings, hopefully, with the full confidence of the studio backing him. While it is far from a classic, The Grudge is also not an idiotic piece of crap. One has to wonder what Shimizu would do without any interference from entities outside his experience (and we may find out when a promised Unrated Directors Cut DVD arrives in a few months). Box office hit or not, The Grudge is still a flawed piece of fright. It gets too many things right to be totally written off. But thanks to the supposed mindset of America, it has very little of the nuanced cruelty that fans first fell in love with.
Relying on a palette of charcoals and earth tones (even the occasional blood looks more maroon than brilliant and bright red) The Grudge has been given a wonderful DVD transfer by Columbia Tri-Star. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is sharp, with lots of superb detail and excellent contrasts. Shimizu's framing and compositions are perfectly preserved and there is a magnificently moody quality to the picture that helps sell the scares scattered throughout. Digital defects appear to be limited – there is no pixelating or compression grain - and the overall presentation seems perfectly in sync with Shimizu's visual and cinematic goals.
Much better than the optical elements are the aural issues. The Dolby Digital 5.1 offers a very atmospheric, ambient experience. The back channels come to life to provide a sense of all around immersion, and the use of strange, surreal noise cues (a Shimizu trademark) makes the soundtrack very unsettling and disturbing. The dialogue is clearly understood and the occasional subtitles are deftly handled and easy to read. While the score by Christopher Young is way too intrusive and obvious for the stifled refinement the director is going for (it truly telegraphs scares minutes before they occur) the sonic landscaping created by the mix really aids in The Grudge's effectiveness.
Ignoring the ton of trailers provided, the rest of the bonus features consist of a decent 'Making-Of', a wonderfully insightful commentary, and a weird bit of 'how-to' revolving around why people enjoy, and how they physically react to, getting scared. The 12 minute medical study is interesting, but kind of out of place here (it is reminiscent of the equally odd featurette on Final Destination 2 which had test subjects watching that movie hooked up to a series of itchy diodes, all in an attempt to register fear responses). The 47 minute 'Making-Of' is better, but suffers from an overload of publicity piece puffery. If you can get beyond all the backslapping, the self-congratulation and out of place plaudits, you actually witness Shimizu and his cast in action. Much of this material is intriguing, since we finally get a glimpse at how the Japanese director worked with his American actors, and visa versa.
The best supplement though, is the eight person cast and crew commentary free-for-all that features Sam Raimi, Rob Tappert, Stephen Susco, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ted Raimi, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall and KaDee Strickland. While it occasionally degenerates into a jokefest, with each contributor quipping on how scared or frightened they are, we really do learn some amazing insights into the differences between American and Japanese productions. The Asian actors, not bound by a union, occasionally worked 12 to 15 hours days, while the organized Americans made their daily, time-dictated appearances. The crew was livid with anyone chewing gum, or eating before a shot, and anything sexual (Gellar and Behr's bed scene, Gellar's shower) was met with an uncomfortable awkwardness born out of the Japanese's intense sense of personal shame. We learn how eccentric the food was, Shimizu's love of moonwalking, and how to say "egg whites", "no mayo" and "welcome to my store" just like a native. This friendly, and frequently informative alternative narrative track doesn't really do a lot to solidify the film's scares, but it does prove that American celebrities can be as touristy and tacky as the stereotype sometimes suggests.
In a close call, and with some hindsight reserved for the Unrated Director's Cut, The Grudge is a recommended experience in usual, evocative horror. Some will find it as scary as anything released in the last 10 years. Others, raised on a steady diet of Evil Dead, George Romero and the far more extreme cinematic experiences from the East (Tetsuo: The Iron Man or Rubber's Lover) will probably want to pass. There is nothing here that won't have them staring at their watch in finger-twiddling disbelief. Shimizu Takashi is to be commended for successfully applying his peculiar vision to a watered down variation on his original vision, and Raimi and Tappert are to be noted for wanting to explore this unusual form of horror. But somewhere along the way, among the ghostly apparitions and demonic children, the suggestive cinematic shorthand and the long drawn out sequences of silence, the initial Ju-On movies got lost. Actually, they got processed and turned into a kind of filmic Velveeta, resembling the original without baring much of its flavor or freshness. The Grudge is such faux fun. It announces a new voice in the world of the wicked, while proving once again that in the realm of the remake, Hollywood can't leave well enough alone.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here