The Grudge is a Hollywood remake of a Japanese film, Ju-On (The Grudge), to be released on DVD next month. The Grudge's writer and director, Takashi Shimizu, managed to interest the same members of the Japanese film industry who had been involved with the production and promotion of Ringu, remade in America as The Ring, one of the most critically acclaimed horror films in recent years. Eventually, Sam Raimi agreed to be involved both in the promotion of the original Japanese version and in the production of the American version.
The Grudge, sadly, is no Ring. This is not to say the film is without merit. It has a terrific opening, and it does what most horror films seem to no longer be interested in doing: It provides moments of genuine fright. But The Grudge has such a flimsy plot that the viewer is better off not thinking about the many clues it begs us to consider.
The opening sets a tone of inexplicable mystery. A wife awakens in her Tokyo apartment to find her husband standing on the narrow porch. As she calls contentedly to him, he stares blankly away from her, then deliberately bends over the railing, and plunges to his death. The fact that the filmmakers had the courage to leave the significance of this event unexplained until halfway through the movie, when it reappears as an important clue in the solution to another mystery, is a promising sign. But the sheer number of bizarre subplots dashes whatever hopes one might have for the film's storytelling. Shimizu's belief that American viewers need clear solutions and no loose ends makes the American version worse than the Japanese original, which remained more on the level of suggestion.
The plot is a rather straightforward haunted-house tale. Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is an exchange student in Tokyo, where she picks up social-welfare credit by volunteering to assist the homebound. One day she is sent to replace a fellow student, who did not show up for her assignment at the home of an elderly woman suffering from dementia. Arriving at the home, she finds it a mess. Hearing noises, she traces them to a taped-over closet inhabited by a black cat and young boy whose reserve belies the calm innocence of his appearance. Karen does some investigating in the house, finding family pictures of its previous occupants. When she turns her attention to the elderly woman, the two are suddenly overtaken by a female apparition. Karen wakes later in a hospital bed and begins to puzzle over the strange inhabitants of the house.
Presented with Gellar's role here — as a young woman who wanders into the midst of evil forces beyond her comprehension, questions the pat answers of the police, begins her own investigation, and then decides to do battle against malevolent powers — one cannot help thinking of her career-defining TV role as Buffy. Her performance in this film is not embarrassing, but it underscores the inferiority of The Grudge's plot compared with an average episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The director uses several flashback sequences to provide the audience with background on the recent history of the main characters and how each came to be associated with the house. As isolated bits of story, the flashbacks function rather well, as they deepen our sense of the malicious spirits in the house. The problem is that the flashbacks also serve to raise our expectations concerning the core of the plot.
About the best the film can do on that score is the explanation given by the detective in charge of solving the disappearances and deaths associated with the house — which, to no one's surprise, can be traced to a crime of passion that took place there. The detective offers a Japanese maxim: When the occupant of a house dies in extreme sorrow or rage, the emotion remains in the building; the memory of the event repeats itself, killing everyone who enters the place. He concludes with the dire prediction, "It will never let you go." There appears to be an implicit connection between this lesson and an early scene in which Karen and her boyfriend come upon a Buddhist ritual invoking the spirits of ancestors. But the filmmakers never bother to develop any of this.
The film makes very good use of the house itself, with its narrow hallways and multiple room dividers: the result of the Japanese attempt to maximize precious square footage. The film also makes effective use of creepy sounds: the strange clicking of the haunting spirit, the cat-like howls of the young boy, the pitter-patter of scrambling feet, and the sounds of scraping knives. The mysterious haunting entity makes limited and brief appearances, and these serve the goal of terror rather nicely.
There's also a funny scene in the flashback sequence depicting how the most recent occupants of the house came to live there. As they tour the home, the realtor enters an upstairs bathroom to find an unusual clog in a tub filled with discolored water. As he struggles to clear the drain, a hairy creature pops out of the tub. Just then the family yells out, "We'll take it." Like any good realtor, he regains his composure quickly enough to congratulate them on their wise choice.
With all the emphasis on the house as a place of evil, it remains unclear how or why it is that the evil from the home is willing and able to travel all over the city of Tokyo in search of prey. And the ending degenerates into the standard Hollywood-horror-movie conclusion, with a frantic attempt to eliminate the evil that never works in the neat way the good guys think it will. The ending here is not so much frightening as it is laughable.