We saw THE GRUDGE (with Sarah Michelle Gellar) at a midnight screening at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, and it was excellent. The theatre was nearly packed, with a young adult audience (late teens and twenties), and they reacted perfectly: groaned in anticipation, screamed with fear, and jumped at the shocks. There were lots of happy faces standing in the lobby afterward, talking about their favorite moments. Many were even attempting to imitate the creepy, wordless “ghost voice” of Kayako, the murdered woman whose angry spirit causes most of the horror in the film.
For those of you who don’t know, THE GRUDGE is based on the third of four Japanese horror films called JU-ON. The first two, JU-ON and JU-ON 2, were released on video; their success led to two theatrical films, called (to help avoid confusion with their direct-to-video progenitors) JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2. The American remake is essentially a translation of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, but elements from all four films creep in (like the ghost girl with the missing jawbone from the first DTV film).
Fans of the Japanese originals may wonder how the American version stacks up, so it’s pleasing to report that it is on par for the course. In fact, it replicates so many scenes so closely that one has to express some wonder about the screenwriting credit given to Steven Susco, whose contribution consists mostly of writing English-language dialogue. There are only two or three scenes that could be considered “new.” To be fair, a few familiar scenes do play out slightly differently, so not everything will be completely predictable to fans. But everything else is simply-retooled from the JU-ON films.
This is in keeping approach taken by GRUDGE-director Takashi Shimizu to the JU-ON series (he wrote and directed the Japanese films). All of the follow-ups to the first JU-ON have tended to recreate elements seen before. In a sense, none of them is a true sequel; all of them are like stand-alone semi-remakes, and the same is true of THE GRUDGE — which recreates many favorite moments for the benefit of American audiences who would not want to sit through a subtitled Japanese film.
There are some differences between THE GRUDGE and the JU-ON films, but they are mostly of emphasis. The episodic story structure remains, but there has been some attempt to make the jumps back and forth in time more clear to the audience. There are no longer any “chapter subtitles” introducing the name of the character who will be the focus of each episode; instead, the film tries to create the illusion that we are watching one seamless plot.
To this end, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s social worker character (not a nurse as she is often described in the American press) is threaded throughout the film, creating the impression that she is the film’s protagonist, even though she mostly just acts as our eyes and ears, discovering little bits of information and turing up background exposition that help to explain what’s happening to the audience.
In short, if you go expecting Buffy the Japanese Ghost Slayer, you will be disappointed. And that’s a good thing, because the whole point of THE GRUDGE (like its predecessors) is too create a supernatural curse that allows for no safe harbor. Once you come in contact with it, you’re doomed; the only question is when and where the curse will manifest itself. This sense of approaching inevitable dread is what made all the JU-ON films so effective, so it’s nice to see that element retained. (One imagines there must have been pressure from the American producers to create a more powerful protagonist who would triumph over evil in the end.)
There are a few minor missteps. A few fleeting CGI shots are okay, but they lack the uncanny quality that Shimizu brings to his live-action manifestations of the “Grudge.” There are a few more “jump” type scares, underlined by a “sting” from the soundtrack. This kind of simple shock technique undermines the real virtue of Shimizu’s approach, which is based largely on anticipation and visualizaitons of weird, inexplicable phenomena — the kind of thing that not only makes you jump out of your seat but also gives you nightmares after you leave the theatre.
The attempts at characterizatoin are mostly irrelevent to the real thrust of the film (which is all-out terror). These scenes may make the actors feel as if they have something interesting to do, but they do not enhance the film much; if anything, they slow down the pace in the early scenes. (All of the JU-ON films move from scare scene to scare scene with an admirably smooth simplicity, maintaining a high level of tension without ever seeming monotonous.) Considerable tension and momentum are lost, but thankfully things pick up as the film proceeds.
The American version does have its virtues. There is a fine score by Christopher Young that (mostly) emphasizes dread rather than shock. And the stereophonic soundtrack mix is excellent, using whisperings, cat cries, the padded sound of the little ghost boy’s running feet, and of course his mother Kayako’s creaking voice — all to send shivers down your spine.
Adding up the pros and the cons, THE GRUDGE is not quite a match for JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, which is one of the most terrifying movies ever made. But it works perfectly well as an American tranlation, recreating some of the best moments of the original. Fans of the Japanese films should be satisfied at another chance to enjoy director Takashi Shimizu’s style of horror. Viewers unfamiliar with the JU-ON series will no doubt enjoy the film even more.