“When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage … a curse is born.”

The Grudge is Takashi Shimizu’s 2004 American remake of his supernatural horror film Ju-on: The Grudge (2002), the third entry in the Ju-on Japanese horror franchise which consists of 11 films (including three American productions.) The Grudge is in parts a shot-for-shot replication of the original film, and features the same deliciously creepy imagery and chilling sound design. While the film makes a valiant attempt at atmosphere, the story filling the gaps between the few genuinely scary moments is threadbare and lethargic. Eerie as they may be, these set pieces are not effective enough to compensate for the lack of plot, and the film flounders as a result.

We open on a wan and lost-looking man (Bill Pullman) standing on an apartment balcony in Tokyo; apropos of nothing, he throws himself over the railing in front of his horrified wife. Later we learn that he is a University professor named Peter, but despite this suitably disturbing opening scene, this isn’t Peter’s story, at least not until later. Our protagonist is Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an American student who has just moved to Japan with her boyfriend, Doug. As much as I love Sarah Michelle Gellar, this is to the film’s detriment; the role does not allow her to show any of the spark and personality that she brought to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cruel Intentions, or even All My Children.

That pattern is actually shockingly similar to the wallpaper in my home.

Karen is a volunteer at an elder care centre. After the sudden disappearance of her co-worker, Yoko (Yôko Maki), Karen is assigned to visit the home of Emma (Grace Zabriskie), an older woman with severe dementia – her first solo home visit. “Don’t worry Karen … you’re ready,” her boss, Alex (Ted Raimi), ominously intones. The bad news for Karen is that this home is haunted by multiple onryō (vengeful spirits) who are acting out a curse born when they died in the grips of extreme rage and sorrow: everyone who enters the house is doomed to die. We know this because the non-linear story at various times follows each of the people who have made contact with the house: Yoko, Karen, Alex, Emma, Emma’s family, a hapless police officer, and the aforementioned Peter. The most suspenseful and genuinely scary sequence features Emma’s daughter, Susan (KaDee Strickland). The lengthy and effective sequence follows Susan from her office building to her apartment as she is stalked by the onryō, the tension steadily building to an entirely satisfying payoff. As she ascends to her apartment in an elevator we see the passing floors through its glass door, with a ghostly spirit getting closer and closer with each floor. The scenes devoted to Susan’s story are a poignant demonstration of the potential that the film could have had; had the rest of the movie been this compelling, it would have been an excellent entry in the genre.

Oops, wrong floor.

The film is humourless, the gloom reinforced by its largely drab, unsaturated colour scheme: mainly dull greens and blues, except for the scenes leading up to the climax which alternate between the blue/green scheme, a reddish-hued scheme, and grainy black & white. These surreal and dreamlike shifts in reality weave together Sarah’s and Peter’s respective experiences in the house, and also reveal the story of Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) and Kayako (Takako Fuji), the onryō. This stylish manoeuvre by the director actually works very well, and the scenes with Karen and Peter (almost) interacting with each other are very effective.

Looks like someone is grounded.

Overall, the characters lack depth – I found it difficult to become emotionally invested in any of their fates, apart from Susan’s. Also, for a film set in Japan, the focus is almost exclusively on white Americans. While this isn’t at all surprising for an American remake of a Japanese film (whitewashing is a major problem in American cinema – just look at the casting for The Last Airbender, 21, Doctor Strange, and Ghost in the Shell), it would have been nice to have had more diversity in the casting and to have had Japanese culture seep into the story in a more fleshed out way. The Grudge is not a terrible film, but it isn’t a film that I would go out of my way to recommend to anyone. At least, not before recommending the original.

Score: 3 out of 10 cat-boy hybrids.

Bonus points:

  • The best haunting scenes tend to be the ones that happen outside the house – Susan’s ordeal, the shower shot, and Yoko’s return are all effective moments, while the scenes in the house start to feel a little repetitive and stale – the house itself just doesn’t inspire any feeling of dread.
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar is always dressed in white.
  • Takako Fuji’s training as a contortionist added a lot to her performance as Kayako.