The Japanese have been crafting some of the most eerily effective horror films for decades, but before the American remake of Ringu (The Ring), very few westerners had been exposed to their brand of quiet, deliberate, and suffocating terror. The success of The Ring opened the floodgates for Japanese horror here in the States, lead by a remake of Takashi Shimizu's very spooky Juon: The Grudge. However, this remake would be different in that, not only would it be filmed by Shimizu himself; he would also use the very same crew that he used in the original, many of that film's actors, and would be shot in Japan, with many of the same locations. The American quotient would come in the casting of the film's principal characters, as well as a more streamlined screenplay, written with western audiences in mind. It proves for an interesting mix, and one that, in my opinion, makes for an even more effective film than the original.
Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as Karen, a student who has tagged along with her boyfriend Doug (the cult TV series Roswell 's Jason Behr) to Tokyo , where she attends university. As part of her studies, Karen volunteers at a “Care Clinic” whose employees assist families in dealing with disabled or elderly family members. When one of the clinic's staff members doesn't show up for work, Karen is given her first case; Emma, the demented elderly mother of an American businessman.
When Karen arrives at the house, the place in a state of disarray, and Emma is sitting alone on a mattress in her room. After Karen cleans up the place, strange noises lead her upstairs to a room where the closet doors are covered in duct tape, but, from within, she can hear the mewing of a cat. However, when Karen tears off the tape, she finds an abused young boy inside, instead. Meanwhile, downstairs, Emma is in a state of panic, and Karen rushes to her side in time to see a ghastly apparition descend from the ceiling and literally scare Emma to death.
From this point on, The Grudge is presented in a non-linear series of vignettes, each showing other people's experiences with the house. It's a bit confusing at first, but definitely less so than in the original film, as, this time out, Shimizu cuts some of the fringe elements, and focuses squarely on the more established characters. This makes for a much more cohesive film, as well as one that is more emotionally involving, as we learn to care for the characters in a way that the original film didn't give us the time to do.
I also have to say that, while it could have been exploited even further, the use of American actors as the protagonists lends a nice air of isolation to the proceedings, as our heroes are not only coping with horrors that they don't understand, but with a language barrier as well. It's even more effective because the entire premise of the film is based on Japanese folklore, something our American heroes know nothing about. It's all truly absorbing stuff, and plays like a horrific cousin of “Lost in Translation”.
Still, as different as this film is aesthetically, and despite a few changes to accommodate the more streamlined storyline, The Grudge is, at times, an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original, with many of the that film's terrifying moments meticulously recreated to great effect. And, try as they might, The Grudge is still a very Japanese horror film, with an emphasis on low key, nearly bloodless scares and an oppressive undercurrent of terror that runs throughout the movie.
Columbia Tristar's DVD release of the film features a solid widescreen anamorphic transfer, a perfectly balanced 5.1 soundtrack that will have you looking over your shoulder more than once, as well as a host of supplemental materials, including commentary track, several short featurettes, as well as a feature called Under the Skin , in which a psychologist discusses terror in life, as well as in entertainment, and examines why we are drawn to such things. This feature won't blow anyone's minds, but it is an interesting series of observations, and a nice companion piece to the film itself.
The Grudge is the kind of horror film that not only offers up plenty of scares; it also keeps the viewer in a state of constant unease. It achieves this through very sparse use of music, long, deliberate “set-ups”, and imaginative use of everything from everyday sounds and images, to the perception of time itself, to craft a unique, satisfying, and surprisingly exotic piece of horror cinema.