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Dustin Putman

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The Grudge (2004)
3 Stars

Directed by Takashi Shimizu
Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall, KaDee Strickland, William Mapother, Bill Pullman, Ryo Ishibashi, Ted Raimi, Grace Zabriskie, Rosa Blasi, Yko Maki, Takako Fuji, Yuya Ozeki.
2004 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic material, disturbing images/terror/violence, and sensuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 20, 2004.

With the very same director onboard—Takashi Shimizu—and retaining its vivid Tokyo setting, the American remake of the Japanese horror sensation, "Ju-On: The Grudge," has done an accomplished job of staying true to its source material while giving it an added depth all its own. And, in a rare instance where the same filmmaker has been given the chance to tackle his original work, this new rendition bypasses many of the mainstream American genre conventions for a fresh and unnerving direct ode to its Asian influences. "The Grudge" genuinely surprises because one is never quite sure where it is headed next, all the while involving the viewer in freakish, unforgettably nightmarish imagery. The chilling cumulative effect the film ratchets up is sure to stay with the watcher for much longer than the average studio horror picture does these days.

The legend of "The Grudge" goes like this: when a person dies at the hands of a powerful rage, an unstoppable curse is put into motion that goes after anyone who comes into contact with it. When original caregiver Yoko (Yko Maki) goes missing, American student Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar), studying abroad in Japan to become a social worker, is asked to take over in tending to an ailing elderly woman (Grace Zabriskie). Once inside the death trap of a house, Karen becomes the latest potential victim of the curse. As she witnesses those who have once entered its doors turn up dead, Karen's countdown to her own fatality begins, her only hope of survival being to unravel the mystery of the so-called grudge before it finds her.

From specter-like children with blackened eyes to frightening videotape footage of one of the ghosts walking toward the camera, the resemblance "The Grudge" holds with "Ringu" (and its 2002 remake, "The Ring") is not incidental. Although such influences are clear, "The Grudge" finds its own identity through intricately designed nonlinear storytelling and a premise that is cleanly developed, but open-ended enough in its details so that the scary unknown spell it conjures is never broken.

Instead of simply following lead heroine Karen from point-A-to-point-B throughout the story, "The Grudge" occasionally moves back in time, tracing the history of the house and its inhabitants and the ultimate origin of the supernatural curse. This creative, unconventional approach brings a richness to the proceedings that is progressively all the more intoxicating as more characters briefly move into the focus. There is the original family that lived there, a married couple and their young son who suffered a terrible fate. Three years later, an American couple, Jennifer (Clea DuVall) and Matthew (William Mapother), move in with Matthew's mentally unstable mother—the woman Karen eventually comes to work for. Also tagging along to Tokyo is the woman's grown daughter, Susan (KaDee Strickland). And then there is the mysterious man (Bill Pullman) who, in a pre-opening titles sequence, abruptly commits suicide by jumping off his apartment balcony. As these ill-fated souls, and several other people through the years, fall prey to the curse, the film eventually wraps back around to Karen's present-day plight.

The cast, headlined by a serious-looking, oft-terrorized Sarah Michelle Gellar (2004's "Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed"), gamely do their jobs with efficiency, seemingly taking on the rhythms and acting approach of their Japanese counterparts. Where "The Grudge" grabs the audience and gets its worth, however, is in a near-succession of taut, jarring set-pieces, each one more strange and horrific than the last. Of particular note is a rattlingly elongated sequence that depicts the stalking of Susan, first at her work office and then at her apartment, and a climactic scene involving Karen that, for the first time in a while at the movies, had the hairs on my arms standing straight up—no easy feat for a stuffy screening room that apparently had no air conditioning turned on.

Whereas many horror films' plot particulars tend to unravel the more one thinks about them, "The Grudge" has the opposite effect, wholly improving in one's mind as the disturbing scenes and tightly fabricated storytelling play themselves out after the fact. Save for a few too many slow walks down hallways and into rooms—the one clichd aspect it shares with Stateside horror—"The Grudge" delights in usually defying expectations. Finally, in a welcome addition of profundity that the Japanese version had no way of having, the film almost plays like a genre version of "Lost in Translation." The leads, almost all American, feel alienated and adrift by their newly foreign and very different surroundings, a nifty aside to the otherworldly horrors they ultimately come face-to-face with. Instead of wrapping everything up in a neat, tidy bow, the fear that "The Grudge" so expertly exhibits comes squarely from what the characters, and the viewers, do not know.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman