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May 13, 2006 | Comments ()


A Remake That's a Slight Improvement

The Grudge / Jeremy C. Fox

Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()


The Grudge has a complex pedigree. It’s largely a remake of the 2003 Japanese film Ju-on, but that film was itself an extension of a popular pair of videos (Ju-on and Ju-on 2) and required that viewers have some familiarity with the earlier chapters in order to make sense of it. (There’s also a Ju-on 2 that’s a sequel to the Ju-on that was a feature film. For English-speaking audiences, the videos are subtitled “The Curse” and the films are subtitled “The Grudge.” I’ve seen only Ju-on: The Grudge, so my comparisons here are based solely upon that work.) For the American remake, the producers have reassembled the director, Takashi Shimizu, and his two malevolent ghosts, Takako Fuji and Yuya Ozeki, and returned them to the same house with an almost entirely American cast. It’s an interesting but somewhat confusing choice; while keeping Tokyo as the setting and retaining the director and the central actors maintains a certain level of integrity, it’s undercut by replacing almost every other cast member with an American. (Couldn’t Bill Pullman’s character have been Japanese? Or at least Ted Raimi’s, particularly given that he can’t act? Do they assume that we’ll accept a Japanese setting but can’t care about Japanese actors?) At any rate, the Tokunagas have become the Williamses and we just have to deal with it.

While the plot is largely reconstructed straight from Ju-on: The Grudge, the film has a sensibility that is strictly Tokyo for American eyes (the script was adapted by Stephen Susco). From the very first scene, which alludes to the opening of John Irvin’s Ghost Story (an appropriate choice for what is essentially a gothic haunted house tale), the film feels very different from its Japanese predecessor. This is partly due to the more dramatic lighting and cinematography (by Hideo Yamamoto), which is much more dynamic and fluid than the fairly static camerawork of Ju-on. But there are other significant changes, such as seeing less of the ghosts (a decided improvement) and better special effects that make the scare scenes more effective. Some incidents are far more fleshed-out and others are elided (mostly for the good, though I missed the retired detective who was scarred from his previous experiences in the haunted house).

The plot focuses on a young American couple, Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Doug (Jason Behr, best known for his role as a human/alien hybrid on “Roswell,” here he’s grown a shaggy head of hair and a couple of days’ stubble that give him the look of a softer Billy Crudup). Doug is an architecture student fulfilling his dream of studying in Japan. Karen is his faithful girlfriend who’s come along for the ride. She’s taking classes as well and volunteers at a Social Welfare Center, where she’s asked to fill in for Yoko, a girl who disappeared during a home visit to check on Emma Williams (Grace Zabriskie) an elderly, semi-catatonic American woman living with her son Matthew (William Mapother) and his wife Jennifer (Clea DuVall). Mysterious things are afoot in the Williams house, including a strange little boy named Toshio (Ozeki), who, when confronted, mewls like a cat

This is all a bit silly, of course, but unlike Ju-on, the remake seems aware of it. The original had some laughs, for sure, but none of them seemed intentional. Here, comic bits are included on purpose, which helps heighten the scares, though the essential silliness of some of the visuals of the ghosts can’t be overcome. In all its various incarnations, The Grudge frequently has been compared to The Ring (in all its incarnations), but there’s an essential difference here: The Ring has scary images, images that get stuck in your mind’s eye and won’t let go. While I found The Grudge scarier than Ju-on, it still remains that there’s nothing in either that matches the creepiness of the Sadako/Samara character in either Ringu or The Ring. And while The Grudge is less confusing than Ju-on, it leaves as many questions as it answers. Why is Toshio shown as being creepy and possessed-acting before he dies? Why is a professor’s widow (Rosa Blasi) dressed and made up like a prostitute when Gellar happens to drop by? Why is Gellar starring in another mediocre horror movie, given the range and appeal she displayed on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

The largest issue, though, in any American remake of a foreign film is this: How badly did they louse it up? The answer is, surprisingly, not very much. The visuals are altogether stronger and the story feels more complete (though, as noted above, there were some elements I missed from the earlier version). There’s not much for the actors here to do besides look terrified, but that’s true of Ju-on as well. It’s a good movie to see if you want your date to cling to your arm, or possibly sink nails deep into your flesh. Me, I’m just waiting for The Ring 2, due out next March.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.

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