Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Grudge

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

How annoyingly provincial are we Americans? Last year, Ju-on: The Grudge was one of the standouts at the first Boston Fantastic Film Festival; one of the most genuinely creepy horror movies I'd seen in a while. A year later, it got a brief U.S. release, but it took remaking it in English with American actors to get people in the theaters. The American Grudge is a fine enough movie, though I didn't find it quite so scary as the original.

Of course, any ghost story is going to lose a little something the second time you hear it. It's also an incredibly transparent remake - not only are some of the actors playing the same characters they played in Ju-on: The Grudge, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same locations were used. In essence, screenwriter Stephen Susco basically replaced some Japanese characters with American analogs, keeping the story in Tokyo. It's kind of an odd experience to see the movie set in Japan but starring all these Caucasian folks.

I'm semi-ashamed to say it did make things easier for me. The movie, like it predecessor, does sort of jump around in time without establishing captions, and it's easier to tell the two nurses apart if one is Japanese and one is blonde. Understand, I'm an equal-opportunity idiot where characters of similar appearance are concerned, needing a scorecard to tell the white guys apart on Veronica Mars.

Of course, the trade-off is that by using Hollywood actors, the American audience is more aware of their relative star power or their position in the credits and thus their chance for survival. Sarah Michelle Gellar is the movie's biggest star and has her name before the title, so there's a good chance she'll last a while. Clea DuVall and Bill Pullman are billed with "With" and "And" respectively, which is often a good indication of a "brief but pivotal" role. Of course, for all I know, Ju-on: The Grudge had the exact same issue in Japan.

There's also a Hollywood slickness to the production that threw me a bit. There is, I think, something to be said for keeping horror movies under a certain budget. The high production values communicate a certain amount of control that's antithetical to the lack thereof the audience should feel. Still, I give director Takashi Shimizu props for getting the big effects scene out of the way early. It's an unorthodox approach to give the audience a glimpse of what's hiding in the shadows and then rely on fear of it re-emerging afterward, as opposed to building up to a money shot.

I can't help but wonder how come the story didn't make a little more sense. This is Shimizu's fifth movie in the series, sort of - the lineage is complicated. As close as I can tell, The Grudge (2004) is a remake of Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), which was a sequel to Ju-on (a 2000 direct-to-video movie with a direct-to-video sequel); there's also a theatrical Ju-on: The Grudge 2. The Grudge refers to events from Ju-on (and may actually incorporate footage from the Japanese movies as backstory), although there's no need to see that movie (which is good, as it's not available in the USA). So, with all that practice, you'd think there'd be some rationale as to why the ghosts mutilate one character and leave another catatonic and make another just disappear. Nope. The randomness is arguably part of the horror, though, whether those of us who like rules feel it makes sense or not.

The cast is good at showing shock and fear as necessary. There are hints that Sarah Michelle Gellar's and Clea DuVall's characters are feeling somewhat adrift in Japan, but it never becomes a specific issue; the rest are mostly serviceable, with Bill Pullman seeming underused. Cult movie afficianados will grin at seeing Ted Raimi pop up; his brother Sam produced the film via the Ghost House banner (the only reason Ted isn't film's most enjoyable ongoing example of nepotism is that Clint Howard is even more funny-looking).

I've said it before, but it's surprising how much you can get away with and still get a PG-13 rating if you don't swear. This isn't Saw, but there's still some pretty gruesome shots for a movie that an eight-year-old can see without a parent. That's more an indication of the broken-ness of the ratings system than anything else; I see no reason to turn a teenager away from this movie, but I also see no reason to let anyone under thirteen in.

I've given this movie three stars, but because of how much I enjoyed Ju-on: The Grudge, it's a thoroughly second-guessed three stars. Maybe after I've talked to my brother (who hasn't seen the Japanese version), I'll be able to really make a guess at how good this movie is on its own.

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