October 28, 2004

Movie Review: The Grudge

I first heard about Ju-On: The Grudge about a year or so ago. It was about the same time that I was really starting to get into Asian cinema. The most original horror films were starting to filter out, films like Ringu, Dark Water, Kairo, Uzumaki, and Ju-On. I have since seen all of them except for Ju-On. Then I heard that there were plans to produce an American remake following the success of the Ringu remake, The Ring. The news got even better when I read that Takashi Shimizu, the director of the original, would be helming the remake. Another plus for it was that it would star Sarah Michelle Gellar, I have enjoyed her work for years and it would be interesting to see how she would take to her first leading role in a feature film.

Now I have seen the American version, and I can say that I really liked it. Although it did feel like an exercise in style over substance, which can have a negative connotation, doesn't here. I have seen some very negative reviews of this film based on a thin plot with holes like Swiss cheese, shallow characters that are undeveloped and uninteresting, and accusations that it is nothing more than a string of jump scares, and at some level that is all true. On the other side of that, there is a wonderfully creepy presence set throughout, characters that while shallow bring us along for a more visceral ride, where the entertainment is in piecing together the disjointed story, and sometimes jump scares are the right thing for the material as it is here.

The story, such as it is, follows a young woman, Karen, and her husband studying abroad, in Japan. To earn college credit, Karen was volunteering as a home care aide. One day, she is summoned to substitute for a missing aide. She goes to the home and discovers something very unsettling. From this moment on, her world spirals out of her control as she is tormented by something that happened in that house. Frantically she struggles to keep her wits and discover what happened at that home and what the connection is between the murder that took place there three years prior and the suicide of a professor the following day.

Again, this film is not so much about the tale or the characters but about the mood and the ability to make you jump. We know next to nothing about the characters, just enough to propel the story forward. Karen is being tormented by a young boy who is haunting that home and anyone who enters it. We get a wide array of scares, enough to make you sit upright in your chair, and it begins to linger inside you, you know more are coming, but they still manage to catch you unsuspecting.

Besides the thin characters, we don't really learn much about the horrific events of that home. We come to learn what happened, but only in a cursory way. The film is hinged on the notion explained early on in the film, and also spelled out in the trailer: "When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born, the curse gathers in that place of death, those who encounter it will be consumed by it's fury." That is the high concept on which everything else is hung, and thus the exercise is born.

The acting is solid, despite the lack of depth. We watch Sarah Michelle Gellar go from a slightly lost stranger in a strange land, to someone in dire need of help, someone slipping into a shock that threatens to consume her. The rest of the cast fills their roles. Jason Behr plays Doug, her husband, and has little to do, but fulfills his purpose. Ted Raimi is also here, playing the head of the home care group, he brings a quirky sensibility to the movie. The last piece is Ryo Ishibashi who plays the Detective in charge, bringing a quiet intelligence to the role, an intelligence tempered by sadness. Not go without mention is Bill Pullman, who does not play a large role, but makes a grand entrance.

Takashi Shimizu has done a good job in directing his first English language film, and it also makes me anxious to see his original. I like the sparseness he brings to the screen, leading your eye right to where he wants you to go before springing it on you. I look forward to future work from him.

Bottomline. I very much enjoyed this movie, but I can see why others would be at the other end of the spectrum. I like the ride that it takes you on, moments of excruciating silence followed by a a moment of jump inducing release, only to start the build up again. This is a rollercoaster of jumps, and a nice exercise in creepy style.



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