Ju-on: The Grudge and The Grudge (review)

Raging Against the Remake

Horror films have their own special guidelines when it comes to plausibility: basically, there aren’t any. And the Japanese flick Ju-on: The Grudge, which had a limited American release earlier this year, takes even greater liberties in the credibility area than most. Fortunately, writer/director Takashi Shimizu has enough tricks up his sleeve to make you forget that he’s not making one whit of sense. Logic is never a strong deciding factor, anyway, when you’re looking for a flick to give you goosebumps, which this one does, if only in moderate measure. Plus, creepy as it sporadically is, you can poke fun at it, too: The rage is coming from inside the house!
The comparisons to Ringu are inevitable: the spooky phone calls, the dead-eyed children, the sense of unholy inescapable doom that hovers over the unlucky cannon fodder. Social worker Rika (Megumi Okina) finds the home of one of her client families in disarray, the family missing, and — what’s this? — a spectral little boy in one of the closets. From there, it’s much startled screaming and mysterious dying, all of it passed along like a virus to Rika’s friends and coworkers… as it was among the missing family, we see in flashbacks that purport to explain where this curse of fatal death originated. Oh, sure, the opening crawl explains how a plague of violent rage can infect a place — in this case, an otherwise unassuming Tokyo house — when something superbad happens there. But we never quite get to an understanding of exactly what occurred to form this plague in the first place.

But never mind: Shimizu has a deft ability to pass along the heebies-jeebies to the audience, not of the buckets-of-blood variety but the kind that makes you want to crawl under a blanket, if only to escape the stares of the creepy kid from the closet.

Play it again, Shimizu
Remaking successful foreign films like Ju-on for American audiences is hardly rare — but it’s not often that the same director gets another shot at the material. Shimizu revisits his own film, now with an obviously bigger budget — the FX are more seamless, the scope of the film a bit wider, with more locations and a real feel for the city surrounding the haunted house — and a big-name star… or what passes for one among geeky teenage boys, who’ll be the biggest audience here. But it’s just a tad Ju-on Lite, with the puzzling ambiguities taken away — it’s still moderately creepy (less so if you’ve seen the original film) though in a much more direct way, one that relies more on spooks jumping out at the audience than on cryptic mysteries of life and death.

I’d found that crypticness in the original film unsatisfying, but in retrospect, it was a lot more suited to the tale than the neat, pat wrapup The Grudge gets… and with English-speaking white folks now in the mix, the cultural variations between the undead in the East and what we expect from our undead in the West is lot more problematic, mostly because the Westerners accept these, well, alien ghosts unquestioningly.

I expect more from Buffy, frankly. Yes, the action is still in Tokyo, only now it’s exchange student Sarah Michelle Gellar (Scooby-Doo 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer), also called Karen, who’s a part-time social worker assigned to assist the family who happen to live in the very very bad house. With the exception of the addition of an almost totally unexplored but potentially interesting character in Bill Pullman’s (Rick, Igby Goes Down) college professor, this new Grudge proceeds very nearly identically to the Japanese film, including the appropriately disconcerting nonlinear plot, exploring the whos and hows of everyone crossing the threshold of this house coming down with a fatal case of gruesome murder.

Shimizu’s instinct for imagery that lingers in your hindbrain to scare you long after you’ve left the theater remains intact — ghostly figures lurk everywhere here, it seems, from deserted stairwells to the theoretically inviolate refuge of under the covers of one’s own bed. And there is a certain hasty impression of uncomfortable isolation that surrounds the American characters in a place where the locals are suspicious of foreigners, particularly those who don’t speak the language. But the crosscultural possibilities of the differences in how Buffy– er, Karen would deal with being haunted are ignored, and the inconsistency (at least to American eyes) of the haunters is glaring in a way that it wasn’t in the Japanese version. There’s a kind of unfairness in how Karen and the other victims, the vast majority of whom are American, are targeted by the spooks: We expect grudges to be held against someone who did something to incur wrath, not by someone who just popped in for a cup of tea; the ghosts may have a legitimate cause to hold a grudge, we see eventually, but not against these folks. We expect ghosts to be territorial — leave the house and they’ll leave you alone — which they are not. And we expect that ghosts can be placated somehow, that their anger at being dead can be relieved so that they can go on to rest in peace.

Maybe there’s something particularly Japanese-y about these grudge-holding spooks that I don’t get. But that would have been okay if Karen reacted the way an American actually would, and not like her Japanese counterpart did the first time out. Karen is hardly a character, barely sketched at all — if we’re meant to care about her simply because she’s a pretty American girl is jeopardy, she has to fight back with a lot more gumption than she does.

Ju-on: The Grudge
viewed at home on a small screen
rated R for some disturbing images
official site | IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

The Grudge
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing images/terror/violence, and some sensuality
official site | IMDB

[Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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