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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005

Hollywood or not, the spirits remain

The Grudge

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: English, Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Japanese horror was already big abroad when Takashi Shimizu's "Juon (The Grudge)" arrived in the theaters here early in 2003. But having already seen the "Ring" films and their various imitators, all trying to out-gimmick the other, Japanese audiences were becoming jaded.

News photo
Bill Pullman and Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge

"Juon," a feature follow-up to two OV ("original video") predecessors, unjaded them by going back to the basics: a lonely old house, a vulnerable young woman and a family of vengeful, implacable ghosts who looked like mimes from hell. What else do you need for a horror movie?

Shimizu, who had also helmed the two OV films, mixed up "Juon's" chronological order and only sketched in his central characters -- practices frowned upon by Hollywood orthodoxy -- but he kept the scares coming at a rapid, disorienting, nightmare-inducing clip. By the end I had little idea how all the plot ends tied together (those who closely parsed the story insisted that most did) -- but I knew I seen the ultimate Japanese haunted house movie -- and that I did not want to sit opposite that kid with the big staring eyes on the train.

Hollywood horrormeister Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead") shared this feeling, though he thought "Juon" was one of the scariest movies he had ever seen, period. (He and I were not alone: The film made tons of money in Japan relative to its minuscule production costs.) He hired Shimizu to direct an English-language remake for his Ghost House Pictures production company and, with the aid of "Juon" producer Takashige Ichise, shot it on location in Tokyo -- using the same house, much the same scares and several of the original Japanese actors (including the ones who play the ghosts).

Titled "The Grudge" and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, the film grossed $110 million in the United States -- and Shimizu, two years ago a total unknown, is now on the Hollywood A-list, at least for "The Grudge 2."

"The Grudge" is thus getting a hometown-boy-makes-good boost on its Japanese release, and theaters showing it are packed.

I don't think the crowds will thin away soon. Raimi, unlike the many Hollywood remakers who trash their source material to make it multiplex-friendly, stays commendably faithful to Shimizu's original dark vision and minimalistic methods. True, the effects are up to Hollywood technical standards, but given the cheesiness of the Japanese originals, that is mostly to the good.

The major new additions are the American characters, who look like real foreigners too long off the plane to be tourists, too new to the culture to be comfortable. Even Gellar is photographed less like the glowing teen queen of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," more like a woman on the verge of madness -- and sunken-eyed, sallow-cheeked middle age. If anything, these characters make gaijin life in Tokyo look too glum and dreary, as though they've never heard of Roppongi. But their lost-in-translation anomie gives the story an added buzz of anxiety and fear it wouldn't have had if set, say, in Seattle.

Gellar plays Karen, an American studying social work at a Japanese university who is asked to sub for a "home helper" (Yoko Maki) who has inexplicably gone missing. (We have seen, in the previous scene, why the helper is no longer among the living, but her catatonic charge is in no position to call 110.)

When Karen arrives at the house -- the same faded, crumbling wood-and-mortar structure as in "Juon" -- she finds a chaotic mess and an elderly foreign woman (Grace Zabriskie) in her futon, looking distraught. Karen hears strange noises upstairs and goes to investigate. There she finds one of the house's previous residents and is scared witless.

A timely intervention delivers her from the previous helper's fate, but she cannot rid herself of what she saw. The ghosts upstairs, including a solemn little boy with a dead white face and a woman with an uncanny grin, do not only chill living spines. They are like a virus, out to kill every human they come in contact with and moving beyond their stuccoed host to do it. (They also make inhuman sounds, including a guttural noise that sounds like a cross between a child's click toy and a cat in heat.)

The story, which moves back and forth in time, describes the encounters they have with the people who come to the house, including a mild-mannered self-described "numbers cruncher" (Bill Pullman) and a polite, if persistent, English-speaking detective (Ryo Ishibashi). These encounters come faster and more furiously than in the original, but "The Grudge" is targeted at the American teen market and consequently assumes the attention span and boredom threshold of the average fly. This is one Japanese-directed movie even its detractors cannot call "slow."

Having seen "Juon" and "Juon 2," I also cannot say that many of its shocks surprised me. And not only because of over-familiarity: In several "jump scenes" (so called for their intent to make the audience jump in their seats) the timing was flat or the scare itself was too obvious, like a fake skeleton hanging limply in the corner of a carnival spook house for any passing kid to touch and rattle.

But "The Grudge" goes beyond the mechanics of its set-ups and scares to achieve a creepy sort of sadness. Even after an extended flashback that shows their horrific ends, the ghosts remain little more than fright masks, without personality. The gaijin victims, however, are pathetic sorts, who do not much like it here -- or well understand why the ghosts hate them so.

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