Familiar Haunts

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FILM FEBRUARY 8, 2005

Familiar Haunts

First time tragedy, second time farce. Fifth time? Judging from Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge, by then you know what you're doing. The Japanese director has essentially been recycling the same eerie ghost story since 2000, first in two installments made for Japan's video market (entitled Ju-On and Ju-On 2), then in two theatrical-release remakes (Ju-On: The Grudge and Ju-On: The Grudge 2), and now in a Hollywood-produced English-language version, The Grudge, just released on video. And Shimizu hasn't yet exhausted his (or his audience's) enthusiasm for the material: Two further sequels--one Japanese, one American--are already in the pipeline. It's somehow heartening to know that this is one instance in which America does not lead the cinematic world in the methodical repackaging of past successes.

Let me first note that, while I do not speak Japanese, I'm convinced that "grudge" is not the best English word for the films' title. (The video releases are sometimes translated as "the curse," which seems a good deal closer.) Shimizu's oft-told tale concerns a man who, suspecting his wife of an affair, brutally kills her, their small child, and himself. Forever after, their home is spiritually poisoned by the crimes, systematically destroying everyone who so much as sets foot across the threshold. I think you'll agree this stretches the usual definition of holding a grudge.

From this premise, the films unfold in episodic fashion, flashing backward and forward in time as various loosely interconnected characters enter the house and encounter malevolent spirits bearing the likenesses of the murdered wife and child. These ghosts dispatch the intruders in a variety of ways, from simply frightening them to death to, in one case, performing a gruesome mandibular extraction. The result is less a single narrative than a series of nightmarish set-pieces--a distillation of the horror film, beyond plot or characterization. After each haunting, the film essentially rewinds (or fast-forwards) and begins again, carrying someone new to his or her inevitable doom. (I have only seen the English-language version and the original Japanese theatrical release, but by all accounts, Shimizu hews closely to the same blueprint in the other iterations.)

At its best, this structure creates a kind of hallucinatory rhythm, a metronymic throb of dread. As they deal with their terror and despair, the film's victims are all alone, at least in any meaningful sense. In this creepy, isolated atmosphere, the smallest disturbances--the movement of a shadow or unexpected appearance of a black cat--quickly become terrifying. (Many of the film's "scares" are startlements of this nature; with the exception of the aforementioned act of unlicensed dentistry, there is charitably little bloodshed.) The frequent shifts of perspective from one character to another may prevent us from taking their individual fates too much to heart, but they also serve to keep us off balance, without a strong protagonist through whom to make sense of the proceedings. (On some level, the films are trying to repeat ad infinitum the disorienting effect that Brian De Palma achieved with Angie Dickinson's death in Dressed To Kill.)

This sense of estrangement is further heightened in the English-language incarnation of the film because it uses mostly American actors but is set, like its predecessors, in Tokyo. (Produced by Sony Pictures, The Grudge may be the first movie ever to feature an American cast performing for a Japanese director employed by an American studio owned by a Japanese corporation.) Even before they encounter the spectral little boy who cries like a cat or hear the glottal clicking of his demonic mother, the expatriates of The Grudge are already strangers in a strange land. One of the best scenes in the film shows us an apprehension no less mundane than that of an American shopping in a Japanese grocery store. Even the architecture of the house itself--a sophisticated Asian box featuring sliding screens and a rectangular staircase--feels slightly alien and disconcerting.

The Grudge seems to improve on Shimizu's earlier versions of the story in other ways as well. The technical aspects of the film--sound, lighting, effects--are vastly upgraded from the relatively low-budget Japanese theatrical release. (As a result, there are no longer scenes in which the pale, diabolical ghost-child simply looks like a little boy who got into the all-purpose flour.) The script, by Stephen Susco, is also better, pared of some of its inconsistencies and extraneous characters, and now featuring a quasi-central character played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. A new storyline featuring Bill Pullman has also been added, helping to close the circle of the plot and supplying a minor mystery to untangle. The film still contains imagistic moments that bear little obvious relation to anything else--a scene in which Gellar pioneers a novel method of rinsing shampoo comes to mind--and it still unravels a bit at the end. But with the help of Susco (and, one imagines, that of co-producer and horror vet Sam Raimi), Shimizu has wisely tempered his idiosyncratic vision for an American audience.

That tempering has met with only mixed success, however. The Grudge did well enough at the box office, clearing over $100 million, but it fared poorly with critics, who widely protested its lack of plot structure, internal logic, and character development. (Ironically, despite obvious improvement in all these areas, it generally received worse reviews than the Japanese theatrical version did during its limited U.S. run, proving the proposition that critics treat a film more generously when it's in another language.)

It's hard not to read The Grudge's lukewarm U.S. reception as, in part, a clash of cultural expectations. In barely developing his characters beyond the point of abstraction, Shimizu frustrates the American assumption of individual exceptionalism. He also flouts our cherished beliefs that bad things must happen for a reason and that evil will ultimately be overcome. In American horror films, victimization is almost never random: People die because they made the mistake of defiling a mummy's tomb or having sex at camp or not moving to a new house when the walls of the old one started dripping blood. And even when faced with apparently unstoppable killing machines of one kind or another, the smart and virtuous generally find ways to overcome them. Shimizu's world, by contrast, is capricious and fatalistic. Gellar's character, for example, is a home-care volunteer who has the simple misfortune of being in the office on the day someone is needed to fill in for another employee. From there, her fate is all but sealed.

Finally, there is the lack of apparent logic to Shimizu's curse. Some people die quickly, others slowly; some on their first encounter with the evil spirits, some after many; some bodies are found undisturbed, others brutalized, and still others are never found at all. Although this narrative untidiness is clearly not accidental, it bothered many American reviewers. I can only guess that in Japan, where order is valued still more highly, it cut deeper than annoyance, contributing--like the litter-strewn floors that precede many of the ghostly visitations--to the overall sense of chaos.

None of which is to claim that The Grudge's critical reception was in any way invalid: It is short on plot and character and to some degree repetitive. But it is also a stylish, moody film that methodically constructs a pervasive atmosphere of dread. As such, it's a welcome change from the teen gore-fests and CGI roller coasters and post-Seven exercises in hip sadism (yes, Saw, I'm referring to you) that generally dominate the horror market. Which brings me to another way in which The Grudge may not suit the current American taste: It takes its scares seriously, playing them without humor or irony. When the white-faced demons emerge to suck out yet another life, The Grudge doesn't wink, it shivers. And that, in itself, is refreshing.

 

The Home Movies List:
Lost in Translation

The Magnificent Seven (1960). If you're going to remake one of the greatest films of all time, it's probably wise to take refuge in genre. (I'm still waiting for a version of Citizen Kane set in high school.) John Sturges's western doesn't approach Kurosawa's masterpiece, and doesn't try to. The all-star cast is a mixed bag: Yul Brynner is oddly fey and campy in his spurs, while Charles Bronson chops wood as if he were born on the frontier.

Godzilla (1998). This Roland Emmerich disaster makes the mistake of going the other way, taking camp and treating it far too seriously. The charmless iguana of the title and Maria Pitillo's career-suicide performance were bad enough. But Matthew Broderick in an action movie? The least they could have done is given him a couple of songs.

The Ring (2002). Clearly the model for adapting The Grudge, and not a bad effort. But director Gore Verbinski inadvertently plays up the story's implausibility by trying too hard to explain too much. Next month, the franchise will revert to its original creator, with the theatrical release of Ring Two, directed by Hideo Nakata.

Shall We Dance? (2004). The movie has its enjoyable moments, but there's no overcoming its essential preposterousness. Under the best of circumstances, it would be hard to depict an American version of the central character, a businessman trapped in a rote life of work and commuting. But Richard Gere? Please. Even he seems amused at the idea that his life could be boring. How much more interesting it might have been if supporting player Stanley Tucci had been cast in the lead...

Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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posted in: film, business, entertainment, human interest, labor, law, technology, tokyo, america, person career, angie dickinson, brian de palma, sarah michelle gellar, stephen susco, takashi shimizu, director, forward

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