When a person dies in the grip of a terrible rage, their spirit haunts the space where they lived. When Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an American student living in Japan, takes a temp job assisting a sickly old woman in an eerily empty house, she finds herself terrorized by images of a silent little boy and a ghostly woman. When the same events start to happen to everybody connected to the house, Karen investigates the reasons why such a malevolent force has seized the area, leading her to dark secrets and violent repercussions.
See if this sounds familiar: a popular Japanese horror film rooted in nuance and mood is thrust into the American remake spotlight, now drained of its power and mystery. Remind you 2002's "The Ring?" Hollywood hopes so, as now they've brought out "The Grudge" (IMDb listing), which is based on the "Ju-On" Japanese films.
In an interesting twist for this remake, producer Sam Raimi has convinced original writer/director Takashi Shimizu to return to the franchise, which essentially brings the filmmaker right back to where he started. Shimizu, a veteran of four "Ju-On" productions, seems like the perfect choice to helm the remake. Who better understands the delicate, vengeful mood of the series better than its creator? Well, even Shimizu can't stop Hollywood from yet another miscalculated attempt to strip down and simplify overseas horror for the suburban mallrats.
It's not like "Ju-On" was brain surgery to begin with. A simplistic haunted house story that preferred jigsaw puzzle storytelling to a strong chronological narrative, "Ju-On" worked because it didn't mind forgetting the razor-thin plot for extended periods of time to rustle up some scares. And said scares weren't the overblown, CG kind either. The chills in "Ju-On" came mostly from practical effects and a rich sound design (featuring a disturbing ghostly groan that I still can't shake), creating a thick atmosphere of fear. "The Grudge" tries to replicate that mood in the first two acts, directly recreating sequences from "Ju-On" right down to the camera angles and the lighting. These scenes are repetitive and familiar, but they are truly terrific scares.
However, the Americanization of the film, which the production tries to stave off by setting the story in Japan (while oddly still featuring American talent), permeates the proceedings right away. "Ju-On" featured a fractured narrative where different characters encountered the curse. While this storytelling is still featured in "The Grudge," the focus has been slimmed down to Karen and her Nancy Drew instincts to research the story behind the house, which leads her to a new character, Peter (played by Bill Pullman), who holds the key behind the birth of the curse. It's all well and good that Shimizu (working from a script by Stephen Susco) is attempting to knit something new into the story, but the expository results have the opposite effect of the original's horror and ambiguity. To make matters worse, "The Grudge" tries to fashion a minor butt-kicking moment for Gellar in the finale that doesn't fit the picture at all. It comes across as something the studio wanted instead of the filmmaker.
"The Grudge" remake isn't a complete wash. There is a thrill in seeing Takako Fuji and young Yuya Ozeki reprise their roles as the demonic spirits. And outside of an overcooked special effect or two, Shimizu takes great care in trying to duplicate the same sublimely simple-but-vicious wrath the spirits unleash on their victims (though sloppy editing keeps this a PG-13 experience). On its own, "The Grudge" will scare the easily susceptible, no doubt, but in trying to expand the story and cater to American acting egos, the filmmakers have left the film an even more puzzling enterprise. Much like the lukewarm "Ring" remake, "The Grudge" doesn't learn from the original's mistakes, but makes all new ones.
Filmfodder Grade: C-