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Pulp Culture
'The Grudge' walks a fine
line between scary, silly

November 11, 2004
By Franklin Harris

In every horror movie, there is a fine line between scary and silly. Some horror movies cross the line on purpose, with varying results. Others cross it by accident and never for the better.

"The Grudge" is based on the Japanese horror film "Ju-on," written and directed by Takashi Shimizu. Unafraid to plow the same field again, Shimizu also directs the American version, this time with a new screenplay by Stephen Susco, who adds a Western perspective to the proceedings. Things that are vague in "Ju-on" are spelled out in "The Grudge." This is common practice for filmmakers adapting supposedly inscrutable Japanese films. The same thing happened when DreamWorks remade "The Ring."

Sarah Michelle Gellar sheds light on ''The Grudge.''
Copyright © Columbia Pictures
Sarah Michelle Gellar sheds light on ''The Grudge.''
This isn't, by the way, a criticism of the way Japanese films are adapted for American audiences. It is simply an observation. Americans look upon horror films as being much like detective stories. Not every question gets answered, but someone at least has to ask.

At times, "The Grudge" is almost a shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor. Both films use the same location as a haunted house, and both feature the same actors, Yuya Ozeki and Takako Fuji, as ghosts. Also, both are set in Japan, which is no surprise in the case of the original film but an interesting choice in the case of the remake, given that the lead characters are all Americans.

Sarah Michelle Gellar ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") stars as Kare, an American student living in Tokyo with her boyfriend (Jason Behr of "Roswell"). As part of her studies, Kare works at a care center, which checks up on shut-ins. When another student, Yoko (Yoko Maki), mysteriously disappears, Kare is assigned to look in on one of Yoko's clients, Emma (Grace Zabriskie). Emma, who appears to be in the early stages of senility or Alzheimer's, lives with her son and daughter-in-law (William Mapother and Clea DuVall) and has a daughter, Susan (KaDee Strickland), who lives in an apartment across town.

When Kare arrives at Emma's home, she finds the place in a shambles. Emma, meanwhile, is incoherent and unresponsive. Her son and his wife are nowhere to be found. And an unheard message from Susan is still on the answering machine. But it isn't long before Kare discovers the house's other residents, who prove to be even less friendly.

The film then shifts in time to when Emma and her family first moved into the house, and we learn that the ghosts aren't confined to its thin walls. Apparently, they can attach themselves to anyone with whom they come into contact.

Back in the present, a shaken Kare, fearing the house's curse will follow her wherever she goes, searches newspaper reports and discovers that the house used to be home to a man who murdered his wife and son. And in an unexplained leap of logic, she connects the murders to the suicide of an American college professor (Bill Pullman). As it happens, the murders and the suicide are connected, but how Kare should think to connect them remains a glaring plot hole.

Given the Japanese setting, the almost all-American cast is an oddity. It seems quite a coincidence that almost everyone who comes into contact with the haunted house and its ghostly residents is an American expatriate, including Kare's boss at the care agency (Ted Raimi, brother of the film's co-producer Sam Raimi). The question of why Americans seem drawn to the house could have added a deeper level of complexity to the film. Unfortunately, this question is left unexplored.

The ghosts themselves, meanwhile, will probably strike most moviegoers as more funny than frightening. Shimizu knows how to build tension when the ghosts are off screen, but when they are onscreen, you are as likely to giggle as jump. When exposed to the light, the ghosts don't quite work.

The faint of heart may find "The Grudge" to be a satisfying experience, but more jaded horror fans are likely to walk away harboring a grudge of their own.

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