- The Washington Times - Friday, October 22, 2004

If “The Grudge” sounds vaguely familiar, it’s only because the prototype, a low-budget Japanese horror thriller known as “Ju-On: The Grudge” is playing at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

The remake, shot in Japan with an English-language screenplay and American actors in several roles, was commissioned from the original filmmaker, Takashi Shimizu, by a stateside admirer, Sam Raimi.

Preoccupied in recent years with the “Spider-Man” franchise, Mr. Raimi began his professional career by whipping up an especially potent supernatural threat in a horror spectacle, “The Evil Dead.” In contrast to his American patron, Mr. Shimizu is a static and plodding manipulator of fearful impulses rather than a restless kinetic dynamo. It’s probably not worth holding a grudge against turgid duplication, but the affinities are largely a figment of Mr. Raimi’s imagination.

For starters, “The Grudge” is a misnomer. A written prologue attests to the blunder: “When someone dies in a powerful rage, a curse is born.” If so, “The Curse” should replace “The Grudge,” which doesn’t quite square with the haunted nature of a house that entraps and zombifies a preponderance of unlucky occupants.

Strapped for variations on stalking or sudden death within this claustrophobic setting, Mr. Shimizu is shameless enough to transplant his homicidal ghosts to additional locales. Curses may rate this mobility, but a mere grudge?

Sarah Michelle Geller, menaced far more wittily in Wes Craven’s “Scream,” fronts as a “Lost in Translation” muse for Mr. Shimizu. Her character, Karen, takes a part-time nursing job for a social services organization while visiting a boyfriend, Doug (Jason Behr), an architecture student in Tokyo. The regular caretaker, Yoko, seems to be missing, as we know from the outset. Mr. Shimizu, who values set pieces rather than exposition, depicts Yoko’s misfortune as he dawdles over the opening credits. In fact, he claims two victims before inscribing his own name.

The unwitting Karen discovers a solitary, demented patient, Emma (Grace Zabriskie), and floors strewn with trash. She also hears harassing noises on the soundtrack that lead her upstairs. Any building that makes noises, has a landing or stairwell or closet or attic or mirror or bathtub or wall space hospitable to shadow patterns is bound to be deadly in Mr. Shimizu’s custody. The whole point of his technique is to orchestrate apprehension around particular enclosures, which offer spooks convenient hiding places and launchpads for ambush. Anything else that might contribute to a suspenseful narrative remains outside his sphere of interest or competence.

Karen becomes a part-time heroine. She appears to be engulfed by something demonic, but Mr. Shimizu merely shelves her for later abuse. The plot takes a lurch into flashback, and we observe a different set of victims: William Mapother as the son of poor Grace; Clea DuVall as his short-lived spouse; KaDee Strickland as Grace’s daughter, pursued to her office and apartment in order to break the death-house monotony.

When dooms are sealed to his satisfaction, Mr. Shimizu finds it convenient to retrieve Miss Gellar and place her in copycat jeopardy; then she’s on hiatus again in order to account for competing sets of Japanese victims and the fleeting presence of Bill Pullman in the prologue. We’ve seen aspects of this on-again, off-again, now-she’s-a-goner and now-she’s-not approach borrowed by Quentin Tarantino in his “Kill Bill” bloodcurdlers. It’s not a fake-out of distinction, and Mr. Shimizu is difficult to mistake for an artful persuader.

Contemplating one “Grudge” on top of the other, I grow nostalgic about the way years used to elapse before it was possible to catch up with semi-legendary movies by esteemed Japanese directors, whose work was imported sporadically if at all. Now it’s possible to talk a horror tyro into remaking his first feature as a monotonous encore. The cinema is one perverse mistress.


TITLE: “The Grudge”

RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere and recurrent scenes of death or supernatural assault, with gruesome illustrative details; a demon child is exploited as a menace)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Takashi Shimizu. Screenplay by Stephen Susco, based on Mr. Shimizu’s Japanese film “Ju-On.” Cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto. Production design by Iwao Saito. Costume design by Shawn Holly Cookson. Special effects makeup by Yuichi Matsui. Music by Christopher Young.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes


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