(VERY MINOR SPOILERS)
In Japan, it is said that if someone dies in great sorrow or rage, they leave a taint on the place of their death....
There’s a taint here, all right. In America, it is said that nothing succeeds like success. This is, perhaps, the reason we have to endure all these wretched American remakes of Japanese films, from Godzilla to the Ring to Shall We Dance and the latest rehash, the Grudge. And this is, as far as I can tell, the reason all the critics are lining up to praise this gimmicky, tired little ghost story. That must be the reason. The critics have noticed that the cool thing to do is to praise Japanese horror and all of its byproducts. This is where the critics and I begin to disagree, because as far as I can tell there has never been a worthy American remake of a Japanese movie – including the Magnificent Seven, you poor misguided Western fans – and the Grudge is nowhere near breaking that trend.
The Grudge attempts to one-up the other remakes and establish some credibility with the gimmick that this time, the remake has the same director as the Japanese version. In fact, if you count this version, director Takashi Shimizu has made this movie no less than five times with minor variations, and quite honestly, it feels that way - the Grudge throws around bits and pieces of concepts like a novel that’s been rewritten half a dozen times by an author who couldn’t decide which hook he liked best. First it claims that the evil “taint” is focussed on a specific place, then it gives us revenants popping up all over Tokyo. Sometimes its ghosts are the average spooky children we all love, then they’re some kind of monster dolls, then they’re turning into ominous black shadows. There’s no internal logic to it. It’s a mess.
This is a serious problem that no number of ominous tracking shots and fright music can overcome. Contrary to what some people think, a good horror movie is not just a series of scares. Classic horror depends on a cumulative effect, usually expressed as a creeping sense of unrest that gets more and more palpable. There’s a scene that was cut from the movie Alien (and rather stupidly reinserted in last year’s “Director’s Cut”) not because it wasn’t a good scene, but because it revealed too much about the xenomorph. Ridley Scott didn’t want audiences to see the real shape of his beast until they were ready to scream for it. He knew about creeping unrest. He knew that once the monster is revealed, it’s all over. Shimizu does not seem to know this. She keeps on building up suspenseful scenes, then suddenly shifting logic.
The protagonists shift all the time, too. First we’re watching Bill Pullman looking brilliantly disturbed. Then we’re following Buffy and her nondescript boyfriend. Then we see one family killed. Then we’re off to watch another character die, just because she happened to have entered the haunted house once. (And why exactly didn’t the real estate agent die?) Then we’re back with Buffy, and she’s watching a psychic flashback with Bill Pullman again. Now, ordinarily I love to watch Bill Pullman act, but the guy has nothing at all to work with here after his first death scene, so what the hell is the point?
No point at all. It’s just a cheap form of horror exposition. Need to show the audience how the curse started? No problem, guv, just throw in a psychic instant replay of the original murder or whatever it was, and show your protagonist watching the action with her eyes wide open in shock. Follow this immediately with a wet horror flopping slowly downstairs towards the heroine. Money in the bank.
Any other cheap, familiar horror tactics we can use here? The Grudge has them all. We’ve got the victim peeking into an attic, looking all around her in a slow pan before seeing the monster right behind her. We’ve got the shot of the victim getting pulled up into the attic, legs kicking weakly. We’ve got the scene where the heroine searches the Web for news of a murder. The monster in the bathtub. The false positive negated at the last second, and even the false positive negated and then reconfirmed, believe it or not. The crescendo of fright music accompanying every death. The shot where the victim looks just over the cameraman’s shoulder - about seven times. (Speaking of which, was this entire movie shot with shouldercams, or was the projector in my cinema all fucked up?)
But the thing that annoyed me most about the Grudge was the way it blatantly and cheaply borrowed material from Ringu. Several of the most important elements of this movie are simply stolen. Look at the poster for Grudge. Now go look online for a copy of the Japanese poster art for Ringu. Looks awfully similar, doesn’t it? And I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that this image is actually one of the final shots in both movies. The money shot, as it were. Different eyeball, same picture, right down the strands of wet black hair framing the eye.
Backtrack now, to the scene where the detective watches the surveillance tapes and sees the dark figure moving slowly down the corridor. Does this seem at all familiar? You betcha. It’s the end of the videotape in Ringu - except in Ringu, it was an important scene, a setup that paid off with the movie’s most frightening thirty seconds, a scene that I think ranks right up there with Psycho’s shower scene and the scar-comparing scene in Jaws as one of the Great Moments of Horror. I might add, in case some people who saw the Ring but not Ringu are now shaking their heads at what they think to be fannish hyperbole, that this scene was very poorly handled in the American version of Ringu. And yet, that bastardized version of the videotape scene is cinematic gold compared to the way they handle it in the Grudge. Half the audience in my theatre was laughing out loud when the tape finished playing, and I wanted to whistle the theme music to either the Twilight Zone or the X-Files, but I was too busy groaning in disgust to be clever.
And so it goes. There are frightening moments in the Grudge, don’t get me wrong. Its monsters are quite passable icky-cute scary creatures, and you’ll be cringing in your seat during several scenes. But inconsistent logic, blatantly retreaded horror motifs and shots, hyper-annoying music and the utter lack of a coherent plot make this just another by-the-numbers renter. It’ll make an hour and forty minutes pass, for sure, but I really doubt you’ll remember any of it two weeks later. I would advise saving your first-run dollars and renting Ringu instead.