© 2004 Ray Wong
It is interesting to note that screenwriter-director Shimizu would remake his 2003 Japanese horror hit JU-ON: THE GRUDGE only a year later. Perhaps after the incredible success of THE RING, Shimizu understands it’s a good time to enter the American market with an attractive American cast against a Japanese backdrop.
In this updated story, Karen Davis (Gella) is an exchange student from the US studying social work in Tokyo, Japan. Her boyfriend, Doug (Behr), is a fellow architecture student. Karen volunteers at the care center to earn extra credits. When a care worker fails to show up for work, Karen takes her place to take care of an elderly woman, Emma (Zabriskie) who’s suffering from dementia.
Strange things happen in the house, and Karen finds a small boy named Toshio locked inside a cupboard, taped shut. Before long, she sees something horrific that shocks and kills Emma. The story then flashes back to tell us what happens to Emma’s family, including her son Matthew (Mapother), daughter-in-law Jennifer (DuVall) and younger daughter (Strickland). Then there’s the professor Peter who killed himself three years before (during the opening credit). Or the police officers who died shortly after investigating the murder that happened in that house, one day before Peter killed himself.
As detective Nakagawa (Ishibashi) tells Karen, there’s a legend in Japan that when someone dies in extreme horror or anger, the place of his death would be shrouded by a curse – or grudge – and the curse would extend to and follow everyone who enters.
In seeking the truth, Karen puts herself and Doug in grave danger.
Gella (SCOOBY-DOO) plays Karen with great innocence and sweetness, but also an uncharacteristically somber and subdued quality. Her character lacks the spunk and resourcefulness that have become her trademark. Behr (THE SHIPPING NEWS) has a very minor role here, basically playing the same part as the ex-husband in THE RING (with the same ultimate fate). Mapother (IN THE BEDROOM), DuVall (21 GRAMS), Strickland (ANACONDAS) and Zabriskie (CHRYSTAL) all give solid performances in their minor roles as part of a doomed family who moves into the haunted house. The likeable Pullman (INDEPENDENCE DAY) is somewhat wasted in his somber role as Peter. The character is essential for the plot, but his performance is not necessarily so. Japanese actor Ozeki (JU-ON) reprises his role as the boy with remarkable creepiness. And Ishibashi (MOON CHILD) offers gravity to an otherwise simple story.
By simple I don’t mean to say the film is laughable. On the contrary, it serves up some genuinely tense and horrific moments. However, writer-director Shimizu relies too heavily on a non-linear storytelling structure to unfold his mysteries and horror, and I find that method less effective than I’d hoped. The lack of focus makes it hard for us to root for one particular person. Surely we think Karen is the protagonist here, but in many ways, she is not. The Japanese boy and his mother are, and even as we learn of their history, it still takes a leap of faith to root for someone who is “evil” so to speak. However, the director’s transitions from present time and flashbacks are to be commended. Very well done, not at all confusing to the audience.
Shimizu also relies on a lot of standard Hollywood “tricks.” The lingering, long tracking shots; the strange angle shots, the quick “ghost walking past” shots, the sudden “cat jumping out” shots. They are effective up to a point, but after a while, you get desensitized. You know what to expect and the effect is ultimately diminished.
Yet unlike a standard Hollywood scare-fest, the story retains a certain Japanese quality: there is no definitive hero. The tragic story arc and the lack of happy ending or resolve is rather Asian. That’s somewhat refreshing to the American audience, I believe, and I really can’t hold a grudge against that.
Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, William Mapother, Clea DuVall, KaDee Strickland, Grace Zabriskie, Yuya Ozeki, Ryo Ishibashi
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Writers: Takashi Shimizu, Stephen Susco
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for horror, violence, some sensuality
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total Score – 6.7 out of 10