The Grudge first published by Movie Gazette in 2004
To call Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) a ‘reimagining’ of Hideo Nakata’s extraordinary Ring (1998) would be to imply that there was any imagination at all in the Hollywood retread. Instead, there were some second-hand frights, a few entirely gratuitous new scenes (mostly involving spooked horses), and some misplaced exposition that stripped away all the uncanny irrationalism of the original. Still, what The Ring proved was that there is a lot of money to be made in repackaging (i.e. dumbing down, essentially) the East’s new wave of horror for Western audiences – and with Hollywood rip-offs of Dark Water, The Eye, A Tale of Two Sisters and Ring 2 still in the works, the latest example is The Grudge.
Yet this is a remake with a difference, for although it now features a mostly American cast, this new version of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: the Grudge (2003) has been refashioned by the original Japanese director himself – something which, to my knowledge, has only ever happened before with George Sluizer’s remake of his own haunting Spoorloos (1988) as the more sanitised The Vanishing in 1993 (although Nakata himself is now directing the American sequel The Ring 2). What is more, The Grudge is still set in the same universe as the original (same Japanese neighbourhood, same house haunted by same curse, several Japanese actors reprising their original rôles, etc.) – a universe which, after all, has already been painstakingly created and recreated by Shimizu not just in Ju-on: The Grudge, but also in two previous straight-to-video telemovies, as well as the inevitable sequel, Ju-On: the Grudge 2 (2003).
In other words, this is material which Shimizu has been honing for years with great success in Japan, and here he applies the principle of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, revisiting most of the spooky set-pieces from the original feature film, and even throwing in a few less well-known scenes from the earlier telemovies. The special effects have been tweeked a bit, the labyrinthine plotting of the original is somewhat simplified, there is far more explanatory dialogue (unlike Japanese cinema, Hollywood apparently dislikes leaving viewers space to think for themselves), and there are one or two surprises, but at heart this is the same film with one significant twist – that a disparate community of American outsiders (as well, of course, as American viewers) has now been drawn into the implacable, self-replicating curse of the Saeki family.
So if this is your very first encounter with Shimizu’s grudge, this film will scare the pants off you, whereas if you have seen the original(s), it might all seem like a pointless rehash – but at least there is a real attempt here to present in dramatic form something that is essential to this film’s very nature: the strange, often awkward trafficking of ideas and emotions between East and West. For the American émigrés that populate The Grudge are portrayed as struggling with the basics of Japanese language, confused even by the products on a Japanese supermarket shelf, and generally lost and out of place – and it is a mutually uncomprehending relationship between an American and a Japanese which turns out to have engendered the curse at the heart of the film. Shimizu, it seems, is not only exploiting this cultural clash to amplify his characters’ alienation, hopelessness, and terror, but also to comment wryly on the bizarre love affair between America and Japan which makes a film like this possible. It is as though the original Ju-on had been merged with Lost in Translation (2003), and the result is an intelligent reflection on Hollywood’s flawed attempts to recreate East Asian horror in its own image – as well as a great scare or three for the uninitiated West.
Summary: Japanese director gives his own horror film a surprisingly intelligent Hollywood makeover – pointless self-replication perhaps, but that is the nature of curses.
© Anton Bitel