Director: Takashi Shimizu
Producers: Taka Ichise, Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert
Writers: Takashi Shimizu, Stephen Susco
Stars: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Takako Fuji, Bill Pullman, Yuya Ozeki
When it comes to contemporary classics, THE GRUDGE is a perennial favorite. The telltale crooooooooooak of Kayako as she slowly and jerkily makes her way down the stairs was a significant part of my childhood, delightedly uttered to scare the wimpy. Although she isn’t the first to come to mind when one considers horror’s most famous faces, distant from the notoriety of the Michaels and Jasons of all-American slashers, the monster in this American reboot of Japanese hit JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) is no less an icon.
In case you’re sufficiently older or younger than I am to the point that THE GRUDGE phenomenon missed you, here’s the skinny:
A young nurse, Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar, the period’s quintessential scream queen) travels overseas with her boyfriend (Jason Behr) to study abroad in Tokyo. Between studying and staring dreamily into said boyfriend’s eyes, she manages to land a substitute in-home nursing role for an older American woman, Emma Williams (Grace Zabriskie, who, it must be said, bears an unsettling resemblance to the emaciated Ellen Burstyn of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM a few years prior in 2000). Karen is surprised to find that Emma is almost always silent, tight-lipped and all eyes staring straight ahead. Emma’s reticence is only the first surprise in store . . . unfortunately, poor Karen is not informed in advance of the house’s two other residents, Kayako (Takako Fuji, the actress who portrayed the same character in the Japanese original) and her son, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki, also from the original portrayal) . . . unwelcome and undead.
Almost 15 years later, THE GRUDGE does hold up, although the hideous scenes that once inspired night terrors are now parodied to death and, at times, it’s hard not to see SCARY MOVIE 4’s clever adaptation superimposed over the real thing. The frightening imagery that has made THE GRUDGE legendary is still alarming in its own way, although in my view, director Takashi Shimizu toes the line between exploiting the creepiness of Kayako’s appearance for scares and showing the monster too much. Viewers get quite a few lingering shots of Kayako’s eyes peering from a dark, corpse-like face (although she is described as more akin to a vengeful ghost—Wikipedia deems her a “cursed entity” and in the film she is only referred to as generally undead—than a literal reanimated corpse) and, while they’re great for the occasional jump scare during a nighttime viewing, they offer little in the way of interesting imagery or creative gore. The main creepy draw about Kayako—which, to the director’s credit, is occasionally used to great effect—is her long, coarse black hair, which hangs around her, obscuring the decay of the dead, or is found in strands and clumps around the house, suggesting that the physical hideousness of the dead is never far (and it isn’t—bodies are frequently discovered in the house and hauled out throughout the film).
My expertise (if you can even go so far as to call it that) only extends to American horror cinema, so I’m out of my element considering what elements of Japanese horror were at work, but I did notice loads of American tropes, perhaps scattered in to assuage any confusion that could result from a cultural leap from Japanese horror to American. Babies crying and crows cawing portend disaster, dead leaves and foreboding metal gates surround the haunted house, and a (also undead, as it turns out) black cat stalks around inside. While, as I said, I would miss similar Japanese motifs, the broad storyline is about as Japanese as it gets: a supernatural folk tale, a theatrically ghastly monster, and the underlying theme of revenge.
SPOILER ALERT: THE PARAGRAPHS AHEAD REVEAL MAJOR AND MINOR PLOT POINTS.
Plot holes, however, weaken what could be a truly harrowing tale of oppression and vengeance. For one thing, it is unclear from the very start what Kayako’s grudge is. In the main plotline of her backstory, it is confirmed that she was infatuated with a professor, Peter Kirk (Bill Pullman), who we can assume did not return her affections, judging by the mild puzzlement with which he received her letters to campus, but that seems like no excuse for a grudge that transcends the limitations of death. We all experience the occasional unrequited crush and, even if she was somewhat deluded into directing her rage his way—I mean, come on, is it his fault that she decided to doodle his name in hearts all over her diary and then leave it lying around the house for her clearly unbalanced spouse to find?—he dies rather quickly, which leaves her free to rest in peace. Instead, the curse continues, purportedly binding Kayako and Toshio to the family home and dooming all who dare venture inside to a similar fate.
Furthermore, Kayako’s murder, which would make the most sense as the motivation for post-mortem revenge, was perpetrated by her husband, who promptly did her the belated favor of killing himself directly after doing away with her and Toshio. It would be one thing if the film was titled “The Curse,” placing he emphasis on her reenactment of the scene of her slaying and thus explaining why the mortals unfortunate enough to set foot in the house were to bear witness to the same atrocity, but the subject of the film is purportedly her “grudge.” Who, exactly, is Kayako’s wrath directed toward? The living? The romantically inclined? The happy? Without more specificity, the haunting takes on a poltergeist-like randomness that renders the underlying Japanese folklore irrelevant. Other distracting plot holes include someone’s gums and teeth (or another organ?) left lying in the attic unexplained (is this why Kayako is speechless aside from her usual groan?) and a white, fuzzy mouse or small creature that materializes in a character’s (Susan’s [KaDee Strickland], for those who have seen the film) hands before she dies. I watched the film twice to make sure that I wasn’t missing something obvious. I could find no apparent clues as to what any of this might mean.
All of this is to say that THE GRUDGE is what you’d likely suspect: weak in terms of plot and character, often lazy, but vivid and entertaining enough to stick and, truth be told, to make for a fun viewing experience regardless. If you’re looking for cinematic magic, look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a few good screams (and, okay, in 2017, probably some laughs), you’re in the right place. Look out, too, for a few righteously scary scenes, perhaps most of all that which briefly casts Clea DuVall front and center, reminiscent of the mastery of Drew Barrymore’s appearance in SCREAM (1996).
- Forced drowning