The Grudge is a 2004 supernatural horror film based on the 2002 Japanese film of the same name. The 2002 version is the second of the 11 part Ju-on series created by Takashi Shimizu. The story consists of interconnecting subplots, all out of sync and all revolving around one house and its various residents who are plagued by a curse that is born when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage or extreme sorrow.
The 2004 film was released by Sony Pictures and produced by Sam Raimi (famous for the Spiderman trilogy) with Shimizu returning to direct this Western remake.
For those of you who have seen the 2002 original, or have a penchant for the South-east Asian horror genre, you’ll know that the greatest screams come from intimation and timing. Gore, particularly when it’s the prodigious CGI-induced mess most Western studios elect to create, is transparent and more ironic than shocking.
Horror films from the other side of the world have built up a cult following among those inclined to bypass the mainstream banality of Western horror so as to truly be scared by a picture. They succeed, and remain popular because they prey on the most elemental of terrors existing in every house and every life: those creaks in the night, the goosebumps on the back of your neck, the feeling you’re not alone and being watched and, of course, a fear of the dark.
Such are the ingredients that have made pictures like Ju-on: The Grudge, Dark Water (2002) and perhaps most famously, The Ring (1998), into classics that no grown man is ashamed to admit they can’t watch on their own without a gun and a locked door.
It’s no exaggeration to say that they are terrifying; so much so that their exclusion from Western cinema releases is because they are too good at what they do – so no one wants to go and see them. This is compounded by the problem that they require subtitles. There is an annoying zeitgeist that thinks, as a friend of mine neatly surmised, “I want to see a film, not read it.” Hence the need for a Western remake removes the dog’s bite but keeps its bark (well, changes it into English).
So how did The Grudge do?
Like with so many other Japanese horror remakes, I found myself thinking that it would be more entertaining for Dan Aykroyd and the Ghostbusters to come and clean up the ghostly mess of The Grudge. I cannot recall another time I’ve watched a film on Netflix and was regularly checking the time bar to count down the minutes. 8 minutes and 13 seconds was worse than a peasant’s death.
Not even the presence of Sarah Michelle Gellar or Bill Pullman could make this adaptation worthy of its source material. It had a handful of copycat scares, but they were predictable and inevitable. By the end, they just added to a totally toothless picture.
If memory serves, Buffy finished in 2003 and this was Gellar’s first Jennifer Aniston-esque pursuit of glories anew beyond a signature television role (she later did Scooby-Doo). Bill Pullman has never really done anything substantive since Independence Day and, despite some residual name pull, seems to be a rather interchangeable component in this film
The original is a masterpiece of fright belonging to a new age of intimated, heart-stopping horror rather than the gore of the Saw or Hostel series. With the remake, despite the best benefit of having the original director, the buck doesn’t pass well. The Grudge concentrates on Western characters and, even though it is set in Japan, it still feels like a poor knock-off.
The best bit in Ju-on: The Grudge is one of the most simplistic but sophisticated plays on human fears that I’ve ever seen: one of the main characters looks underneath her bed covers, the most traditional, puerile place of security, and the ghost’s head rises and screams before pulling her under. Replicated in The Grudge, it translates poorly because it offers nothing new and is less shocking a second time around.
There is an inverse benefit to Edward Said’s criticism that the West misrepresents and doesn’t understand the East. Many of us have not travelled over there, but we’re still easily charmed in our ignorance by the social customs, history and mythology of places similar but so different to ours. For Western audiences watching Japanese horror films, this can create a cinematic treat which counters the expectation and cliché of Western films where certain events always seem to happen (the phone lines are dead, the police won’t respond, don’t go upstairs). In foreign cinema, there is no life raft of reassurance to hang onto and so the uncertainty is made real.
While The Grudge is appalling – and a lazy stop for those who don’t like subtitles – I’m amazed that Shimizu, for all his genius, lent his expertise and name to what is so clearly a bad facsimile. But perhaps this is the point: a Japanese director has remade a Japanese film for a Western audience, losing the natural charm of the original because it was made for a Japanese audience with Westerners looking through at it through the looking glass. The remake merely adds another knock-off to the lexicon of bad Western horror. I won’t be watching the sequels.