Bumpin' Gullivers & More J-Horror: Cinefantastique Post-Mortem 2:1.1

Gabby, stunned at the life-like might of a rotoscoped hand in the Fleischer Bros.' GULLIVER'S TRAVELS
Gabby, stunned at the life-like might of a rotoscoped hand in the Fleischer Bros.' GULLIVER'S TRAVELS

Having roundly belittled the recent, Jack Black-infused version of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons turn their sights to other, earlier versions of the fantasy classic. Of a slate that includes an animated version from the Fleischers, a kid-oriented take from Ray Harryhausen, and the Halmis’ encyclopedic TV adaptation, which towers Brodignagianly over the others, and which are mere Yahoos? And while we’re at it, why are the prince and princess of the Fleischer version so camera shy?
Then Steve gives us his thoughts on David Kalat’s ambitious survey, J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge, and Beyond; and Dan & Larry wax nostalgic for Looney Tunes presented the way god intended them: at a full, six minute running length. Plus more tangents and digressions than you can shake a Lilliputian at.

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The Grudge 3 – DVD Review

Remember how scared you were when you first saw THE GRUDGE? Want to feel that way again? Well, it’s a good thing home video allows you to pop the 2004 film in the DVD player, because watching THE GRUDGE 3 is not going to invoke any of the atmospheric, irrational thrills you recollect from the older movie. In fact, THE GRUDGE 3 – a low-budget, direct-to-video sequel shot in Bulgaria – is such a dismally spiritless affair that it almost seems deliberately designed to make the disappointing THE GRUDGE 2 look good by comparison.
In case you don’t remember the ending of the aforementioned GRUDGE 2 (and really, why would you want to?), it relocated the action to Chicago with the obvious intention of setting up future sequels that could abandon the Japanese origins of the story. Living up (or down) to that unpromising premise, GRUDGE 3 is set entirely in Chicago except for one brief scene in Japan that introduces us to Naoko (Emi Ikehata), who in the grand tradition of pointless revelations turns out to be the unlikely sister of Kayako, the angry spirit responsible for the lethal “grudge.”
The great thing about the JU-ON films (the Japanese originals on which THE GRUDGE was based, particularly 2003’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE) was the way that writer-director Takashi Shimizu abandoned traditional plot structure, offering a series of vignettes that tied together like a twisted tapestry, avoiding the exposition, characterization, and plot mechanics over which so many horror films stumble. THE GRUDGE 3 abandons this lesson in favor of telling a story about an apartment building where the manager is slowly turning homicidal thanks to a ghostly influence; in effect, it has as much in common with THE AMITYVILLE HORROR as THE GRUDGE.
Fortunately for our American victims, after sitting out the events of the previous two films (six, if you count the four Japanese JU-ON titles), Naoko has finally decided it’s time to take action and put her sister’s restless spirit down for good. Why the change of heart? Apparently, as long as Kayako was limited to Japan, it was okay, but it’s a shame on the family for the ghost to be messing with Americans overseas.
What is Naoko going to do? Perform an exorcism, that’s what. This undermines the overwhelming terror of the orignal JU-ON/THE GRUDGE concept – which was that the curse was unstoppable; one you were exposed to it, your fate was sealed. It also moves the already conventional story in an even more conventional direction, with a stranger riding into town to solve the problem.
This disappointing scenario was written, surprisingly enough, by Brad Keene, who scripted two of the best entries in the annual After Dark Hororfest. You really would be better off watching either FROM WITHIN (2008) or THE GRAVEDANCERS (2006). Presumably, executive interference undid him here.
Keene’s writing certainly wasn’t helped by Toby Wilkins’ direction. Having helmed a few “Tales of the Grudge” webisodes to promote THE GRUDGE 2, Wilkins does a poor job of stepping into the director’s shoes. The omnipresent dread that filled Takashi Shimizu’s JU-ON and GRUDGE films is missing from THE GRUDGE 3, replaced with the cliches of bad American horror movies. Even worse, the uncanny, irrational scares have been abandoned in favor of cruder shocks, including a few moments of gratuitous gore. Completely ineffective, these bloody moments merely underline how desperate the director is to deliver anything approaching a scare.
The cast of is mostly forgettable. Genre names Shawnee Smith (SAW) and Marina Sirits (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) show up just long enough to get killed off. Aiko Horiuchi, replacing Takako Fuji as Kayako, does a passable imitation, but newcomer Shimba Tsuchiya is too old to play ghost-boy Toshio, who has been recast  twice previously to prevent the character from aging on screen. It’s a sign of how careless the custodians of the franchise have become that such an obvious mistake was allowed to slip through.
Perhaps the most perplexing cinematic mystery of the new millenium is why and how Ghosthouse Productions (Sam Raimi’s horror-oriented production company) managed to run their GRUDGE franchise into the depths of the direct-to-video abyss so quickly, going from a blockbuster hit (THE GRUDGE) to a disappointing theatrical sequel (THE GRUDGE 2) to a total DTV disaster (THE GRUDGE 3) in just three easy steps. Really, they couldn’t have failed any more badly, or any faster, if they had tried. (Maybe someone from the Bush administration is working for them?)
Of course, even popular trends can fade fast, and America’s J-Horror remakes and sequels have been waning for awhile now, so it’s tempting to theorize that Ghost House is merely the victim of fading audience interest in a genre that has lost the ectoplasmic power to spook. Has J-Horror given up the ghost? Perhaps.
Or perhaps not. Two new JU-ON sequels made their debut in Japan last month, JU-ON: SHIROI ROJO (“The Grudge: The Old Lady in White”) and JU-ON: KUROI SHOJO (“The Grudge: The Girl in Black”). JU-ON writer-director Takashi Shimizu merely supervised these follow-ups, but the deliciously creepy trailer suggest that the angry spirits of Japanese horror films still have a few scares left in them.
THE GRUDGE 3(2009, direct to video). Directed by Toby Wilkins. Written by Brad Keene, based on characters created by Takashi Shimizu. Cast: Matthew Knight, Shawnee Smith, Mike Straub, Aiko Horiuchi, Shimba Tsuchiya, Emi Ikehata, Takatsuna Mukai, Johanna Braddy, Marina Sirtis.
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Ju-On: Shiroi Rojo & Kuroi Shojo – Watch the Trailer

American audiences are sick and tired of American J-Horror remakes and sequels, and who can blame them after ONE MISSED CALL, SHUTTER, and especially the dismal directo-to-video disturbance known as THE GRUDGE 3? Yet Japan continues to produce modern kaidan eiga (“ghost story movies”), and the most recent examples look pretty good, judging by the trialer.
JU-ON: SHIROI ROJO (“The Grudge: Old Lady in White”) and JU-ON: KUROI SHOJO (“The Grudge: Girl in Black”) are indirect sequels to four JU-ON films written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, which were remade as THE GRUDGE (2004) with Sara Michelle Gellar. Shimizu is on board as “consulting producer” for both of the new Japanese sequels, and he takes a credit for “original story,” but he turned the actual writing and directing chores over to newcomers, who hopefully will bring some new blood to the franchise while staying true to what made Shimizu’s films so special.
SHIROI ROJO, scripted and directed by Ryuta Miyaka, deals with a high school girl disturbed by visions of her best friend come back from the grave after a murder suicide. KUROI SHOJO, scripted and directed by Mari Asato, is about a girl with a mysterious growth in her body that turns out to be the a “grudge” (or curse) from an unborn baby.
No word on when either or both of these will make it to U.S. shores.

Scaredy Cats: The Grudge (2004)

Toshio's ghost cat from THE GRUDGE

Cats are the perfect international horror movie stars. Like the genre itself, they make their impact with visuals, not dialogue, which is why horror travels well from country to country. A unique example of this is THE GRUDGE, an American remake of the 2003 Japanese production JU-ON: THE GRUDGE. Remaking a Japanese horror film had previously been successfully accomplished with 2002’s THE RING, but in this case the American version retained the original director, some of the actors, the Japanese setting – and of course the memorable cat-and-ghost-boy combo that sent shivers down so many spines. Read More

Ju-on, The Grudge (2003) – Film & DVD Review

Recall your worst nightmares as a child: your fear of the dark, of being alone in bed at night, of shadows without substance lurking in corners, beneath the bed, outside your door, or in your closet. Remember the creaking floorboards, the rustle of wind or the moan of some animal – a cat, perhaps? – which led you to believe that you were no longer alone, that something tangible was there with you, about to manifest itself before your frightened senses. Now imagine this fear captured on celluloid and presented to you with all the evocative power of your childhood nightmares – only now the nightmare seems utterly convincing, because you know you are awake, and utterly inescapable, because it can follow you anywhere: in attics, down stairs, along corridors, through doors, even into that one place you felt absolutely safe as a child – beneath the bed covers. This is the essence of horror captured in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, Read More

A Day to Celebrate Malicious Mothers of the Movies

We all know a boy’s best friend is his mother, but mom and apple pie do not always equate with wholesome goodness when it comes to cinefantastique. In movies, the old cliche about the female of the species being as deadly as the male usually refers to a luscious femme fatale, but there are also many memorable examples of malicious, malevolent, and monstrous mothers. Of course, the very concept of malignant motherhood is disturbing; it violates our deepest, most cherished expectations of the nurturing caregivers who raise helpless babes to become frolicking children and eventually well-adjusted adults. This inversion of expectations is what gives these monstrous mothers the nasty little kick that makes their wickedness all the more horrible; after all, fairy tales have taught us to expect wickedness from step-mothers, but real mother? No, never…


Mrs. Rand in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943).

I Walked with a Zombie edith_barret

This apparently benevolent matriarch has a little secret: in order to dispense medicine to the superstitious locals, she poses as a voodoo priestess. Near the end, it turns out she has an even bigger secret: enraged by a love triangle between her two sons and a woman, she joined one of the voodoo ceremonies and put a curse upon the woman, turning her into a zombie. The result is tragedy and sorrow for all concerned, including the eventual death of one of her sons. Way to go, Mom!


Mrs. Bates in PSYCHO (1960).

The mother of all monstrous mothers is Norman Bates’s alter ego in Hitchcock’s masterpiece of psychological horror. One might argue that the real Norma gets a bum rap (after all, we never see her, only her psycho son’s re-enactment of her), but the very fact that her son is so screwed up leads us to believe she must have been just as terrible as we can possibly imagine. In any case, whatever the reality of her as a character, the film uses her as a symbol of debased motherhood, destroying the old-fashioned schism of classic horror films, in which horror was something outside the home that attacked the goodness and purity inside. Here, home is the house of horror, thanks to the domineering matriarch.


Baroness Meinster in THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).
Brides of Dracula
The Baroness claims the lives of no victims directly, but she has much to answer for. Her indulgent ways led her son, Baron Meinster, into a life of wickedness that eventually turned him into a vampire. Now she keeps him locked up on a chain, but she procures occasional female victims, to appease his bloodlust. The implication, as in PSYCHO, is that the horror proceeds from the mother-son relationship, in this case with the mother vicariously enjoying the dissolute ways of her son.


Gorgo’s Mom in GORGO (1961).

Mother Love expands to monstrous – and destructive – proportions in this English movie about a giant prehistoric beast run amok. Gorgo’s Mom is not really malicious; she’s just looking for her off-spring, but her effect on London is pretty dire, including the destruction of London Bridge.


The Horta in “Devil in the Dark” (Star Trek)
Star Trek Devil in the Dark Horta with eggs
Like Gorgo, the Horta is not truly malicious – unless provoked. Initially presented as a mindless monster, this silicon-based life form on the planet Janus VI racks up an impressive body count (over 50 victims). Like The Blob, she  dissolves her victims (with corrosive acid), and no obstacles stands in her way – she is capable of appearing anywhere. However, a mind meld with Mr. Spock reveals a startling truth: the Horta is an inoffensive creature, the only member of her species left alive, destined to mother the next generation of her race, when they hatch from the silicon eggs that human miners have thoughtlessly been destroying in their quest to find new deposits of valuable minerals. The poor Horta has merely been fighting back to protect her children and ensure the future survival of her kind. In the episode’s remarkable climax, the vengeful human miners try to attack the alien Horta, but Captain Kirk stops the lynch mob by threatening to kill anyone who harms the creature – siding with the “monster” instead of his fellow Earthlings (a moment that eerily prefigures Hugh Thompson Jr.’s actions at the My Lai Massacre a year later). Alone among the mothers in this list, the Horta survives to happily co-exist with her one-time enemies.


The Older Woman in ONIBABA (1964)
Onibaba02
This Japanese horror flick features a metaphoric if not literal Onibaba (“Demon Woman”), a mother whose son has died in a feudal war. Teamed up with her daughter-in-law, she makes a living by killing off stray samurai and selling their armor. When her son’s friend returns from the war and starts an affair with the young woman, the Mother-in-Law resorts to rather heinous method to break them up, filling her daughter-in-law’s head with superstitious fears – that seem to come true when a demon appears in the rice fields. Whether real or imagined, the supernatural horrors pale in comparison to the ruthless efficiency with which the two women dispatch their victims.


Carlo’s Mother in DEEP RED (1975)
Deep Red 1975
This Dario Argento thriller, one of his best, plays a wicked game, leading the audience to believe that self-pitying drunk Carlo is the murderer, but it turns out to be his eccentric mother, who previously seemed like nothing more than a comic relief supporting player (she cannot remember that the hero is a jazz pianist, not an engineer). Martha is one mean bitch, with a body count to her credit that would put Mrs. Voorhees to shame: axing a woman and shoving her head-first through a glass window; drowning another woman in scalding hot water; bashing another’s teeth in and impaling him through the neck with a blade that pins him to a table; and best of all, murdering her husband on Christmas by stabbing him in the back while Carlo (then a toddler) looks in soul-shattering shock (which may explain why he becomes a pathetic alcoholic).


Mrs. White in CARRIE (1976)
Carrie Piper Laurie
The deranged parent certainly gives Mrs. Bates a run for her money in the malevolent mother sweepstakes (a point underlined by director Brian DePalma, who renamed the high school “Bates High,” a name not used in the Stephen King novel). Mrs. White is a whacked out religious loony who sadistically mistreats her telekinetic daughter Carrie, acting out the kind of scenes we could only imagine took place in PSYCHO. No wonder the poor teenage girl eventually goes postal on the entire high school and eventually her mother.


Nola Carveth in THE BROOD (1979).
The Brood Nola Carveth
In this film, writer-director David Cronenberg turns the very act of motherhood into a miasma of horror. Nola is a psychotic undergoing treatment that allows her to manifest her inner demons somatically, which she does by giving birth to deformed children that act out her homicidal wishes. She claims only a few victims; the real horror is watching her birth one of her babies, biting open the external sack in which it grows and licking it clean. You won’t want to eat for a week.


Mother in ALIEN (1979).
Alien Mother computer
This Nostromo’s onboard computer does precious little to help the human crew against the marauding alien that has infiltrated the spaceship. Worse yet, after Ripley has reversed the ship’s self-destruct sequence, Mother refuses to acknowledge the override and insists on nuking the Nostromo anyway. Mother does not have enough personality to be a real character (she is no HAL 9000), but she seems to be one cold-hearted bitch.


Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).
Friday the 13th Mrs. Voorhees
Like Martha in DEEP RED, Mrs. Voorhees is revealed as the killer only in the final reel, so we have to retroactively credit her for the film’s high body count. She is one wacked-out woman, speaking in a childish voice that is supposed to represent her drowned son Jason. Speaking of retroactive reassessment, the revelation in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 – that Jason is alive – makes Mrs. Voorhees seem even nuttier: she kills off a bunch of camp counselors to avenge her son, but it turns out he survived. So, did she just imagine the drowning? Has she been psychologically blind to his existence since then? Whatever the case, this is another bad example of the poisonous effects of Mother Love.


Anna in POSSESSION (1981)
Possession Isabelle Adjani
This weird story of marital discord features a woman (Isabell Adjani) whose deteriorating relationship with her husband somehow leads to her giving birth to a slimy monster with tentacles. As if this were not bad enough, she has a sexual relationship with Junior, who eventually starts to resemble her husband. None of it makes sense on a literal plot level, but the film is interesting if you read its outre elements as externalizations of the characters’ inner turmoils.


Sil in SPECIES(1995)
Species Sil
Her appearance and actions (seducing and killing her male victims) seems to put her into the femme fatale category, but the true horror of Sil is that she is capable of mothering a new alien race capable of overrunning the world and wiping out humanity. To give her credit, we have to assume that, as malicious as she acts toward humanity, she probably would have made a good mother to her own children.


Grace Stewart in THE OTHERS (2001)
The-Others-Nicole-Kidman-1999
Grace appears to be the very definition of a protective, loving mother as this ghost story follows her attempts to shield her children from a supernatural force lurking in their isolated English mansion. However, a last-reel twist casts a new light on her behavior…


Kayako in JU-ON: THE GRUDE (2003).

Kayako is both victim and villain: murdered by her husband, she comes back as a malevolent ghost, along with her ghostly son Toshio, wrecking death and destruction for years afterwards. Over the course of six films, she tallies up an awesomely impressive kill count, but what is most memorable about her is not mere numbers; it is the spooky, inexplicable, and almost random way she manifests, following no clear rules that would allow potential victims to avoid her. The American remake, THE GRUDGE, makes it clear that Kayako’s husband killed both her and Toshio. The Japanese original shows Toshio escaping his father’s rampage, leaving it up to the audience to figure out how he died. The only possible conclusion is that he was the first victim of his mother’s vengeful spirit.


Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum in the “Three Mothers Trilogy:” SUSPIRIA (1977), INFERNO (1980), and THE MOTHER OF TEARS (2007)

Inspired by Thomas DeQuincey’s essay “Lavana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” Dario Argento created this trio of witches whose names translate as Mother of Sighs, Mother of Darkness, and Mother of Tears. Despite their names, they are actually “wicked step-mothers, incapable of creating life, who rule the world with sorrow, tears, and darkness.” Collectively, they are responsible for some of the most brutal and graphic murders ever perpetrated on screen (although, technically, the killings are usually carried out by underlings).
In each of the first two films, the atrocities are centered mostly around an ancient dwelling place housing one of the witches; THE THIRD MOTHER ups the ante, with Mater Lachrymarum’s evil influence spreading throughout the streets of Rome with almost apocalyptic effects. Never has the power of Motherhood been so explicity alligned with supernatural – not psychological – evil, creating a disturbing sense of an innocent world at the mercy of forces so powerful they almost defy comprehension.

Film Interview: Takashi Shimizu on Holding a Grudge

“IT NEVER FORGIVES. IT NEVER FORGETS.”

That’s the tag-line for THE GRUDGE, the horror film starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as an American social worker in Tokyo who is exposed to a mysterious curse that spreads like a virus as it claims new victims. What many mainstream Western audiences may not realize is that THE GRUDGE is based on an excellent series of Japanese horror films that have revitalized the genre with a kind of intensity seldom seen on the movie screen. The four previous films that make up the “Grudge” series (titled “Ju-On” in Japanese) are filled with a barrage of imagery that is nightmarish, surreal, and at times confusing, but the style should not be completely unfamiliar to non-Japanese viewers. Some of supernatural manifestations (female ghosts with long, dark scraggly hair obscuring their faces) are reminiscent of the 1998 Japanese horror hit Ring, which was remade in American in 2002 as The Ring. The Ju-On films up the ante, however; whereas Ring featured a strong narrative, laced with unseen menace, that built slowly to its terrifying climax, Ju-On and its sequels eschew traditional plot structure in favor of an episodic approach that shifts point of view as each new character comes in contact with the “curse” that will doom them. With no clearly identified protagonist, the films spend little time on characterization and back story; the running time is devoted almost totally to staging the hauntings. Read More

The Grudge (2004) – DVD Review

A worthy remake of the Japanese original, this remakes stands on its own as an excellent frightfest.

Like THE RING (2002), this is an American remake of a Japanese horror hit. Unlike THE RING, this film retains the Japanese setting, director, and even some of the supporting cast. The result is a film that is closer in flavor to the original, while still different enough to stand on its own as an excellent achievement in the horror genre.
Officially, THE GRUDGE is based on the third of four Japanese horror films called JU-ON, but it actually incorporates scenes and ideas from all of the series. The first two, JU-ON and were released on video; their success led to two theatrical films, called (to help avoid confusion with their direct-to-video progenitors) JU-ON: THE GRUDGE and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2. The first half of the American remake sticks fairly closely to JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, but some of the original’s time-line has been straightened out, and new scenes have been added, along with elements like the ghost girl with the missing jawbone from the first DTV film.
Fans of the Japanese originals may wonder how the American version stacks up, so it’s pleasing to report that it is a worthy addition to the cannon, sort of a distillation of all that came before, rather than an outright remake. In fact, THE GRUDGE replicates so many scenes so closely that one credited screenwriter Steven Susco’s contribution sometimes seems to consist mostly of writing English-language dialogue. To be fair, there are at least half a dozen new sequences, and some of the familiar scenes do play out slightly differently, so not everything is a completely predictable rehash. (Susco also wrote numerous exposition scenes that were dropped in editing.)
In this regard, director Takashi Shimizu is following in the tradition he established when writing and directing the JU-ON films: like Sam Raimi�s EVIL DEAD trilogy, the JU-ON sequels frequently recreated elements from the previous films in the series. In a sense, none of them is a true sequel; all of them are like stand-alone semi-remakes, and the same is true of THE GRUDGE — which recreates many favorite moments for the benefit of American audiences who would not want to sit through a subtitled Japanese film.
There differences between THE GRUDGE and the JU-ON: THE GRUDGE is mostly a matter of emphasis. The lead characters are now American, and the film does a good job of portraying their culture shock at finding themselves in a foreign country where they do not speak the language, creating a sense of unease and discomfort even before the supernatural intrudes. The episodic story structure remains, but there has been some attempt to make the jumps back and forth in time more clear to the audience. There are no longer any “chapter subtitles” introducing the name of the character who will be the focus of each episode; instead, the film tries to create the illusion that we are watching one seamless plot.
To this end, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s social worker character is threaded throughout the film than was her Japanese counterpart in Reiko in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, creating the impression that she is the film’s protagonist, even though she mostly just acts as our eyes and ears, discovering little bits of information and turning up background exposition that help to explain what’s happening to the audience.
In short, those expecting Buffy the Japanese Ghost Slayer were disappointed. And that’s a good thing, because the point of THE GRUDGE (like its predecessors) is to create a supernatural curse that allows for no safe harbor. Once you come in contact with it, you’re doomed; the only question is when and where the curse will manifest itself. This sense of approaching inevitable dread is what made all the JU-ON films so effective, so it’s nice to see that element retained.
There are a few minor missteps. A few fleeting CGI shots are okay, but they lack the uncanny quality that Shimizu brings to his live-action manifestations of the “Grudge.” There are more “jump-type” scares, underlined by a “sting” from the soundtrack. This kind of simple shock technique undermines the real virtue of Shimizu’s approach, which is based largely on anticipation and visualizations of weird, inexplicable phenomena — the ind of thing that not only makes you jump out of your seat but also gives you nightmares after you leave the theatre.
The attempts at characterization are mostly irrelevant to the thrust of the film (which is all-out terror). These scenes may make the actors feel as if they have something interesting to do, but they do not enhance the story; if anything, they slow down the pace in the early scenes. (All of the JU-ON films move from scare scene to scare scene with an admirably smooth simplicity, maintaining a high level of tension without ever seeming monotonous.) Because of this, some of the momentum and suspense are muted, but thankfully things pick up as the film proceeds.
The American version does have its virtues. The larger budget allowed for elaborate sets (the Japanese films were shot mostly on locations that limited camera angles and movement), and some of the shots have been rethought and improved; in particular, the uncanny elevator ride, in which the ghostly Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) is seen on every floor, is now accomplished in a single, uninterrupted take, instead of being fudged together in the editing. There is a fine score by Christopher Young that (mostly) emphasizes dread rather than shock. And the stereophonic soundtrack mix is excellent, using whisperings, cat cries, the padded sound of the little ghost boy’s running feet, and of course his mother Kayako’s creaking voice — all to send shivers down your spine.
Adding up the pros and the cons, THE GRUDGE is not quite a match for JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, which deserves a place in the pantheon of all-time great horror films. But THE GRUDGE works much better as an American translation than THE RING, recreating and occasionally improving upon some of the most memorable moments of the original. Fans of the Japanese films should be satisfied at another chance to enjoy director Takashi Shimizu’s style of horror. Viewers unfamiliar with the JU-ON series will no doubt enjoy the film even more.

THEATRICAL CUT DVD

The original DVD release of THE GRUDGE featured the theatrical cut of the film, which was slightly trimmed to earn a PG-13 rating (some shots during a bathtub drowning scene were removed to placate the Motion Picture Association of America, which objected to the suggestion of “child endangerment”).
The DVD’s bonus features included a theatrical trailer, an audio commentary, a five-part making-of documentary entitled “A Powerful Rage,” and a featurette called “Under the Skin.”
“A Powerful Rage” consists mostly of press junket-type video interviews of the cast and crew extolling the virtues of the film. It gets off to a weak start with voice-over commentary by Sam Raimi discussing the original Japanese-language film JU-ON: THE GRUDGE while we see footage only of the Americanized remake. Overall, the emphasis is on light-hearted anecdotes from the American cast (talking about how much they enjoyed filming in Japan). The few comments from director Takashi Shimizu are not very enlightening, and there is almost no discussion of the techniques used to make the ghostly appearances of Kayako and Toshio so disturbingly effective.
“Under the Skin” features talking-head comments from PhD. Joseph Ledoux discussing fear response in humans and how horror films can trigger that response. Footage from THE GRUDGE is intercut to illustrate the points he is making, but he never specifically tailors his comments to the film, and he never focuses on what should be an essential point: why do some films like THE GRUDGE succeed at triggering these fear response while others fail?
The audio commentary is a bit crowded, featuring eight members of the cast and crew: actors Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall, Kaydee Strickland, and Ted Raimi; screenwriter Stephen Susco; and producers Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. Unfortunately, some of them seem farther away from the microphone and, therefore, are more difficult to hear, so you may find yourself riding the volume button on your remote control.
The overall feeling is of a bunch of friends chattering while a film plays in the background, with lots of chuckling and irrelevant patter about what went on behind the scenes (often repeating anecdotes already related in “A Powerful Rage”). For instance, much time is spent describing a purification ritual performed before filming started, in which Behr tries to pinpoint the exact sequence of bows, chants, etc.
Still, some of the commentary is amusing, as when Ted Raimi relates tales of being yelled at by the director for trying to get in a last bite of his lunch while the camera was rolling. Gellar describes the experience of filming on location without extras: all the people in the crowd scenes are just regular people going about their business; and unlike in America, they ignore the camera filming the actors. Sam Raimi explains that the decision was made to keep the remake in Japan in order to maintain the flavor of the original JU-ON films. And mention is made that the main house set of THE GRUDGE (unlike JU-ON, which was filmed in a real apartment) was built on the Toho soundstages, where films as diverse as Godzilla and THE SEVEN SAMURAI were made.
Raimi mentions the “Director’s Cut” DVD release, which includes footage missing from the theatrical version. (He even chuckles, imaging the reaction of viewers, who have just shelled out money the theatrical cut on DVD, upon learning of a more complete version.) His description of the differences is that the director’s cut contains about three minutes of additional footage (including trimmed footage from the bathtub drowning), but the running time is almost the same because other scenes have been deleted (as an example, he erroneously cites the rooftop dialogue between Gellar’s character and the Japanese police detective, which was inserted for the benefit of American viewers who needed more explanation for how the supernatural “Grudge” worked).

Kayako (Takako Fuji) performs her infamous downstairs crawl in the American remake.

DIRECTOR’S CUT DVD

The director’s cut DVD features an extended, unrated version of the film (with some scenes slightly re-ordered); an audio commentary with director Takashi Shimizu, producer Taka Ichise, and actress Takako Fuji (who plays Kayako); fifteen deleted scenes with optional commentary; two short films by Shimizu; video diaries by Sarah Michelle Gellar and KaDee Strickland; production design sketches, storyboards, and a video tour of the haunted Saeki house.
The unrated cut is superior without being much bloodier; in fact, it’s sad to imagine that the film had to be cut at all. The few gory moments (a severed jawbone and later the ghostly Yoko minus her jaw) are held for several frames longer so that viewers can see what they are looking at, and there is more footage of Kayako’s corpse when Peter (Bill Pullman) discovers it.
More significantly, near the end, when the Sarah Michelle Gellar character is searching through the haunted house, you see the dead father hanging from the ceiling while Toshio pushes him like a swing, making his feet bang against the wall. (That’s the knocking sound you hear in the theatrical cut that leads her to find the body, but in the PG-13 version you didn’t see why the body was swinging.) This leads to longer flashback of the murders of Kayako and Toshio, which is much more grim and effective.
The disc also includes numerous deleted scenes. Some are mere vignettes connecting scenes in the film: for example more shots of Gellar’s social worker cleaning up for the old lady before she realizes something is wrong in the house (on the option audio commentary, Shimizu complains that his characters are always cleaning). Other scenes are pointless attempts by the American screenwriter (working at the behest of the producers) to explain each and every little detail, as if tying up the loose threads were an absolute necessity; fortunately, saner reasoning prevailed in the editing room.
There are also some pointless “dramatic” scenes, wherein Gellar and her boyfriend argue about what she saw in the haunted house. As director Takashi Shimizu rightly points out in his audio commentary, the scenes serve no purpose because they do not resolve anything: they begin and end with the characters in the same state of mind — her believing she saw a ghost, him believing she was mistaken.
There is one scene (of Kadee Strickland’s character finding her brother acting weird after an encounter with Toshio) that fans of the original Japanese film JU-ON: THE GRUDGE will recognize. And there is also an interesting alternate ending that leaves the film with a dreamy, almost unresolved feel. But the most interesting deleted scene is the death of Yoko, which was originally supposed to take place later in the film (after her jawbone is discovered in the attic). This sequence is not so much a longer version of what is in the finished film as an almost completely different version, using different camera angles and action, including a Steadicam shot that swoops in on her when she pokes her head up into the attic.
The audio commentary is very jokey: Shimizu says he wanted the famous Columbia Pictures’ logo to grow brunette hair and crawl down off her pedestal like Kayako; at other times he and producer Ichise wander off into speculation on whether all the extras in the haunted house will die off-screen, or they do an extended riff on what some characters in the background might be saying to each other (“When you see it over and over in editing,” Shimizu apologizes, “your mind starts to wander.”) Throughout, Ichise seems to take particular fun in needling actress Fuji, suggesting that she will be replaced by CGI in any sequel.
Shimizu never really discusses the techniques he used to achieve his frightening effects; instead, he focuses on pressure from U.S. producers to add more CGI effects and more exposition that would explain the plot to American audiences. At one point he expresses his pleasure at being able to use the audio commentary to say, “I told you so” to the producers, pointing out that the film would have run 160 minutes if all the new scenes had been included, prompting Ichise to warn him, “You’ll never work in this town again!”
Shimizu reveals that the American producers were concerned about his tendency to improvise on the set, urging him to stick to the script. He also had to change some details from his original film, such as allowing a security guard to live, in order to abide by the “rules” of the Grudge: that is, only people who enter the “cursed” house die. “I compromised on that because it had to have certain rules for America,” he says. “They may not accept randomness.”
The director also points out numerous differences between THE GRUDGE and the Japanese original JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, such as the fact that the studio built sets allowed him to achieve camera angles that were impossible on cramped locations (like shooting from inside the closet). It’s also interesting to note that Japanese audiences felt the American remake captured the culture shock of Americans living in Japan.
Some amusing anecdotes emerge: the Yuya Ozeki, the young actor who has played Toshio in four films, skipped the GRUDGE premier because he is now old enough to understand the plot and get frightened.
And Shimizu confirms that Strickland’s taxi ride is an homage to a similar scene with Jessica Harper in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA. Unfortunately, the subtitles for the audio commentary misspell the title phonetically and (apparently unaware that it is a title) also fails to capitalize the word.
Of the two video diaries, Strickland’s is the more interesting. Gellar’s is a mildly amusing account of a day on the set (the director arrives late, and there are communication problems because of the language barrier — ha! ha!). Strickland, on the other hand, takes us on a fascinating tour of Tokyo, and it is fair to say that be the time her short film is over, you will want to visit the metropolis yourself.
But the most interesting bonus films on the DVD are two short subjects that Shimizu made before the first JU-ON. Shot on video, they are not really complete stories; they are more like brief, spooky vignettes design to demonstrate the techniques he would use to make his feature-length film. “4444444444” shows a slightly older-looking proto-type of the Toshio character. “In a Corner,” set outside in daylight, showcases the unmistakable “Kayako-crawl” as she approaches a helpless victim. Shot on video, both are fairly effective, very brief “stingers.”
Overall, the amount of extra footage and bonus features on the unrated DVD is barely enough to justify a separate release. (Surely, it would have been possible to combine both versions into a two-disc set?) Of the two, the unrated DVD is far preferable, with a superior cut of the film and a more insightful audio commentary, plus more interesting bonus features. Even the deleted scenes, while seldom exciting in themselves, provide a revealing look at what the U.S. producers were trying to do to “Americanize” the movie. In effect, this version of the film pretty much renders the theatrical cut obsolete.
THE GRUDGE (2004). Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Screenplay by Stepyhen Susco, baased on “Ju-On: The Grudge,” written & directed by Shimizu. Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Bill Pullman, Clea Duval, Yuya Ozeki, Takako Fuji.
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Black cats sure get a bum rap on screen — always cast as the bad guys (or at least their familiars). This is not just a Western prejudice. For example, spooky black cats feature quite prominently in the Japanese horror hit JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, as in this scene wherein social worker Rika awakens to find some uninvited feline guests sharing her bed…

Rika is awakened by uninvited feline visitors in

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