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).
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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