Who exactly has a grudge against whom in The Grudge? Having just seen the movie, I still don’t quite know. What I can tell you while shunning spoilers is this: Something bad, evil, happened in a Tokyo house, and the sheer bad vibes of the event have trapped its victims inside as yowling, crawling ghosts that apparently scare people to death. Such ghost stories are common in every storytelling culture, of course, but the Japanese have a long tradition of taking vengeful spirits seriously, in life as well as in art (Kabuki theater was devoted to tales of wrathful female ghosts for much of the 18th century). But what if the rightful target of supernatural rage is already dead? Then, I guess, the grudge is reserved for anyone foolish enough to enter the place of tragedy.
And there are quite a lot of fools in The Grudge. Its nonlinear plot aside, the movie — a reworking of a story told in two TV movies and two theatrical films in Japan — is little more than a series of scenes in which one character after another ventures slowly, sloooowly, into a dark and creepy place while the audience waits for the big jump moment. This happens so often that the repetitiveness begins to strike the audience funny, a fatal response to a movie that takes itself so deadly, glumly seriously. The Grudge, directed by Takashi Shimizu (who helmed the previous four incarnations), is a gray and dreary affair that seems inspired less by great Japanese horror (Kwaidan or Onibaba, to name just two) than by whatever’s making kids spill their popcorn these days: M. Night Shyamalan’s films, The Eye, Ringu and its American remake, and so on.
Instead of transplanting the story to America, as The Ring did, producer Sam Raimi chose to keep the action in Tokyo but with a mainly American cast, which requires the new screenwriter to draft bad expository dialogue explaining why various unconnected Americans are hanging out in Japan. Sarah Michelle Gellar, for instance, is there because her boyfriend is studying architecture there (though we know she’s really there because she needs a non-Scooby Doo hit after Buffy). Hired to take the place of a health-care worker who’s mysteriously disappeared, Gellar goes to the aforementioned bad-vibe house to look after a catatonic woman (Grace Zabriskie, cast as usual for her spooky thousand-yard stare that’s kept food on her table since Twin Peaks). People begin to freak out and die. Gellar is traumatized, then is forced to return to the house. It all has something to do with an English professor (Bill Pullman) and a Japanese woman who shows up in the background of every photo of him.
Some have said that 2003’s Ju-On: The Grudge, which got a limited run in theaters earlier in the year, makes very little sense unless you’ve seen the two TV movies before it. The new American version is nonsense squared; once the mystery of the motivating event is revealed, there are no other twists in store, and the movie ends on a cheap, unresolved note that unreasonably demands we return for a sequel. Gellar is reduced to a wimpier version of Buffy, looking as though she needs a Giles to explain everything. The closest she gets is a Japanese detective played by Ryo Ishibashi, of Suicide Circle and Takashi Miike’s notorious Audition; Ishibashi has had better days, as has Clea DuVall, who has a couple of scenes before turning up quivering and shell-shocked in bed. She’s not the only one to flee to bed; the movie’s biggest laugh comes when yet another victim of the ghosts locks herself in her apartment, jumps into bed, and pulls the covers up to her face like a kid spooked by a scary movie — though probably not this one.
The Grudge doesn’t even work as a travelogue of Japanese spiritual beliefs, and it very well could have. By having a bunch of Americans in the cast led by the callow Gellar, the movie could have taken the opportunity to educate us ignorant gaijin about, say, Shinto, or the noble history of spirits in religion and art. Instead, the story might as well be set in Cleveland, and it adds the weird subtext of Americans being terrified by damp-haired Japanese women. At least The Ring took what was universally eerie about Ringu and Americanized it; The Grudge just cannibalizes itself, exploiting Japanese spirituality for a few Saturday-night shocks to make teenagers shriek and giggle.