Review: ‘The Grudge’

A wannabe scarefest that hides its lack of originality beneath a deliberately discombobulating structure,"The Grudge" is a haunted-house one-trick pony. Already a legend among Asiaphiles, and with an English-lingo remake in the works under producer Sam Raimi, pic is an OK entry in Japan's rich psychothriller genre but is far from a classic.

A wannabe scarefest that hides its lack of originality beneath a deliberately discombobulating structure, Takashi Shimizu’s “The Grudge” is a haunted-house one-trick pony. Already a legend among Asiaphiles, and with an English-lingo remake in the works under producer Sam Raimi, pic is an OK entry in Japan’s rich psychothriller genre but is far from a classic. Though it failed to reap significant B.O. on local release early this year, the movie has worked with many western buffs, but will take canny marketing to make much impact theatrically with general auds. Fast play-off, with longer life on ancillary, looks to be its more profitable avenue offshore.

Film is a remake by Shimizu of the first of a direct-to-video pair from 2000. (He’s already re-filmed the second, as “The Grudge 2,” and is reportedly set to helm the U.S. re-remake.) Producer Taka Ichise was responsible for “The Ring” and “Dark Water,” but “The Grudge” doesn’t bear mentioning in their distinguished company.

Best section is the opening reel as, following some blurry B&W glimpses of some horrific crime, cute young volunteer homecare worker Rika Nishida (Megumi Okina) is assigned to look after Sachie (Yui Ichikawa), an old woman in an average backstreets house. The building is full of trash and the woman is in a catatonic state. As Rika sets about cleaning the place and bathing the bedridden Sachie, pic effectively sketches a sense of dread at what Rika may uncover.

Hearing some scratching noises in an upstairs wardrobe, she’s surprised to find an evil-looking young boy, who calls himself Toshio. A series of flashbacks then starts, captioned with names of other characters, which become progressively more confusing and largely dissipate the accumulated dread of the opening.

Seems that the house was formerly occupied by a young couple, the crone’s son Katsuya Tokunaga (Kanji Tsuda) and his wife Kazumi (Risa Matsuda). Katsuya came home from work one day to find Kazumi unconscious on the bed, the victim of an apparition by the ghostly boy. A further flashback briefly limns the p.o.v. of Hitomi (Misaki Ito), Kazumi’s sister, who tries to find out how the couple are and is later spooked by an apparition of Katsuya outside her apartment.

Back in the present, after being alerted by a colleague of Rika, the cops find the bodies of the couple in the attic. Turns out the house has a history of all its recent occupants being murdered, but as further characters are introduced, in a series of linked vignettes, the pic increasingly runs in circles of its own creation.

Shimizu’s technique is somewhere between a hand-on-the-shoulder horror movie and a psychothriller a la Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who’s credited as one of two “creative consultants”). But he seems to show a disregard for the fact that the most effective scarers rely on viewers identifying with — and thus having proper knowledge of — the protagonists. In the end, “The Grudge” comes down to little more than when and where the ghostly little boy will next appear, and the final explanation is so-what.

Performances are sound, though Okina overdoes the wide-eyed heroine-in-peril at the start. Soundtrack is heavy on creaky doors, dripping water and scarey atmosphere, which pay reduced dividends as pic proceeds.

The Grudge

Japan

Production

A Lions Gate Films release (in the U.S.) of an Oz Co. presentation of a Pioneer LDC, Nikkatsu, Oz Co., Xanadeux production, in association with Aozora Investment. (International sales: Horizon Entertainment, Vancouver.) Produced by Taka Ichise. Directed, written by Takashi Shimizu.

Crew

Camera (color), Tokusho Kikumura; editor, Nobuyuki Takahashi; music, Shiro Sato; art director, Toshiharu Tokiwa; sound (DTS Stereo), Masato Komatsu; visual effects supervisor, Hajime Matsumoto; creative consultants, Hiroshi Takahashi, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 6, 2003. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Megumi Okina, Kanji Tsuda, Risa Matsuda, Misaki Ito, Misa Uehara, Yui Ichikawa.
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