In its quest to appropriate global filmmaking trends, Hollywood has honed in on a series of Japanese cult horror pics most notable for bad acting and pedestrian direction. First came DreamWorks’ profitable redo of director Hideo Nakata’s “The Ring” (its sequel will arrive next year, along with a remake of Nakata’s “Dark Water”) and now there is helmer Takashi Shimizu’s “The Grudge.” Pic is a woeful Americanization of a creaky haunted-house story Shimizu has filmed four times in Japan. While press notes say pic’s titular curse never forgives or forgets, viewers of this Sam Raimi-produced, sub-“Amityville” scarefest are likely to hold the real grudge.
“The Grudge” began life as a popular, low-budget Japanese vidpic entitled “Ju-On” (aka “Ju-On: The Curse”). “Ju-On” in turn spawned a sequel, which was followed by theatrical remakes of both vidpics (called “Ju-On: The Grudge” and “Ju-On: The Grudge 2,” respectively). All four films were directed by Shimizu and produced by the indefatigable Taka Ichise (also responsible for the “Ring” franchise).
The four films all told more or less the same story: An unassuming home in suburban Tokyo that was the scene of a gruesome murder-suicide is haunted by the three people who died there — a young boy, his mother and the crazed father/husband who killed them and then himself.
Because of the circumstances of their deaths, the spirits cannot rest easily, and so they subject the occupants of the house to their wrath. And while it’s not exactly clear what happens to their victims, suffice it to say that very few make it out alive.
This is not, of course, the first time a foreign director has been hired to remake his own film in Hollywood. However, “The Grudge” bears an unusual fidelity to its source material, in that it preserves those pics’ Japanese setting and even uses a couple of the same actors — Yuya Ozeki, who also played the boy in the two Japanese theatrical versions, and Takako Fuji, who has played the mother in all five pics.
Storyline has been imported more or less intact from “Ju-On: The Grudge.” A young social worker (Sarah Michelle Gellar, her face permanently frozen into a glazed-over expression) arrives to care for an elderly, housebound woman (Grace Zabriskie) and encounters the undead family. Other than changing the social worker from a Japanese woman to an American exchange student — and giving her a scruffy boyfriend, played by former “Roswell” star Jason Behr — primary modifications made by screenwriter Stephen Susco don’t materialize until pic’s final act.
But, if ever there was a remake that should have worshipped less faithfully at its predecessor’s altar, “The Grudge” is it. Like “Ju-On: The Grudge,” new pic is less of a linear narrative than a series of flashbacks depicting earlier victims. And each of these scenes seems to have been scripted according to the horror-movie rules so deftly skewered by Wes Craven in his “Scream” pictures: a shadow streaks across the room or some floorboards creak; the naive about-to-be victim goes to investigate and is startled by some sort of red herring; then, finally, the big “gotcha!” moment occurs and screen fades to black, only to begin again.
“Ju-On: The Grudge” didn’t resolve this roundelay at its conclusion, suggesting the endless possibilities (or possible endlessness) of the scenario. In the American version, the ending is less ambiguous, but no less tolerant of a sequel. Project might have been more successful if Shimizu had style and/or atmosphere to substitute for his canned scares, cardboard compositions and flaccid cutting.
With its assembly-line atonal chimes, vibrato strings and low-frequency rumbles, Christopher Young’s musical score quickly earns a place in the horror-movie hall-of-shame.