The Grudge (2004)

*. I’ve re-watched The Grudge a lot over the years. I think perhaps in part because I have so much trouble keeping the story straight. The non-linear narrative is only one complicating factor. There’s also the fact that Ju-on: The Grudge was actually the third movie in what had become a horror franchise. So there’s quite a lot of back story that is only brushed at here in a pretty superficial way. Then there’s also the fact that the characters of Matthew Williams and Peter Kirk, played by William Mapother and Bill Pullman, look so much alike. And finally let’s throw in how Kayako is insane, leaving Peter (and us) struggling to understand exactly what is going on with her, and why he kills himself.
*. But in the documentary “A Powerful Rage” included with the DVD star Sarah Michelle Gellar says she was drawn to the material because it demands intelligence of the audience. So I take that as a challenge. I mean, has watching so many less-complicated movies made me too stupid to follow this one?
*. Usually I manage to get things straight by the end. Of course there are parts of the story to balk at. The first of these has to do with figuring out just what kind of a ghost Kayako is. Just like her shadowy appearance she seems kind of amorphous. Is she liquid or a gas? Her locus of power is the house she died in, but she can travel anywhere in a pinch. She can also teleport from place to place, but most of the time has to crawl around on the floor. Mainly, I think, so she can look scary.
*. Perhaps the biggest thing about her to flag though, at least for a Western audience, is that she kills indiscriminately. “It never forgives. It never forgets.” That was one of the film’s tag lines. But Kayako kills people who have done her no wrong and who she has no memory of. This is one of the themes of J-horror that seemed most alien at the time, but that American audiences would soon be embracing. We were used to monsters who killed sexually promiscuous teenagers or just plain assholes. But here you only have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to get iced. I think it says something about our evolving sense of justice that we adapted to this point of view so readily.
*. I should say that, given the general rules of the curse (screenwriter Stephen Susco: “If you go in the house, you’re doomed”), the real estate agent here must not be liking his chances. Poor John Cho didn’t get off so easy in the 2020 reset (or sidequel, or whatever you want to call it).
*. Another J-horror theme that was something a bit new was the revenge of the submissive/repressed woman. Not rape-revenge, because Kayako isn’t raped. Indeed her fantasy is to engage in an affair. She wants to break free. Was this something Western audiences identified with? Perhaps not as much.
*. “It is said in Japan . . .” I wonder if this is total bullshit. I suspect it is. I don’t think people in Japan are any more likely to believe in such stories as people living in any other country. Japan certainly has a long tradition of ghost tales, but the way Kayako behaves and is motivated seems new. Someone should make a horror movie where a police officer in a parka says “It is said in Canada . . .” before giving us some line about the Wendigo.
*. I like this version of The Grudge. In fact it may be favourite Western J-horror. Though the fragmented narrative is hard to follow it allows for a series of excellent mini-climaxes before the end, instead of having to wait, as in The Ring, for a big reveal. So I’ll totally disagree with Roger Ebert’s dismissal of the film’s pace and structure: “I eventually lost all patience. The movie may have some subterranean level on which the story strands connect and make sense, but it eluded me. The fragmented time structure is a nuisance, not a style.” Neither a nuisance nor a style, I would say.
*. The suspense is well handled in scenes that don’t blow us away with gore. Instead Kayako seems to mainly scare people to death, with scenes ending on a scream (or Toshio’s mouth hanging open, or the reveal of Yoko’s missing jaw, which both provide the same visual cue for screaming). This makes for some great chills, as seeing people being scared is itself scary. It’s silly that Susan wants to jump in bed and cover up her head to get away from Kayako, but it’s one of those things that knock us back down the stairs into childhood (as Stephen King would say). On the other hand, the way some characters become catatonic strikes me as less effective.
*. One thing I don’t much care for are the performances. Gellar is just OK. Jason Behr’s character is kind of pointless, and is even made to appear a bit ridiculous at the end, which is not at all how the original plays its final act. Some of the problem may have been due to director Takashi Shimizu not knowing English. The script, however, also leaves some of the characters with not much to work with. Behr and Pullman in particular seem a bit lost, left to wander around in a daze.
*. Wardrobe. I think most of the time if you don’t notice it, it’s doing its job. So why does Maria Kirk look so glammed up when Karen goes to visit her? That dress is really making a statement. I mean, I guess she’s planning on going out later, but I don’t recall there being any explanation for it and it just seems really odd. Especially in the middle of the day.
*. J-horror, at least the Western taste for it, didn’t last long. I’d call this movie its peak, at least among English-language productions. The sequels and sidequel would mark a falling off, just as the rest of the Ring franchise would prove to be. Nevertheless they were on to something here and Hollywood did at least manage to go carpetbagging for a couple of respectable remakes. That’s pretty good, and as much as we could have hoped for.

2 thoughts on “The Grudge (2004)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I do wirhs this film had a stronger lead, and yet that didn’t save the Dark Water remake; perhaps the central role has to be blank as a point of audience identification. Either way, this is one of the better J Horrors, even if the film and series time-line is tricky…

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      This is probably the J-horror movie (or American J-horror) that I go back to the most. Maybe in part because it’s so confusing and open-ended. But I think it’s quite well made too.

      Reply

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