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There’s no denying The Grudge is, at moments, a very scary movie. It uses every trick to startle you, tingle your spine, and occasionally gross you out. But as horror goes, it’s a trifle, a haunted house that leaves you feeling less than spooked and more than a little ripped off.
The Japanese version, Ju-On, was a monstrous hit in its native country, and its director, Takashi Shimizu, was hired to helm the American version. Shimizu retains his Tokyo setting, which, at least for American audiences, adds a touch of unsettling unfamiliarity to the movie’s landscape. But whatever made the film a frightmare in Japan appears to have been lost in translation. The narrative — which reveals itself piece by piece in a series of conveniently positioned flashbacks, is less a ghostly wail and more of a tedious groan.
Like the far superior The Ring, also based on a Japanese horror sensation, The Grudge employs a cold, bleak look — virtually all color has been drained from the film’s settings, as though the celluloid were a corpse on the mortician’s table. But unlike The Ring, which creeped the hell out of you with its videotape of death and startling revelations of a potent, unrelenting evil, The Grudge is little more than a series of fundamentally meaningless scare tactics.
Much of the movie’s problem lies with the ghosts doing the boo-ing. They’re spirits of people who have died in “the grip of a powerful rage.” Due to the unsavory circumstances surrounding their deaths, a curse was born. Anyone who comes in contact with the curse’s manifestation is “consumed by its fury.” And that’s one furious and undiscriminating curse, let me tell you. Among the unlucky is Kare Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an exchange student who volunteers as a caregiver. It’s through Kare’s point of view — at one point, she actually engages in a little cinematic time traveling — that we learn the reason behind the grudge — a reason that, if not silly, is flagrantly obvious and extremely disappointing. It’s Ghost Story 101.
Gellar, for her part, is given little to do other than react to the malevolent ghostly apparitions — which sometimes take full human form and at other times take the shape of a massive hair clog with glowing evil eyes. (Quick, someone get the Drano!) The rest of the cast turns out to be as disposable as used Kleenex.
Shimizu provides a few instances of authentic terror. A scene in which a ghost pursues a young woman back to her apartment is viciously intense. Another involving the return of a missing woman to her place of employment boasts a gruesome kicker. The ghosts — which tend to announce their presence with guttural gurgling clicks — are inconsistent in the way they dispatch their victims. Sometimes they leave the bodies behind. Sometimes they devour them whole. Sometimes they rip off a shard of jawline and leave it behind for the Tokyo Police Department’s souvenir case.
Ultimately, it’s the lack of complexity and consistency that proves The Grudge‘s undoing. While you’re watching it, you feel moderately unsettled. That’s fine and good. But great horror lingers long after the movie’s end, sticking with you into the wee hours, infecting your dreams and turning them into nightmares. Once you’ve left The Grudge behind, it’s as good as forgotten.