Watching The Grudge, the cast and crew are full of themselves, for the most part quite delightfully. Eight of them are assembled for the commentary track for the Special Edition DVD, including producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, screenwriter Stephen Susco, as well as very chatty actors Sarah Michelle Gellar, Clea Duvall, KaDee Strickland, Ted Raimi, and Jason Behr (who introduces himself, “I’m sort of in the movie,” to uproarious reaction from his fellows). As they observe the startling first scene — someone throws himself off a balcony — Behr and Ted Raimi run through what they call, somewhat ominously, the “three rules,” namely, the innocent will suffer, the guilty must be punished, and the dead will rise. Just so you won’t be surprised at all the torment and ghastly death to come.
This ordeal evolves from director Takashi Shimizu’s longstanding commitment to this particular tale — The Grudge is the U.S. remake, of one of his several Japanese-made versions of Ju-On (two films and several tv installments, this film is the fifth time through for the director and a few of his original cast members). Rescripted by Susco and featuring U.S. stars, it makes full use of its Tokyo backdrop and works what might be termed a “Japanese” aesthetic. Gellar, for her part, notes that she loves “the silences, that’s something that you don’t see very often, and Shimizu was not afraid of that, to have these long periods with no dialogue, which I think is incredibly eerie and much more effective.” Strickland sees this is as a cultural distinction, saying that Japanese filmmakers “just let the action and the visuals tell the stories… It does take a lot of courage.”
This particular story centers on Karen (Gellar), an exchange student recently moved to Tokyo with her boyfriend Doug (Behr). Equally pretty and adorably in love, they snuggle in the morning before he goes to take his architecture exam and she goes to a social work office, in need of a credit to buttress her nursing degree. Here her supervisor, Alex (Ted Raimi) sends her to her first solo home visit. Apprehensive, she worries about what happened to the regular girl Yoko (Yoko Maki), who has gone missing. But, Alex reassures Karen, it’s an English language home and easy to find by subway. So okay, she agrees, even as you know she’s right (you’ve already seen a couple of grisly deaths, so you’re a step ahead, or maybe behind, depending on how you read the film’s fractured chronology).
The visual trajectory of Karen’s journey to this home — by train, city sidewalk, and long-and-windy driveway — includes shots familiar from the original film. Precisely composed frames of urban and ancient architecture give way to Karen’s face, deftly shadowed and shot from low angles, as she watches her fellow subway riders or gazes up at street signs and maps, struggling to decipher the symbols that set her course. Once she arrives at the house, Karen’s frowning face becomes the predominant image, straining to understand what she can’t. A jumble of contradictions, she’ at once frustrated and curious, boxed in and mobile, her stylish white sweater hugging her form but hardly suggesting that she feels warm or secure (Gellar notes that the sweater was, in fact, “hot” on the set).
Karen finds the house in disarray and Emma (Grace Zabriskie), the bedridden client, crawling on the floor, her hand clawing violently at Karen’s foot. On further investigation, Karen discovers a little boy, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), upstairs in a closet that’s been taped shut. A crumpled photo shows him smiling with his parents, though his mother’s face is ripped out to leave a disturbing, jagged little hole. A cut to the past reveals that Toshio doesn’t even live here now, that Emma and her attractive American family — breezy son Matthew (William Mapother) and alienated daughter-in-law Jen (DuVall) — are the house’s current occupants. The couple is currently missing, like Yoko, and the boy appears ghostlike.
The cops arrive to scour the scene, red lights flashing, photographers and fingerprint dusters underfoot. They let slip that the house has an eerie history. “It is said in Japan,” intones Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi, who starred in another unnerving movie, 1999’s Ôdishon [Audition]), that when someone dies in a state of extreme sadness or rage, an apparently highly contagious curse remains, a “stain” on the space where the death occurs. And once you “become a part of it, it will never let you go.” And so you know the menace behind Shimizu’s meticulous imagery: the house harbors ghosts — in particular, that scary little boy whose cries sound like they’re coming from the black cat he cradles in his arms, as well as Kayako (Takako Fuji), a wraith-like female figure, her long black hair shroud-like, her eyes popping open on cue, startling Karen and anyone else who wanders within her reach (as Gellar and Strickland recount on the commentary track, Takako’s day was longer than theirs — she being unrestricted by U.S. union rules — and her performance fascinated them, as she bent her body, crawled and contorted herself in appalling ways).
The metaphorical ambiguity of Kayako’s reach is somewhat reduced in the U.S. version. In Ju-On, her aims and targets were never quite clear; here, her slithering is enhanced by more expensive FX, but she focuses her energies on those who have set foot in the house — no incidental assaults on security guards or “accidental” victims. Her one foray out of the house has her following Matthew’s sister Susan (Strickland) to her cubicled workplace and sleek apartment building; for this sequence, the wholly engaging Strickland admits that she was nervous about the scene, as it involved shooting only “yourself and your own shenanigans.” To get the feel, she says, she “watched Klute a lot, because I thought Jane Fonda did a great job of walking down a hallway and not letting on too much.” Susan ends up in bed, literally, with the ghost, at which point Strickland asserts, “Susan didn’t have a love interest. I think she found one!”
Along with this entertaining and instructive commentary track, the DVD includes a couple of documentaries: the making-of “A Powerful Rage” is broken into five sections, “The Birth of The Grudge,” “Myth of the Ju-On,” “Culture Shock: American Cast in Japan,” “Designing the Grudge House,” and “A New Direction: Understanding Takashi Shimizu,” apparently something of an undertaking (very rewarding) for this American crew.
A second, less compelling featurette, “Under the Skin,” offers a “scientific” and psychological consideration of responses to scary movies. This idea is actually better explored in and by the movie, which “activates” your “fear system” (“designed by evolution,” says the talking head doctor) in occasionally acute ways. While The Grudge this cleans up some of the weirdness and seeming illogic of the original, it also reduces the grudge’s potential. It no longer appears wifty and random, but is instead deliberate, its bloody victims ordained with unghostlike reason. Susco’s script tends to clarify the house’s secrets, more or less motivating the violence and arranging time jumps so they eventually form a legible order, and — no small thing — insisting that characters (especially girls) do the wrong thing repeatedly, wandering through the house with heads titled and eyes wide, seeking definition and asking, “Who’s there?”
The Grudge also makes Karen its explicit hero: briefly confined to a hospital bed following her first encounter with the house, she looks tearfully at Doug, earnestly concerned that “something’s wrong” in that house. But she’s soon back on her feet, investigating the mystery (her particular athleticism is showcased during a Buffy-like sprint across town near film’s end). Still, she has to get through some uncanny time configurations in order to figure out just what’s happening.
For the most part, her film, like the famously achronological Ju-On, is defiantly disinterested in plot twists, effects, and easy scares, instead digging into complexities of overlapping time and space. Karen’s quintessential “American” identity — blond, do-gooding, intrepid — makes her sense of dislocation especially acute. By the same token, the movie’s “American” inclination is to resolve mysteries, and so The Grudge comes to an explicable closure, its pieces come together, even in sadness and rage.