Thrillers and horror flicks — conventional ones, anyway — need a set of rules to operate by. There’s usually a resolvable conflict; the heroes and/or the villains must work to resolve that conflict. There are certain things the characters can and cannot do, and the excitement comes from watching them operate within those limitations. Cleverness is rewarded, stupidity is punished, occasionally luck plays a role. At least, that’s how it tends to work.
The Grudge, remade by Takashi Shimizu from his own Japanese hit, isn’t even a horror movie so much as a horrorshow. There is a lot of creeping and stalking and going “boo;” there’s also a fair amount of gore. What we’re missing is a plot, a reason for the film to exist; to my knowledge, no one ever proposes a single thing that our protagonists can do to save themselves. So they’re left walking down corridors, opening closet doors, getting freaked out by strange croaking noises, and eventually dying a gruesome death. That doesn’t leave much for the audience to do either.
The villains, on the other hand, seem capable of just about anything. The idea, introduced in several gratuitous title cards at the beginning of the film, is that when a person dies “in the grip of a powerful rage,” their vengeful spirit haunts the place of their demise, consuming anyone who dares enter. Upon dying, apparently, they become virtually omnipotent, able to devise needlessly elaborate traps for their victims, playing cruel games, appearing anywhere and out of nowhere, doing damn well anything they please to frighten their helpless prey before pouncing.
The many deaths are recounted in a complicated flashback structure, involving an exchange student in Japan (Sarah Michelle Gellar), her jock boyfriend, the family whose house she visits as a volunteer nurse, and tangentially also a suicidal college professor (Bill Pullman). Mostly, it goes like this: 1) character suspects that something strange is going on, 2) proceeds to investigate, 3) realizes that he is about to die and 4) dies. This happens several times over in increasingly diabolical and tedious ways.
One thing must be said for these apparitions: they don’t discriminate. Ghosts in most ghost stories are exceedingly selective about the people to whom they reveal themselves; usually, the characters who see them have a hard time convincing the others of their existence and are branded as crazy on at least one occasion. Here, everyone can see and be appropriately terrified by the otherworldly beings, who croak, pop out of the darkness, and break people’s jaws. What exactly they’re doing and how to make them go away remains a mystery.
The Grudge is the first ever instance of a foreign director remaking his own film in English. To someone’s credit, be it the screenwriter, director, or studio, the action remains in Japan, which threatens to keep things interesting despite the useless Sarah Michelle Gellar taking center stage more often than not. The horror set pieces are archetypical, with all the dramatic cuts and pan-and-reveals seen in slasher flicks and ghost stories the world over. There are a few decent jumps, some effectively creepy stretches and some neat make-up effects, but it’s all so excessive and repetitive that it quickly gets boring.
Horror without a hook is boring (there’s an I Know What You Did Last Summer joke to be made here somewhere), and The Grudge has nothing to offer except would-be scares utterly devoid of context. It’s like a demo reel for Shimizu, who may be a competent technical craftsman but doesn’t show even so much as a desire to tell a story.