Rated PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea Duvall, Bill Pullman, Grace Zabriskie, Yuya Ozeki, Ted Raimi, William Mapother.
The trouble with American remakes of foreign films is that they so often get it wrong. The tone, the subtext, the look and feel, the soul of a film is as dependent on its native land and tongue as it is on its director or cinematographer. So what to make of this inexplicably unfrightening remake of Takashi Shimizu’s 2003 haunted-house yarn, which not only employs the same director and part of the same cast as his original, but also stays put in Japan and utilizes the same house and neighborhoods as its predecessor? An American cast led by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer Gellar has been brought in to make the film, one suspects, less threatening to American audiences who might otherwise assume subtitles could be involved, but the changes to the storyline are for the most part negligible. The history of The Grudge is notable: The original was titled Ju-on: The Grudge, and was preceded by a pair of wildly popular made-for-video efforts and followed, as this Americanized version will almost certainly be, by Ju-on: The Grudge 2. By now, Shimizu has made what is basically the same film five times in a row, which is enough practice for anyone, but the bottom line with this new version is that something, somewhere, has been lost in translation. It’s difficult to pin down what, however, as both Shimizu and executive producer Sam Raimi (as well as debuting screenwriter Stephen Susco) have obviously taken great pains to preserve the integrity of Ju-on’s crafty, creepy core. The story, as in the original, is simplicity itself: A young care-worker (Gellar) comes to visit an elderly woman at her house and discovers that the place is cursed – "stained" as one character puts it – by a previous act of violent, murderous rage. The film then shifts in time to track both backward and forward along a trail of madness and death that befalls everyone who comes into contact with it. The nonlinear narrative in Shimizu’s original Japanese version took some getting used to, but the sheer skill with which the director conjured palpable, hackle-raising chills via an extraordinarily creative sound mix and some audaciously atmospheric cinematography from Tokusho Kikumura rendered the slippery narrative line a relatively moot point. This new version (shot by Takashi Miike regular Hideo Yamamoto) follows the same tack, but feels strangely neutered by its infusion of blond American actresses. Only Bill Pullman, looking as haunted as if he just stepped out of The Serpent and the Rainbow, manages to muster the brooding, dissociative malaise of the original. A few characters have been lost, notably a trio of doomed, giggling schoolgirls, and a new, annoying ending has been pasted over the original. But these variances should be minor; they are not, and this remade version pales in comparison to the director’s original vision. It’s not a disaster by any stretch, but purists will ache to show newcomers the horrific genius of Ju-on over The Grudge as soon as they exit the theatre.
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