Following in the footsteps of The Ring, The Grudge delivers a high level of fear and fright in a PG-13 package.
While studying social work in Japan, Karen Davis is sent to care for an elderly woman after Karen’s colleague, Yoko, apparently fails to show up for work. When Karen arrives at the small house, she finds Yoko’s bike outside, but no Yoko. The inside of the house is disheveled, and Emma, the elderly woman, is in a catatonic state.
As Karen tries to figure out what has happened, she hears strange noises emanating from an upstairs room. There she finds a closet door sealed with copious amounts of tape. The plaintive meow of a cat prompts her to rip the door open, and in addition to the cat she finds a little boy, Toshio.
Karen calls her agency to report on Emma’s condition and the discovery of the boy, but by the time police arrive, Emma is dead, Karen is crouched in the corner as if she’s seen a ghost, and there’s no sign of the boy or the cat.
And that’s when really strange things begin happening. Everyone who has been inside the house, including Tokyo police detective Nakagawa, starts seeing and hearing unusual things. Is the house haunted? Nakagawa tells Karen that a murder-suicide had taken place there three years earlier, involving a father, mother and young boy. Nakagawa also tells Karen of an old Japanese legend about the ju-on, a curse that falls on any place where a person has died in the grip of a deep rage.
Karen deliberately puts herself in danger to save another, as does Nakagawa. An American working in his company’s Tokyo office offers to quit his job and move back to the States because his wife has trouble adjusting to life in Japan. Indirectly, the sanctity of the marriage vow is reinforced, as a wife’s straying affections (never consummated physically) sets the curse in motion.
Ancient curses and vengeful ghosts are at the heart of this story. A room fills with a huge black shadow, and a face with ghostly eyes thrusts from the darkness. A woman exploring a dark attic with only a cigarette lighter sees a ghoulish face lunge toward her. (We see the face before she does.) A little boy opens his mouth supernaturally wide, and an eerie, catlike sound comes out. Later, as a woman rides an elevator, she doesn’t notice the same boy standing at the elevator’s window on every floor.
A woman is stalked by an unseen entity that makes a croaking noise; she climbs into her bed in fright, whereupon a ghoulish woman attacks her from beneath the covers, pulling her screaming through the mattress. A woman descending an office building’s stairwell is startled by the lights on the upper-floor landings exploding, and as she looks down, she sees a ghostly arm and face ascending from the lower landings. A building’s surveillance tape shows a dark shape materializing from under the stairwell door, taking the shape of a woman with no discernable face. Karen, thinking she is alone in the house, is startled by a black cat on the stairs; suddenly, a pair of hands reaches down and snatches the cat away. A dead woman lunges up from dirty bathwater and grabs a man’s hand.
An American is told that Buddhists lighting candles at the graves of their ancestors believe the smoke carries their prayers heavenward.
It’s never clear if Karen and Doug are married, although they share sleeping arrangements. In one scene, they kiss affectionately in bed; she’s dressed in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt, he’s fully clothed. A woman wears a tight, low-cut blouse. We see through a shower door the outline of a woman taking a shower.
Shimizu has salted his film with a profusion of jump-out-of-your-seat moments, as well as a few that are guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. A crime scene features a bloody human jawbone with bits of flesh still attached. A man flings himself from a high balcony; we see his body sprawled on the pavement below with blood pooling around his head. A man follows a trail of blood on the floor, which leads to a ghoulish-looking woman and erstwhile owner of the missing jawbone. A bathtub is used to drown a man and a woman. A body under a blanket in a morgue thrusts its hand out to grab a person. We see two dead bodies in an attic. A man opens a sliding door to an attic, and a bloody body tumbles out.
One “d–n” and two uses of “h—.” God’s name is misused three times.
Doug smokes cigarettes. We see a photo of police officers celebrating and holding drinks.
Karen goes through a person’s private diary in an attempt to solve the mystery. A ghost who bears the appearance of a very young boy seems to be nude (no details can be seen).
The Grudge is an American remake of the hit Japanese horror movie Ju-On, which was also directed by Takashi Shimizu. The English title doesn’t quite capture the Japanese original, though—a case of a concept not translating easily across languages. A native Japanese speaker told me that ju-on carries the connotation of a deep-seated rage embodied through a curse involving the ghost of a murder victim. Apparently, The Curse of the Vengeful, Hate-Filled Ghost wouldn’t fit on movie marquees here.
Shimizu has crafted a creepy, ghost- and goblin-filled fright flick that manages to scare the daylights out of you while going relatively light on gore and violence (shown in brief, sometimes inscrutable camera flashes). He understands that our imaginations can conjure far greater horrors than can be shown on a screen, something Alfred Hitchcock was a master at—a lesson that Hollywood at large seems to have forgotten. This raises a question of ethics and morality, though: How far can a storyteller go to stoke our primal fears before it crosses the line into exploitation? For the most part (Psycho shower scene excepted), Hitchcock had a clear understanding of where that line rests; Shimizu’s vision doesn’t seem quite as clear.