August 19, 2005
A lot was riding on Sarah Michelle Gellar’s new movie, The Grudge (2004). If it failed at the box office she could be faced with the prospect of more Scooby Doo sequels while its success could lead to bigger and better things. After all, it was her first serious film role after six years on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and proof that she could carry a movie on her name alone. Gellar is smart. She doesn’t stray from the genre that made her a star. The financial success of The Grudge surpassed expectations that the studio had for it and a sequel is already in the works.
Karen (Gellar) is a nursing student studying in Tokyo. One day, she is given her first assignment: to be a caregiver for a sick lady (Zabriskie essaying another tormented mother role) at her home. Karen finds the house in disarray and the woman in a near-catatonic state. There is something about the house that just isn’t right. A vengeful, supernatural presence inhabits the place and anyone who sets foot in there will most certainly be dead in a matter of time. Something horrible happened in the house that has cursed it worse than the residence in The Amityville Horror (1979).
The Grudge is a remake of the successful Japanese horror film, Ju-On (2000), directed by Takashi Shimizu. In an interesting move, the studio (with Sam Raimi on board as one of the producers) hired the film’s director to helm this new version. He has essentially recast the key roles with American actors but retained the same plot and setting (Tokyo). Shimizu isn’t interested in telling a traditional, linear narrative instead going back and forth in time without warning. The director goes back in time to provide clues about the house’s unsettling past. After the first 15 minutes, Karen isn’t on-screen for the next 20 minutes. Shimizu assumes that the audience is smart enough to figure out what is going on or patient enough to find out by the film’s conclusion.
Sarah Michelle Gellar is good in her role. Karen isn’t the ass-kicking slayer that Buffy is but she’s no wallflower either. Gellar plays her as smart and resourceful. Thanks to the actress’ charisma and inherent vulnerability, Karen is a sympathetic character. Like Emma Caulfield in Darkness Falls (2003), Gellar is playing a character different from the one she did on Buffy and pulls it off. It should be interesting to see how she does in a non-horror genre film.
Shimizu likes to provide sudden jolts of terror and prolong the revealing of any given scare until the tension is almost unbearable. His direction is well done but he’s hampered slightly by a weak script that tends to spell things out for the audience and this makes the Japanese version superior to this one. Still, Shimizu has a knack for presenting powerful and truly horrifying imagery that goes beyond the usual jump-out-at-you jolts that are the staple of the genre. He never forgets that what ultimately fuels the movie is the story and the characters.
There is a spirited audio commentary by Sam and Ted Raimi, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Rob Tapert, Clea DuVall, Stephen Susco, Jason Behr and KaDee Strickland. They are all in the same room together resulting in a fairly busy track. Tapert MCs the proceedings, often prompting the participants with questions. Everybody recounts production anecdotes, including working in Japan, getting used to their customs and working with Shimizu. This is a fun, engaging track.
“A Powerful Rage: Behind The Grudge” examines several aspects of the movie and can be viewed in five separate featurettes or altogether. Raimi and Gellar speak highly of the original Japanese version and how he wanted to bring it to North American audiences but recast key roles with American actors. The mythology behind the story and its roots in Japanese culture is explored. Unlike the original, which used actual locations, the house in this new version existed entirely on a set. The cast also talk about Shimizu’s distinctive vision and his working methods.
Finally, “Under the Skin” features Dr. Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neural science and psychology. He talks about how fear in horror films work on its audience. They are often removed from the fear because they are watching it from a safe distance in a movie and can therefore enjoy it as opposed to actually experiencing it first hand which is not an enjoyable experience.