In `The Grudge,' Gellar visits a house of horrors


October 22, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The only character with any personality in The Grudge is a Tokyo house, but not to worry - it's got enough mean in it to keep any horror movie afloat.

With atmosphere to burn and more than enough dread to keep an audience on the edge of its collective seat for an hour and a half, this Americanized Japanese import (director Takashi Shimizu is remaking his own 2000 film, Ju-On) understands the cardinal rule of horror, that what is unseen and not understood is far more frightening than what is constantly onscreen and obvious in its intent.

Jumping back and forth in time, The Grudge finds its basis in the alleged Japanese belief that when someone dies in a rage, a curse is left behind, apparently for the dual purposes of seeking revenge and wreaking continual havoc. The grudge in this case is borne by a house where a terrible murder occurred some three years ago, and woe to those who find themselves on its bad side.

Of course, no one knows this when the movie opens, except for one apparently demented woman (Grace Zabriskie, a specialist in playing shell-shocked since her Twin Peaks days), who spends all her time either asleep or nearly catatonic. Unable to fend for herself, she requires a constant stream of helpers, including family members, visiting caregivers, even casual visitors.

At first it seems strange that the house doesn't treat her as badly as it treats everyone else who comes to visit. But this is one smart grudge; as long as she's there, a steady stream of visitors is guaranteed. First, there's her son and daughter-in-law, then her daughter, then a young Japanese caregiver named Yoko, and finally a well-intentioned if in-over-her-head American student named Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar).

Unlike the others, Karen manages to survive her first encounter with the house and its sadistic spirits, although she's emotionally the worse for wear. Her escape, though, has revealed some of the house's more grisly secrets, leaving it up to police detective Nakagawa (Roy Ishibashi) to unravel things.

Director Shimizu, who wrote the two Ju-On films so far released in Japan, has had four years to work out the kinks in this story, and the result is a film that knows how to get under the skin. Visions of evil are fleeting in The Grudge, and the grisly aftermath is more suggested than displayed; there are gruesome scenes, but none that lasts more than a moment - a show of restraint American filmmakers would do well to emulate.

Gellar, perhaps destined to never escape the shadow of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, embraces her image by standing it on its head; her Karen is no hero, no wisecracking demon fighter, but simply a girl facing an evil she doesn't understand.

The Grudge unfolds in a series of flashbacks, and while the house's evil intent is made clear early, the reasons behind it are left for near the end of the film. By that time, expectations have been set high and the chill factor has been ratcheted up a few notches beyond extreme.

The movie goes on one beat too long, with an ending that suggests one of those circular narratives with no beginning and certainly no end - a horror convention The Grudge would have done well to avoid, especially since it eschews so many others to such great effect. Eerie and unsettling in the tradition of The Ring (another adaptation of a Japanese original), this is a horror movie that preys on the mind more than the eyes, evoking shudders more than shocks. At a time when it looked as though Hollywood had forgotten how to achieve such an end, thank goodness the Japanese are around to remind it how. Happy Halloween, everyone.

The Grudge

Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bill Pullman

Directed by Takashi Shimizu

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated PG-13 (mature thematic material, disturbing images, terror/violence, some sensuality)

Time 88 minutes

Sun Score ***

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