By Pete Vonder Haar | October 23, 2004

Given the recent spate of sub-par American horror movies, it’s hardly surprising that domestic studios are looking increasingly to their more inspired Asian counterparts for ideas. Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, the remake of Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” got the ball rolling in 2002, and was enough of a critical and box office success to warrant a sequel, albeit a remake of the sequel to the original (everybody got that?). Now comes “The Grudge,” the American do-over of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On. Sony hopes to up the ante by keeping Shimizu on board to helm the new version, a strategy that works well in some ways, not so well in others.

According to Japanese legend (we know this because one of the Japanese characters says it), whenever someone dies in the grip of extreme rage or sorrow, a curse is born. This curse, or “grudge,” attaches itself to the place of death, infecting all whom come in contact with it, however peripherally.

Thematically, this goes along more or less with the original. Also carried over from “Ju-On” is the sinister house connected to a series of mysterious disappearances and a novice home care worker who becomes ensnared in the house’s past. The worker, Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), is asked to take over caring for the strangely lethargic Emma (Grace Zabriskie). It seems Yoko (Yoko Maki), her normal assistant, has…mysteriously vanished. Karen hears strange noises in the house, and discovers a disturbing young boy sealed in a closet with an understandably irate cat. Things only go downhill for our heroine from there, as she investigates the house’s tragic past and attracts the attention of its curse.

“The Grudge,” like “Ju-On,” is told in what modern reviewers like to call “non-linear” fashion, which is pseudo-intellectual writerspeak for “flashbacks.” Even so, the story isn’t very hard to follow, as we see how Emma’s family came to buy the house (Japan must not have the same full disclosure real estate laws as the United States) and how it ends up affecting each of them.

There are a decent number of scares to be found here. I don’t know what it is about Japanese directors and their ability to make people look creepy as hell, but Shimizu handles his duties capably. Of course, access to a Hollywood budget helps pay for all those eerie CGI effects and lighting, and it mostly pays off in some genuinely suspenseful scenes. Unfortunately, it also means the audience is treated to more than its share of cheap frights (a drawback to working in the American studio system, perhaps). Another problem is the relative paucity of character back story. Horrible things happen to the people in this film, but we don’t really learn enough about any of them to care. This ties in with “The Grudge’s” biggest problem: too often the scares feel like stand-alone scenes, barely connected by the sparse narrative.

Gellar is capably un-Buffylike as Karen, a role that requires her to do little more than gape and/or act perplexed at the goings-on around her. Most of the cast generally keeps out of the way of the special effects, anyway, though Ted Raimi’s welfare office manager serves up some unintentional hilarity.

The benchmark for any horror movie, of course, is how well it frightens you, and “The Grudge” is pretty satisfactory in that regard. Of course, the characters don’t help themselves by committing the same cinematic crimes we see time and time again in horror films: characters venture upstairs alone, investigate strange noises when they shouldn’t, and (my personal favorite) climb into bed to escape an angry ghost. One thing “The Grudge” does manage is to impart a few new life lessons you’d be wise to observe when pursued by mystical forces beyond your understanding, and I’d like to pass these along to you:

1. Never work late, and especially don’t be the last one out of your office. No amount of sucking up is worth your grisly demise.

2. Never watch a videotape. You’d have thought the Japanese would learn this much after “Ringu.” Consider, if some supernatural entity has already demonstrated the ability to thwart accepted laws of time and space, why couldn’t it get you through your VCR?

3. Finally, just get the hell out of Japan entirely. The country is obviously rich in culture and history, but no amount of tradition can make up for the fact the whole archipelago is – if movies are to be believed – surrounded by a miasma of evil and infested with malevolent spirits and giant monsters. Just stay in America, where our idea of horror is a Taco Bell that closes before 2 AM.

One last thing: if you’re a parent who actually uses the MPAA rating system to help decide what movies you’re going to take your kids to see, don’t listen to “The Grudge’s” PG-13. Younger children, I feel pretty confident, will be scared pantsless by this film, lack of gore or not.

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