Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Grudge (2004)

Based on Ju-On (2002) -- which is actually the fourth film in the Japanese horror franchise -- The Grudge (2004) is the second big American film of the Japanese horror remake boom of the early 2000s.. 

In short, The Grudge is very much the Friday the 13th (1980) to The Ring’s (2002) Halloween (1978).
Many of the creative elements of The Ring, in fact, are repeated in The Grudge (2004). 

For example, The Grudge, directed by Takashi Shimizu continues with the new (for America) horror paradigm that simply being present is enough to render one guilty in the eyes of the supernatural. One need not commit a significant wrong, beyond being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even more than that, The Grudge displays significant uneasiness with (then) modern technology such as VCRs and answering machines.

Similarly, certain visual symbols -- buzzing flies, an oval mirror, photographs, videotape imagery, the dead boyfriend, and a secret family trauma -- recur from The Ring to The Grudge. 

And yet, this is -- again much like the American slasher film examples I listed above -- not a case of “copying” or ripping off” another property. 

Operating within similar moral and structural parameters, The Grudge instead stakes out unique horror territory, and emerges as a successful work of art.

Although the film may not possess, in the final analysis, the raw power and terror of The Ring, The Grudge is nonetheless deeply creepy, and trades successfully on the notion that a trauma -- much like an answering machine message or a videotape recording -- can be replayed and re-experienced, only with horrific effect for the percipient. 

Psychological trauma, in other words, leaves behind a physical record that can be experienced by others.  

And by interfacing with it, you become part of the next, bloody chapter.

Especially inventive here is The Grudge’s complex narrative structure, which in a weird way moves backwards at the same time that it moves forward. 

The Grudge begins at a late point of attack with the arrival at the “grudge”-infected Saeki house by a nurse named Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar). 

It then moves, vector-by-vector back to the original source of the infection or trauma: the tragedy of the Saeki family. 

At the same time, Karen’s story draws towards its frightening conclusion.

The only realm in which the American version of The Grudge really falters is in its baffling omission of the one character that actually unloosed the rage in the first place, Takeo Saeki, sort of the “patient zero” in the grudge/curse progression I diagrammed above. 

Without his presence, the American version of the material feels somewhat incomplete, like we haven’t quite gotten to the core or meaning of this trauma that “never forgives, never forgets.” 

Despite this flaw, The Grudge successfully raises hackles, and again asks viewers to contemplate a world in which you can become a victim…just because of the room you happen to walk into.

“It will never let you go.”

An American student named Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) interns as a care-worker in Tokyo and is assigned to take care of an old woman with dementia, Emma (Grace Zabriskie) following the disappearance of her previous care-worker, Yoko (Yoko Maki)

At Emma’s house, however, Karen discovers a strange child, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), and a dark female spirit or presence.

After a stay in the hospital, Karen looks more deeply into the mystery of the house, and learns that Emma’s family -- who live there with her -- have all died.  The corpses of her son, Matthew (William Mapother) and daughter-in-law Jennifer (Clea DuVall) are discovered in the attic.  Also found is a severed jaw.

Karen  soon learns from Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi) that three of his police detective friends who went inside the house have also died. 

She traces the string of murders back to an American professor, Peter Kirk (Bill Pullman), and learns that one of his students, Kayako Saeki (Takao Fuji) had a romantic obsession with him, an obsession that infuriated her husband, Taeko.

And Taeko, Kayako, and Toshio all lived in Emma's house...

“The whole time I was in that house, I felt that something was wrong.”

At the heart of The Grudge is brutal violence in the family. A father and husband, Takeo, believes that his wife, Kayako has been unfaithful to him with an American professor, Peter Kirk.  In a fit of rage, he murders her, and their little boy, Toshio. 

In that moment of rage, a curse or “grudge” is born that has a life of its own, and like a disease, reaches out to touch anyone who enters the infection zone, in this case the Saeki house. 

This is a relatively simple story, but The Grudge’s clever structure permits for it to take on more meaning and complexity than a linear telling might. 

Similarly, the American version of The Grudge features an element the Japanese films necessarily do not.  

Specifically, The Grudge trades in a kind of cultural “lost in translation” vibe. Karen and her boyfriend, Douglas (Jason Behr) are strangers in a strange land, and therefore unfamiliar with the city, the people, and the customs. We have seen this idea played out before in American movies, and I have called it  Innocents Abroad, in honor of Mark Twain. 

Films such as Daughters of Satan (1971), Beyond Evil (1980) and The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) are a few examples in which Americans overseas must cope with supernatural terror, as well as a lack of understanding of the culture they are visiting.  

In The Grudge, we get several shots of Karen standing on a train, walking a busy street, and then walking through an alleyway near the Saeki house. Strangers look at her with inscrutable expressions, and there is a sense that they know more than she does.Or that they understand the world in a different way than she does. 

This fact is pointed out early, when Karen and Douglas pass a shrine and observe a Buddhist ritual that helps the dead find peace. This is an important moment, but the Americans don't recognize it as one that has great significance in their own lives.

Karen's lack of understanding of Tokyo and its customs (spiritual and earthbound) is reflected in several shots that reveal her physically separated by barriers from fellow city-dwellers.  

On the train, for example, Karen is framed inside a silver frame (really hold-bars).  Before she enters the house, she is likewise positioned between two vertical bars, and so on. All these shots indicate Karen's "separate" nature not only from Tokyo, but from an understanding of her environs.

The same idea recurs later in the film with Jennifer. She goes shopping at a Japanese grocery store, and is at a loss about what items she should buy. She tells her husband, Matthew that she wants to return to America.

There’s a deep and unsettling feeling in The Grudge that arises not just from the “curse” but from the fact that Karen, Douglas and Jennifer are so far from home, and clearly don’t understand the “spirit” world in the same way that folks such as Detective Nakagawa might.  

Again, this is not a small matter given the time period in which The Grudge was released.  

America was locked in the War on Terror, attempting to bring democracy to foreign lands such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  But in the case of Iraq, at least, there was the sense that America didn’t fully understand what it was getting into; that ancient and deep conflicts between sects had not been accounted for in our war plans.  The Grudge connects with and capitalizes on this idea, of a Westerner confronting a world-view not, simply, of the West.

Perhaps more to the point, the terrible events of 9/11 itself seems reflected in the "evil" force working in The Grudge.  The ghost reaches out and destroys American lives, even though Karen is innocent and knows nothing of the events that created "the grudge.  After 9/11, America realized it wasn't separate from the world, or immune from danger and strife arising elsewhere in the world.  In a way, this is very much Karen's lesson and journey as well.

What struck me as most intriguing upon my recent re-watch of The Grudge is the manner in which the film connects “the grudge” -- a spiritual force -- to technology. 

On several occasions  during the film, we hear Susan leave a message on an answering machine, for example.  

And at one point, Detective Nagakawa watches video footage from a high-rise office building that features the ghost of Kayako.  

When one couples these instances of characters replaying moments recorded on machines, a connection to the Saeki family (and the curse) becomes apparent.  

The house or spirits, are also replaying moments from the past.  Near film’s end, Karen wanders into one such replay, seeing Peter’s final visit to the Saeki home.  We are thus asked to confront the idea that a ghost may be, simply, a replay of human rage, a strong emotion impressed on a place and that infects that place.

In the Japanese version of this tale, Ju On: The Grudge, the final scene alone revealed the source of the grudge, the force doing the actual killing. Little Toshio and Kayako had been seen throughout, but the climactic scene reveals Takeo, and intimates that as the final piece of the grudge “replay,” he is the one who kills the living.

Yet Takeo is missing, except in a brief black-and-white flashback, from the American version of The Grudge, and so some of the storytelling feels incomplete.  Toshio and Kayako died in the grip of rage.  They felt that rage, but it did not originate with them.  It originated with Takeo and his jealousy. By removing him from this film, that last piece is missing, and it is not clear precisely why the female ghost and the child ghost are attacking people.

And yet, The Grudge succeeds as an experience, as we watch the spread of the “curse” and come to the conclusion that it is inescapable. The most effective scene in the film involves Susan, and her night-time, office-building experience with the ghosts. A perfectly contained set-piece and a textbook example of splendidly-wrought, mounting suspense, the scene reaches to a crescendo of horror with the revelation that the ghosts are inside her apartment, and indeed, under her bed covers with her.

On a very simple level, The Grudge is about how rage touches people -- even people unconnected to that rage -- and ruins their lives. 

Just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, people can suffer. This conceit seems like a perfect metaphor for the angry, violent culture we live in today, post-Aurora, post-Sandy Hook. 

Rage can reach out and grab any of us, at any time, and there’s no antidote, no societal cure for it.  

As The Grudge points out, guilty or innocent, we are all at risk of being "consumed by its fury."


  1. A really great examination of this film. I've noticed the American version gets slammed quite a bit these days, but I have to say it is really an effective film. I love the way they used the American characters in the movie. As you pointed it out, it puts them at a great disadvantage from the rest of the characters in the story. Kind of like "Lost in Translation" goes to hell. :)

    I also agree that the omission of Takeo in the American version is very strange. Incomplete is a great way to describe it.

    This movie and "The Ring" are excellent demonstrations on how to conjure dread and creeping malice in films. I do prefer the Japanese versions a bit more. But I think both versions of "The Grudge" are very well done. I especially love the disturbing, low key, but oh-so creepy score by Christopher Young. He is the a master of horror film music, and this is one of his best.

    1. Thank you, Roman! I love your comment, particularly the love for Christopher Young. I had the opportunity to interview him when I was writing my book about the films of Sam Raimi and he is not only a great talent but a terrific guy who really loves the genre. And Lost in Translation...goes to Hell, is the perfect description of the Grudge!