CULT CORNER: The Grudge (2004)

Buffy has a ghost problem in this American rehash of a horror classic. Sarah gives it another look. 

Who made it?: Takashi Shimizuv (Director), Stephen Susco (Writer), Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi (Producers), Columbia Pictures/Ghost House Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, William Mapother, Clea DuVall, KaDee Strickland, Bill Pullman.

Tagline: “It never forgives. It never forgets.”

IMDb rating: 5.9/10.

There’s a scene in The Grudge involving a woman who was brought back from the dead by the main antagonist, Kayako. The woman walks across a room and down a flight of stairs, but you only get to see her backside, which makes you think that something is horribly wrong with her face, and that she’ll turn around to frighten you. “There’s no way it can get any scarier than this!” I said these exact words to my friends who were sitting beside me, because my imagination was already running wild with all the possibilities of what she might actually look like. And thus, the movie would fail in its attempt to scare me any more than I had already scared myself. At least, that was my assumption at the time. “Bring it on,” I said with anticipation.

And… then she turned around. And I screamed and nearly asphyxiated myself with a nearby cushion. It wasn’t exactly my proudest moment. Embarrassing anecdote aside, this is indeed the scaring power of The Grudge. Or, at least it was for me. As with all things in life, results will vary. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably lose a good month or two of sleep from the experience.

The Grudge is a remake of director Takashi Shimizu’s iconic Japanese horror movie, Ju-on: The Grudge. However, the redo was directed by Shimizu as well. He wanted to bring Japan’s unique brand of horror to international audiences, and did so by hiring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jason Behr to play the leads. Gellar and Behr play American expats Karen Davis and Doug McCarthy, who are a couple that move to Tokyo. Karen is an exchange student and has a job as a careworker, while her boyfriend works at a restaurant.

This is a fish-out-of-water scenario – which is something most movies deal in – but I was immediately drawn to the one found here because of how extreme it is, and how it parallels the real-life experiences of the viewer. Karen and Doug feel displaced throughout the movie, and we do too. It’s not because we relate to their inability to speak full and proper Japanese, or to understand direction signs, but because we feel a connection to their attempts to understand a world which they are not familiar with. As they learn to adapt to Japan and its culture, we, as the audience, learn to adapt to the movie at large, which is full of the signature trappings of the Japanese horror genre, and that is something quite different from our own. That’s what makes this scenario so notable.

Another notable aspect of The Grudge is that it plays to our childish fears. That is to say it takes us as once proud teenagers and adults – guffawing at the notion of being scared by a movie – and turns us into the shriveling little children we once were. That is one of the hallmarks of a great horror flick: the degradation of the mind. The movie does this by reminding us of the fact that the world was much larger to us when we were so much smaller. Impossible things seemed possible when we were little. Life experiences will vary of course, but for many of us, our closets were home to evil spirits, dark hallways hid many angry demons, and bathroom mirrors were to be avoided at all times. We carry these, and all of our childhood experiences, into adulthood. And while we grow out of many of them, they will always be a part of us. Some are just more well-hidden than others. Movies like The Grudge simply act as a fist, reaching deep inside our souls to pull those memories back to the forefront of our minds.

The film does this by featuring an attic door located at the top of a closet, through which bad things happen… and have happened. It also defiles the sanctity of the bed, which I know is an utterly ridiculous thing to say, but it cannot be understated in the least. Your bed is supposed to be the sanctuary you run to at night after watching the scary movie you weren’t supposed to. Your sheets are supposed to shield you from harm. The movie obliterates any notion of safety from your mind, and you will probably have issues afterwards. And yet that’s just one of the many examples.

But probably the best feature of The Grudge is its main antagonist, Kayako (Takako Fuji). She is an onryō, or vengeful spirit, that comes to us from Japanese folklore. As an onryō, Kayako greets her opponents with a two-pronged signature that is, in a word, unforgettable. First are her obscenely wide eyes, conveying a single-mindedness and an uncontrollable need to kill. Her eyes convey, in an instant, that she is beyond human and beyond reasoning. They are the windows to the soul, but because she has none, you are left feeling powerless. How does one deal with something that is simply not human, and doesn’t play by our rules? In my opinion, she is far more terrifying than a villain who smirks, looks angry, chuckles, and does whatever else a typical villain would do. Kayako does none of these things. She has none of these emotions. She is simply there to kill you, and nothing can stop her. Next is her ominous death rattle, which is the second part of her signature. It’s like a throaty croaking noise that is amplified, beefed-up and lengthened to unbearable stretches of time, driving you mad with fright. When you hear it, you know the end is nigh.

The movie makes full use of not only Kayako but also her son, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), as well. Toshio has his own signature, which is to stare menacingly at people and to open his mouth to emit an eerie cat-like wail. Both Kayako and Toshio are placed in elaborate positions throughout various scenes in the movie, with each scene intended to scare you worse than the last. This is used to full effect by Shimizu, who directs The Grudge using close-shot after close-shot to give you a feeling of being confined and squished within its pale grey walls. By opting to do this and using wide-shots only sparingly, and by choosing to use a more subdued and grimy colour palette, The Grudge feels like one giant prison cell. To complete the effect, you have one generally static location in which most of the events in the movie take place, which is the house Kayako haunts, so you feel even less safe because there’s not many other destinations to cut to, and even when the movie does cut to someplace safer, Kayako is there to remind you that nothing in this universe is a sanctuary. Nothing. And the movie isn’t fast either. It’s slow, atmospheric and haunting, making full use of its production design.

However, it is not without faults. Kayako may be a great antagonist due to her absolute lack of humanity, but because she is an onryō, it is her humanity which turned her into a monster in the first place. But I am torn on this. The Grudge does a great job of slowly laying the foundation for her backstory through flashbacks in the movie’s winding narrative – which features a separate group of characters who had originally fallen prey to her curse – but it runs into pacing issues near the end because it crams the entirety of her actual transformation into a long sequence of events. This includes the discovery and reading of the diary she left behind, as well as flashbacks to her murder at the hands of her abusive husband, and the murder of their son and the family cat via drowning. This flashback scene in particular was poorly handled, in my opinion, and took me out of the movie for a brief period of time. It simply felt disjointed visually from the rest of the movie, and it takes away from both the profound nature of Kayako and the profound nature of the movie itself. They suddenly feel less threatening at this juncture because they’re now suddenly less than mythical. Domestic violence is a very serious issue, but it’s also a human issue. By making it the core of a movie like The Grudge, which deals with things that are completely, impossibly inhuman, you deprive it of that sense of gravitas it once had. Kayako’s origin story is like an anchor that drags us back into the mortal realm.

The reason why I am torn on this is because, on one hand, it does affect the movie for me. The whirlwind of Kayako’s tortured past being unearthed in the present is obviously meant to setup the final confrontation between her and Karen, which, arguably, is one of my favorite confrontations ever put to film. But obviously it had the opposite affect on me. On the other hand, what I do like about it is that it provides depth to her character. There’s an extra layer there that makes her three-dimensional, and explains why she wants to murder people so badly. There’s a single-minded intent to her actions, as I stated earlier, but now we know why it’s there and why she can’t be reasoned with. This was the catalyst that started her transformation into a mindless killing machine. That being said, depth does not have to come from a backstory, and if it does, then it doesn’t have to be the entire story.

Ultimately, The Grudge is a different kind of movie. Yes, there is the occasional jump-scare, but Shimizu makes sure to creep you out very thoroughly before they ever have a chance to finish you off, so there is no uneventful, seemingly meaningless moment being topped off by the most random and annoying of surprises. They are all appropriately handled and are all quite terrifying. With an avoidance of wide-angle shots in favor of close-ups tightly edited throughout the movie, a transcendent use of truly terrifying creatures, and so many other great filmmaking decisions, The Grudge is a psychologically torturous experience. I like to think of myself as being utterly desensitised to horror movies, and for the most part, this is true. But when it comes to The Grudge, I see Kayako’s face everywhere. You cannot go wrong with this one.

Also, as an aside, I’d like to thank my friend and fellow SquabbleBoxer Rod Petrie for giving me some much-needed feedback for this review. I had originally intended for this to be out in time for Halloween, but some personal matters got in the way of that and made me lose my desire to write. Rod helped me get it back, so thank you, my friend!

Best Scene

There’s just no escape!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Before filming, the cast and crew went through a ceremony where they were blessed so nothing bad could happen to them for filming.
  • When we see Kayako crawling down the staircase towards the end in the infamous staircase sequence, she is contorting and bending her body and limbs in ways that seem humanly impossible. Takako Fuji, being a trained contortionist and ballet dancer, performed the stunts herself; the effect is not a result of a trick shot or digital manipulation.
  • The character of Toshio is almost always found with his cat. In real life, the boy who plays Toshio, Yuya Ozeki, was terrified of cats.
  • Although the house was built entirely on a sound stage, the actors and cast still had to take off their shoes to enter, to be respectful.
  • On the DVD commentary, Sarah Michelle Gellar remembers that Jason Behr had previously guest-starred on Buffy the Vampire Slayer but not Clea Duvall, who also appeared in one story “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” as a girl who turns invisible. This is because Gellar never had any scenes with Duvall’s character whilst she was visible so the actresses never actually met.

Sarah Bishop

Art lover. Food lover. Connoisseur of weirdness.

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