The Grudge is set in a modest suburban house in Tokyo that belies the hidden terror that lies within. Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is an exchange student studying social work in Japan who innocently agrees to cover for a nurse who didn't show up for work. When she enters the assigned home, she discovers an elderly American woman who is lost in a catatonic state while the rest of the house appears deserted and dishevelled. As she is tending to the stricken old woman, Emma (Grace Zabriskie), Karen hears strange scratching sounds from upstairs. When she investigates, she is faced with a supernatural horror more frightening than she could ever imagine.
There's nothing new about Hollywood pinching hit movies from other countries and remaking them for Western audiences. After the recent success of The Ring - Gore Verbinski's 2002 remake of Hideo Nakata's massive hit Ringu (1998) - Japanese ghost stories are now in vogue. Good American remakes of foreign language films are like hens' teeth; they are few and far between, but there have been some: Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Jim McBrides' Breathless (1983) could perhaps be considered two. But the latest Japanese horror to go west, Ju-On: The Grudge, is certainly not one of the good ones.
Sarah Michelle Gellar from TV's Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the Hollywood drawcard on the marquis of The Grudge. She plays Karen, a foreign exchange student in Tokyo studying social work. A helper at the local community centre, on a home visit one day she discovers not only an elderly American woman in trouble but a terrifying, deadly secret in the attic. Things pretty much go downhill from this pivotal point. While aesthetically The Grudge is terrific- its atmosphere and sound design are tense- the structure of the film is confusing, in stark contrast to the inspired non-linear style of the original. Also, an inadvertent tension is created between the marriage of the American characters with the distinctive Japanese-ness of the founding material. In other words, these Anglo characters are not convincingly integrated into the cultural context, nor the story.
It is rare that the original author gets to remake their own film, especially in Hollywood. (Dutch director George Sluizer is one notable exception, remaking his 1988 film The Vanishing for the American market in 1993. It wasn't much chop either). But Takashi Shimizu got the chance after his American producer Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) insisted. It doesn't help however. Things get very lost in translation in spite of the lovely nods to David Lynch Shimizu makes with the casting of Twin Peak's Grace Zubriski and the wonderful Bill Pullman. (Pullman's opening scene is a nice homage to his disappearing trick in Lynch's Lost Highway).
So The Grudge ends up being silly instead of scary, bereft of the cultural references and haunting metaphors that made the original so unique and terrifying. I found myself asking just why is it that Western audiences won't go and see a Japanese film as good as this in its original form? Do we need to see Western faces in every film that much? I hope not.