The Grudge's premise, carried over from the original film, is straightforward: anyone who dies in the grip of a powerful rage or anger will be cursed to return to haunt the material world; their victims, once touched by that curse are inexorably doomed to suffer a grisly fate, and thus perpetuate the curse. The curse is centered on a house in a Japanese suburb inhabited by two, possibly, more ghosts, an unnamed, pale-faced woman, Kayako (Takako Fugi, reprising her role from the original Japanese film), whose dangling, black hair obscures her face (and which apparently references Nakata's similar antagonist in Ringu), and a young boy, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki, also reprising his role from Ju-On), prone to a disconcerting cat-like, feral cry. Who the ghosts are, and the reason behind the curse, however, are of secondary importance (and quickly revealed in the third act via an online web search by the ostensible protagonist). Instead, Shimizu prefers to focus on a series of interlocking, achronological vignettes, as the ghosts inexorably stalk, corner, and attack their intended victims. The victims in The Grudge are plentiful, from the newly arrived tenants, Emma (Grace Zabriskie), an older woman suffering from dementia, her son, Matthew (Thomas Mapother), an accountant, his wife, Jennifer (Clea Duvall), and his sister, Susan (KaDee Strickland), a securities broker. As Americans living and working in Japan, they are subject to the isolation, dislocation, and disorientation inherent in a closed, homogenous society. Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a student living with her boyfriend, Doug (Jason Behr), obtains a temporary position caring for Emma, after the mysterious disappearance of Emma's primary caregiver, Yoko (Yoko Maki), whom we meet in the film's second scene.
The mystery at the center of the film is related to another character, Peter (Bill Pullman) an American professor teaching in Japan. Peter appears briefly, in an opening scene that functions to generate unease, dread, and mystery, and later, to explain the events behind that mystery and, therefore, the curse. The plot engine is equally simple: lure the characters, one by one, to the haunted house. Once there, their natural curiosity, combined with the demands of the plot, lead them to terrifying encounters with the house's malevolent inhabitants. After the disappearance of several characters, a Japanese detective enters the scene, Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi). As befits his role as a detective, the character is defined by his inquisitive nature, but through him, we also discover pertinent information about the house's past. With so many characters, however, there's little time for character development. Little information about each character is given, beyond the generic (i.e., relationships between the characters, their professions). Instead, characters are introduced only to be rudely, if effectively, dispatched by the curse. Audience identification with the characters is kept to a bare minimum. In turn, this minimal identification is sufficient to support the approaching jump-scares and shock cuts attached to the end of each vignette. Although the curse seems centered on the house, the ghosts can leave the house to pursue their quarry. Once in contact with the house, and therefore the curse, the characters can be pursued anywhere, at their workplace or home. The ghosts' mobility allows Shimizu to use various locations to full effect, from the deserted hallways of an office building at night, to the interior of an apartment, and even to a shower, signaling that, at least for his characters, the absence of a safe haven or sanctuary from the ghosts. And like Nakata's ghost-child in Ringu, the ghosts can also communicate with their intended victims via cell phones, although in The Grudge, the female ghost is apparently limited to non-verbal, guttural moans and burps. Further, again referencing Ringu, the female ghost in The Grudge can appear on videotape and disrupt the video feed electronically. In both cases, the female ghosts share jerky, staggered movement that, through Nakata's and Shimizu's editing and change in film speed, results in an additional layer of disquiet for the audience.
Where Shimizu radically departs from Nakata, however, is in the use of a non-linear chronology where events flow between different characters, different points-of-view, and different moments or passages in time. Shimizu clearly signals his non-linear approach to storytelling in The Grudge from the first scene, where the demise of a character is later undone via flashback, culminating in an eerie melding of two of the storylines at the climax, with the audience temporarily asked to decide which character is “real” and which character is a “ghost” of memory. The audience is forced to follow and later construct the story, not as it unfolds, but as it should have unfolded, if told chronologically. As a result, the audience is left unbalanced (but with guidance), which in turn allows the audience to share the disorientation and dislocation experienced by the characters. What's lost in the thin, underwritten characterizations is then partly regained by the achronological story structure.
In the final analysis, the thin, repetitive (and therefore overstretched) plot, shallow, one-dimensional characterizations, and a nihilistic, evasive ending are more than compensated by highly effective jump-scares (with little actual gore) and atmosphere, relentless pacing, and the non-linear approach to storytelling that helps to create and sustain disorientation and unease in the audience, all to disturbing and chilling effect. The credit, for the most part, goes to Shimizu, an obviously talented director. With better material, Shimizu is more than likely to join the front ranks of horror film directors.
© Mel Valentin, 24th October, 2004
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