Terror in translation 

A review of The Grudge

click to enlarge KaDee Strickland as Susan Williams, fleeing from the - living dead in The Grudge.
  • KaDee Strickland as Susan Williams, fleeing from the living dead in The Grudge.

The Grudge (PG-13)
Columbia Pictures

For Halloween-season moviegoers looking for some edge-of-the-seat, popcorn-flying-off-the-lap thrills, The Grudge won't disappoint -- at least for the first half of the film. But many viewers will be laughing at the scary parts by film's end, the result of a convoluted plot, mediocre acting and tacky horror-flick predictability.

A remake of a popular Japanese haunted-house thriller, The Grudge retains its original writer/director Takashi Shimizu and keeps the action in Japan. This experiment in Hollywood outsourcing is probably one of the film's best aspects. Tokyo, with its swarming streets, forests of neon lights and quiet graveyards amid skyscrapers, provides a disorienting background perfect for horror.

Unexplained death dominates the film's opening scenes. An American man flings himself off a balcony for no apparent reason. A Japanese nurse visits the home of an American woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease and finds the house disheveled and the woman shuddering. Lured by the sound of crying, the nurse proceeds upstairs and unwisely pokes her head into the attic. The only clue connecting these scenes is provided in a legend that flashes across the screen after the opening credits: "When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born."

Into this bizarre vortex steps doe-eyed Sarah Michelle Gellar (TV's Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who plays Karen, an exchange student who follows her architect-in-training boyfriend (Jason Behr, Roswell) to Japan. Karen passes time by volunteering at a social services clinic. When the aforementioned nurse fails to show up for work, Karen is asked to fill in for her at the infirm American woman's house. Karen finds her way to the haunted house and slowly begins to unravel its curse. But she also quickly falls victim to the curse herself, and the undead begin to track her every move.

The film's grainy, subdued photography and slow pacing can lull the viewer into a false sense of security, making the appearance of the ghost cadavers -- a black-eyed ghost boy, a bloody woman and a black cat -- even more jolting.

Director Shimizu wrote the script to The Grudge after watching Hideo Nakata's 1998 Ringu, later remade by Hollywood as The Ring. Shimizu's film, filled with expatriate Americans, is a cross between Ringu and Lost in Translation. At one point Karen complains to her boyfriend, "I just want to go home," as if being menaced by possessed cadavers is just one more tedious aspect of living in Japan. But curiously, the xenophobia seen in Lost in Translation is reversed in The Grudge. It is, after all, a group of foreigners living in Japan who stirred up this curse. If only they'd go home.

But unlike Ringu, which also concerns a mysterious and contagious curse, The Grudge falls apart under the weight of long clunky flashbacks and uninspired acting. Gellar and Behr play paper-doll-predictable college kids who merely stumble through the movie with almost zero character development. For example, the only clue that Behr's character is studying architecture is a scene in which he sits a restaurant reading a book called Japanese Architecture.

Worse, Shimizu ruins a good thing by poorly handling the movie's back story. Instead of leading the viewer into the flashbacks via the main character's discoveries, Shimizu abruptly cuts into flashbacks. This creates confusion and breaks the tension necessary for keeping a horror movie scary into its final scenes. Halfway into the film, the nonstop appearance of the pale-skinned ghouls becomes more humorous than harrowing. When the nature of the curse is finally revealed, the effect is neither shocking nor frightening -- just strange.

-- Dan Wilcock

Tinseltown, Cinemark 16, Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15

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