Blu-ray Review: The Grudge (2004)

Arriving on Blu-ray 5/12

Get Caught Up in The Grudge
& The Japanese Originals

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Why do they do it? In horror movies, why must every character abandon all sense of personal safety and logic and go investigate a strange noise in a dark place... all alone, sans baseball bat-- in one of those places like an attic, a crawl space, or a basement-- that looks as though nobody's ever approached it in twenty years?

Usually there's a lot of dust, a few spiderwebs for good measure, and one of those super freaky four-legged creatures we call "cats" that jump from the darkness and scare the life out of you. And elevating our blood pressure even more in horror films-- the person investigating the noise is often a tiny, attractive, petite, sweet-as-pie female who looks like she should be in a Neutrogena ad and not ----say someone who could easily throw down with any "big bad" that may be waiting off in the distance. Then to top it off, the poor young woman's movements are typically synchronized with pulse-pounding eerie scores that scream in our ears even before the women onscreen do... and they always scream (along with us some of the time).

Now, when it comes to The Grudge, which following The Ring, was the second smash success Asian horror work to be remade to phenomenal box office returns for American audiences-- our damsel in distress does have a leg up on the usual ones. She's none other than Sarah Michelle Gellar who took on the latest "big bad" to steal a phrase from Joss Whedon's universe every week on Buffy the Vampire Slayer but in this film, she's essentially the depressing season six Bummer Buffy who feels out of her element after being pulled from Heaven back to Earth by the Scooby Gang headed up by her Wicca pal Willow (Alyson Hannigan).

Equally lost in her surroundings in The Grudge-- Gellar plays an American in Tokyo-- Karen to be precise, who accompanied her long-time (basically boring) boyfriend while he pursues a degree in Japanese architecture. Studying nursing, Karen gets her first big break to be the "lead" in her first solo home care visit after-- wouldn't you know?-- the girl who usually works at the residence in question failed to show.

Where Yoko went is unclear to Karen and her supervisor (played by producer Sam Raimi's brother Ted) but-- as the audience fully knows-- it wasn't to go with a bloke from Liverpool and move to New York City but up the damn attic of the creepily haunted house to which Karen dutifully ventures.

Cobweb free and spotless-- it isn't too long after Karen arrives to take care of her invalid, almost catatonic elderly patient that she discovers all is not well in this household where a strange wide-eyed, seemingly not-of-this-world boy suddenly appears and later so does something else that's definitely not corporeal.

The movie, based on filmmaker Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On found an instant fan in Evil Dead, A Simple Plan, and Spiderman director Sam Raimi. And while it definitely benefits from its decision to forgo the traditional gore of the horror genre, nonetheless something is definitely out of sync in this unusual remake that was actually helmed by Shimizu himself (despite the fact that he doesn't speak English) with some of the returning cast members along with Americans including Bill Pullman in a wickedly powerful opener.

Inspired by the supernatural idea that if a person "dies in the grip of a powerful rage a curse is left behind" that "never forgives" and "never forgets" instead invading the bodies of those it comes into contact with and possessing their souls or literally scaring them to death (I was never precisely sure in some cases what the were "rules" in fact)-- the premise itself is a strong one and like that of Ringu (or in its American remake by Gore Verbinski-- The Ring), it's seemingly impossible to stop.

However, this one just never quite pulls you in with a wooden script, chilly approach, and constant shifts in time that puzzle rather than present an ominous mood. Essentially, it is a structurally uneven haunted house picture where the haunting goes beyond the front door and follows whoever was unlucky enough to walk inside. And then-- as those of us poor souls who sat through Grudge 2 realized-- it continues to spread its "grudge" or rage directly to Chicago-- somehow skipping over every other place in the process in the sequels.

While although I definitely applaud Shimizu's bravery in trusting the audience with his decision to abandon the rigors of a typically linear narrative--Stephen Susco's screenplay for the film never inspires all that much emotion from its cast who indeed utter the dialogue as if they were trying to speak Japanese.

Far less successful in the remake of the original work than The Ring which was bolstered by Naomi Watts screaming bloody murder like she (and the audience) really meant it-- this film is just more unsettlingly off-putting and goosebump inducing rather than downright scary despite a few requisite jolts here and there that help ensure you've stayed awake during its seemingly endless 91 minute running time?!

While a large part of the problem could have been fixed in the film's screenwriting stage-- another issue that I think The Grudge had working against it was the "show and tell" debate a.k.a the standard horror conundrum of when you pull the mask off the villain or let viewers in behind the curtain. Or in other words-- when the main villain is revealed early on, there's no topper to that and to keep up the same level of eerie suspense it built with that jaw-dropper of an opening that finds a title star dead within an instant (teasing us the way that Craven and Hitch did by axing a lead in Scream and Psycho), it may have been best to just have a vague sense of the "big bad" as characters begin to tumble rather than folding and showing the lackluster cards the filmmakers were bluffing with all along.

Guaranteed to freak you a bit if you watch it alone at night and in the dark as if you're a heroine out to investigate a troublesome noise-- unfortunately, this one just feels dead from the start until it tries to revive itself with a crackling finale and possible solution to the problem that most of us had been yelling at the screen since the first half hour mark hit.

Granted, it's much better than the second film-- surprisingly, the third straight-to-DVD release is the one that managed to involve me the most for the first time (and stay tuned for that review), even though it only had a fraction of the budget. However, it was the only one shot by an English speaking director as opposed to poor Shimizu who even had to wonder-- albeit via translator-- why on Earth he was getting lured into making the same film twice and sticking around for its abysmal sequel.

Much like the old joke that Walk the Line was Ray "with white people," unfortunately the same could be said about Ju-On and The Grudge although as far as this is concerned, accept no substitutes, put on your reading glasses, check out Ju-On and let Sarah Michelle Gellar and Bill Pullman move on to do something better with their time.

Finally debuting on Blu-ray five years after its theatrical debut to tie-in with its DVD third installment (although why Sony passed up the chance to go Blu-ray and make a trilogy bundle was beyond me money-wise)-- Shimizu's film is presented in its original PG-13 rating as well as adding in the extra crispy, blood and gore spattered unrated version that does nothing more than just gross you out by comparison.

While the depth perception of the film in its full 1080 pixel aspect ratio has improved, it still retains that original darkly lit and grainy look that had me toying with my brightness setting from the start to try and get a better contrast between the grays and black colors. And furthermore, while the balance may sound better with all speakers working on full blast-- the transfer was uneven with a booming soundtrack that necessitated me to crank the volume up super high on my accompanying Sony products to well past fifty just to make out the dialogue.

At PG-13 in its theatrical version, it still seems like that's a bit of a mild rating and reminds me once again that there should be something between a PG-13 and an R or better quantifiers since it's sure to startle tweens into nightmares but aside from that-- Sony makes the most of the Blu-ray format by loading up the film with two different commentary tracks with the Americans involved speaking on the theatrical version of the film and the subtitled Japanese track playing throughout the unrated work.

Incorporating endless featurettes that take you behind-the-scenes of nearly every aspect of the experience including a five part extensive documentary filled with interviews as well as bonus extras like video diaries, two short films (neither of which is compelling) and more-- the high point was when we were able to really catch a glimpse at the artistic value incorporated in the storyboard art, production design etc.

A Grudge super-fan's dream with so many extras, you'll be lost in the universe of ghosts for days-- while the Blu-ray is recommended solely to that particular audience alone as a great all-encompassing presentation of a film they admire-- the rest of those who have yet to check it out will do just fine going with an inexpensive rental, preferably from a location that's well-lit, sans cats, creepy kids, and weird noises.