The latest (as of this writing) Japanese horror flick to make its way to these here shores, The Grudge is not an overwhelming success as a story vehicle. However, if you're looking for spooky shit, and a lot of it, then you've come to the right place.
This film was obviously poised (at least here in America) to capitalize on the success of The Ring, with which it shares a great deal in terms of imagery. In terms of comparison, it's a good deal scarier than that film, but frankly, The Ring was a better movie. I guess it depends upon what you've come seeking as to whether or not the film will really work for you. In terms of story and characterization, there's not a lot to be had here. Sarah Michelle Gellar, fresh from her Buffy days though still apparently stuck in more or less the same genre, is the nominal star, though she doesn't end up commanding more than half of the screen time. She's a likeable enough persona, but I suspect that she's just playing Sarah Michelle Gellar here, as she's not given all that much character material to work with. The story is simple enough, involving the sort of requisite tragic deaths that give rise to all cinematic ghosts. These especially bad-tempered spirits begrudge (get it?) anyone who enters their home, or even those with a close relation to an intruder, and the body count climbs. One might note that with such a modus operandi, it would seem that eventually one such ghost would eventually kill everyone in the country, but logic is rarely to be found in ghost stories, for obvious enough reasons.
The main trick here, and the part of this film that really works, is that while the ghosts are associated with a specific house, they've no qualms about leaving home to stalk their prey pretty much anywhere they might be, day or night. The practical upshot of this is that there's never a safe time or place to be found, and consequently the scares never really let up. Most ghost flicks have a rhythm of scary, not scary, then scary again, which is generally timed to the coming and going of night. Not so with The Grudge. We're never given more than a minute or two to catch our breath in between the horror scenes. This is of course where all of the character scenes would've gone had there been any, which is why this is much better as an exercise in making people jump than in writing. As a scare vehicle, it's pretty full of freaksome visuals and events. In a field of cinema so generally repetitive and overmined, we should in a sense be grateful for anything new, and we do get a little of that here. And I have to give kudos to any film that manages to bring a new twist to the tired old "something spooky making noises that turns out to be merely a cat" cliché.
The downside is as would be expected, which is that people still have no idea how to end a horror film, and therefore keep falling back on the "It's all over, whew...no wait! It's not over!" gag. This would seem to be a spoiler but for the fact that no one would otherwise be caught unawares by this; anyone's who's seen more than two horror films before will just be counting the seconds until the ghost shows back up after the climax. This is an area horror film writers seriously need to work on. While it might've surprised someone the first time it was done, it's painfully old hat these days. I can only speculate that the writer/director is setting up for the sequel, which he's already filmed twice before in Japan.
In the final analysis, The Grudge ain't the hottest thing since sliced napalm, since the minimal character work doesn't leave us with an overwhelming desire to revist the film; once we've seen it, we've pretty much gotten all it has to offer us. Good shocks and cinematography still can't substitute for having an emotional investment in these people and their fates, which is why this film falls short of landmark examples such as Poltergeist, which actually made us give a damn about what happened to the poor beset humans. Still, I'd say it's worth seeing at least once, if you've got two hours to kill with two hours of killing.
-review by Matt Murray