Megumi Omina - Rika Nishina
Misa Uehara - Izumi Toyama
Misaki Ito - Hitomi Tokunaga
Yui Ichikawa - Chiharu
Takako Fuji - Kayako Saeki
Yuya Ozeki - Toshio Saeki
Takashi Matasuama - Takeo Saeki
Yoji Tanaka - Yuji Toyama
Kanji Tusda - Katsuya Tokunaga
Shuri Matsuda - Kazumi Tokunaga
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Ghosts
Running Time - 92 Minutes
Sarah Michelle Gellar - Karen Davis
Jason Behr - Doug McCarthy
KaDee Strickland - Susan Williams
William Mapother - Matt Williams
Clea DuVall - Jennifer Williams
Grace Zabriskie - Emma Williams
Bill Pullman - Peter Kirk
Rosa Blasi - Maria Kirk
Ted Raimi - Alex Jones
Takako Fuji - Kayako Saeki
Yuya Ozeki - Toshio Saeki
Takashi Matsuyama - Takeo Saeki
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Ghosts
Running Time - 92 Minutes
With the latest remake/reboot of THE GRUDGE starting the 2020 movie season, I figured I would look back at the 2002 original Japanese film and its first remake from 2004 - both films that seem to look like bigger successes than the current film that’s been released if the critical and commercial response is any indication. With films like 2016s TRAIN TO BUSAN and even 2019’s PARASITE prove, Western audiences are willing to enjoy horror films from an Asian market without an Americanized adaptation to boost name recognition for some Hollywood studio. That wasn’t always the case, as a bunch of Americanized remakes of Asian horror films were constantly released in the 2000s to varying success. Obviously, the most successful and probably best remake to come out of this era is 2002’s THE RING, a well-made American version of 1998’s RINGU. In fact, I think THE RING is a slight improvement over RINGU, taking what made the original film good and expanding on it a bit to great results. And considering how lame many of the remakes that came after THE RING ended up being, it’s pretty safe to say that the 2004 remake of 2002’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE, THE GRUDGE, is the second best Japanese-to-American remake of this era. Both films were huge hits, creating many tropes and visuals that would get copied into other horror films dealing with the same subject matter even today.
It had been about fifteen years since I had sat down to watch either JU-ON: THE GRUDGE or THE GRUDGE, even though I pretty much remembered the many similarities and some differences both versions of the same story [directed by the same director no less] had. And it was interesting to see why audiences were so gravitated to these films, as they felt fresh and narratively original at the time - but feel very dated today. Even though neither film holds up all that well in my opinion, I still think they were important in the history of the horror genre and are both worth a look. The question is if I would have to recommend just one of these films, which one would I choose? Let’s see the pros and cons of both of these films.
In Tokyo, multiple characters enter a so-called haunted house where a terrible murder-suicide took place between an angry and jealous husband and his wife, which unfortunately included their young son and family cat. In Japanese culture, this type of hateful act creates a vengeful spirit known as The Grudge, possessing and imprinting on those who step foot where the scene of the crime occurred. Whether inside that very house or outside of it, the spirit will spook its victims, creating mysterious deaths while passing on its curse to anyone who has entered that home. Figuring out what’s going on, characters attempt to break the spell before the curse spreads across multiple victims.
JU-ON: THE GRUDGE
With the huge success of 1998’s RINGU and its American remake, 2002’s THE RING, it’s not surprising that JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was as successful and an easy target for its own American version. What many probably don’t know is that JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was actually the third installment in that series, with the first two films being made for television. I guess those films were successful enough to warrant a theatrical release for the third installment, which helped build its brand since on a worldwide level.
It’s easy to see why JU-ON: THE GRUDGE appealed to so many. While it did take aspects of RINGU, especially when it came to a curse being passed through some means and a dark-haired spirit haunting people, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE forged its own path to stand out from a lot of the other Japanese films coming out at the time. While the scare factor is probably not as strong as it was almost 20 years ago, it’s obvious that director Takashi Shimizu was more focused on creating this haunting and sinister atmosphere rather than telling a memorable narrative. The visual presentation is still JU-ON: THE GRUDGE’s strongest aspect, still managing to creep you out somewhat with its creepy visuals and tension building scenes. While meme’d and parodied since, those moments where the vengeful spirit Kayako crawls down the stairs with a creaking sound that’s still very effective today are so well shot that it brings a sense of unease most modern horror films lack. The little boy, Toshio, is also presented well, as he’s always hiding in a window, a corner, under a table, or in a closet with a wide-eyed stare that’s unsettling. The meowing is a bit silly, even back then, but it gives Toshio character and presents something most mainstream audiences hadn’t really seen in a film. There are barely jump scares with loud noises, which strengthen the film’s power, letting the tension build enough to turn those lights on while watching. I also think Takashi Shimizu films the Tokyo interiors and exteriors so well, bringing something foreign even to people who live there. In a lot of ways, I think JU-ON: THE GRUDGE is a better directed film than Hideo Nakata’s RINGU, as I get a sense of fear more out of the former than the latter.
Unfortunately, style over substance is a risk that could either elevate or bring down a film. And JU-ON: THE GRUDGE does suffer from the lack of a linear narrative that tries to explain things out of order, but doesn’t really. While we’re given title cards at the start of the film explaining how the curse of the Grudge is created within Japanese culture, not much is done with that other than knowing the cause of the creation of this curse. We never learn why this curse spreads to other people, strangers even, who seem perfectly happy with their lives and had nothing to do with the situation. It doesn’t help that the story is told through segments rather than some sort of linear structure. You’re watching Act E before you’re watching Act B, but Act C will play out before you even get to Act B. It’s kind of a mess because you’re not really sure how each segment connects to the other besides the curse itself. And when you do figure out how each segment fits with the others, you just wish it was told in a somewhat linear way so it would flow better and actually build a lot of tension and suspense as the film nears its end.
This fragmented storytelling also hurts character development, as there never seems like there is a main protagonist throughout the entire film. This creates lack of depth for every one of the victims, as we soon learn that they’re just there to react to some evil spirits haunting them before killing them. That may work in a slasher film, but a ghost movie needs more substance in its narrative for audiences to really care what’s going on other than what they see visually. The closest we have to a main hero is social worker Rika, whose entrance into this home is the catalyst for the rest of the scenarios that are displayed out-of-order to let us in on what’s going on. But we don’t spend enough time with her to root for her and she isn’t as proactive in her actions after the fact to make her a hero. The segments themselves are perfectly fine and each have great storytelling moments within them. But JU-ON: THE GRUDGE has too many characters and when you do start to know them, they’re quickly disposed of. By default, the only characters that get some development are the Saeki family. Even then, we only know about what happened to them and why they all became evil spirits. And even their haunting and scaring people starts to become tedious two-thirds into the film. At least the actors are all solid and help elevate a weak script. Otherwise, this film would be worse off.
As for the 2004 American remake, most of the film is pretty much shot-for-shot the same as the original film. Considering it’s the same director, the film doesn’t tread too far from what made the original a success. You have similar characters who are dealing with the same vengeful spirits who meow, croak, etc.
However, there are some differences that do make THE GRUDGE a worthy companion to JU-ON: THE GRUDGE. Since the film is mainly cast with American actors in a Japanese world, the story has to change a bit to accommodate them. The main character, Karen, is our Rika substitute - playing a fish-out-of-water social worker who enters the haunted home and never leaves it the same woman. But instead of being tossed away for majority of the film and not doing much of importance like how Rika was portrayed, Karen actually has enough depth for us to care about what she’s doing. She has a boyfriend who supports her and cares about her very much. Even though she’s out of her element in a foreign land, she seems driven to be a caring social worker. And when she’s confronted by Kayako and clan, she actually decides to research the house, what happened to the family that had lived there, and investigates in how to stop the curse from hurting others. This edition to the plot actually helps drive the film to its inevitable conclusion, giving the audience more substance to chew on when it comes to this ghost story. It also helps us side with Karen, as she’s willing to do anything to stop the insanity, which is more than I can say for her counterpart.
More storytelling differences? Less characters, as a segment wasn’t repeated in this version. I actually enjoyed the scenes with the school girls in the original, but it wouldn’t have added much in this remake. We also learn more about the man Kayako was apparently in love with - a college professor who she started to crush on, but was only one sided as he was a married man. This crush led to the deaths of the Saeko family, eventually leading to some bad things for the professor as well, as he entered the house after-the-fact to discuss Kayako’s feelings and let her down - only to find their corpses instead. And probably the biggest difference is that the storytelling takes a more Hollywood approach, crafting a more linear series of events rather than a narrative that’s all over the place. Some flashbacks do take place like in the original, but it only happens when it wants to explain why certain characters are behaving as they are. If the remake has anything that trumps the original, it’s that the story and plot are much more assessable for audiences and actually help elevate the story into something more sensible. I think the tension and suspense are allowed to build much better in the remake, which is a definitely plus.
That being said, while Takashi Shimizu directs his remake as much confidence as he does the original, the power he visually displayed is lessened the second time around. Even if you don’t watch both films back-to-back, there are things that visually work for another culture that don’t work for an American one. The original film has a more quiet presentation when it comes to the scares, never really alerting the audience of danger until you hear that creaking sound that sends chills down your spine. In the remake, those loud audio cues to make the audience jump are here, making the same scenes feel less than. Also, Shimizu edits a few of the scenes, giving less time for these moments to cook, which takes away some of the impact. But I will say the film looks a lot better than the original in terms of cinematography, looking extremely polished and making Japan a beautiful place we would love to visit. It also flows better due to the story structure being stronger. And while the film does have questionable CGI at times, I don’t think it looks all that bad honestly. I’ve seen effects a lot worse than THE GRUDGE during this time frame, and I feel the use of CGI ghosts doing cool things adds to the visual presentation. I really liked that severed jaw bit and some of the faces that morphed into other things.
The acting is also pretty decent. THE GRUDGE was meant to make Sarah Michelle Gellar a movie star after her memorable run on Buffy The Vampire Slayer had ended in 2003. She does well enough as Karen, giving us someone to care about as she tries to figure out what’s going on. I think she’s an odd fit at times, as her acting could be a bit stronger when bad things happen. But her name value at the time allowed audiences to root for her and she seems invested in the role enough to take it seriously. I’m surprised the success of this film [and her previous television work] didn’t place Gellar on the A-list. She’s not bad here.
The rest of the actors had less to do, but filled their roles adequately. Jason Behr, fresh off of the original version of TV’s Roswell, plays Karen’s boyfriend Doug. Considering the two worked together on an episode of Buffy and hung out in the same circles, Behr’s chemistry with Gellar feels natural and you can buy them as a couple trying to figure out Japan. I wish he had more to do, but at least he helped add depth to Karen and had a decent presence in the film’s final act. The other two actors of note are Clea DuVall and Bill Pullman. DuVall doesn’t do a whole lot either, but she does the best that she can in her short role. And Pullman is always a welcomed presence in any project he’s a part of. He was given more to do than both Behr and DuVall, getting to believably create a bit of depth to his college professor character. His reactions of fear were nicely convincing, so I appreciated him here. Also, shout out to Ted Raimi. Again, small role but I like that guy, so win.
THE FINAL HOWL
JU-ON: THE GRUDGE was a critical and commercial success, while its 2004 American remake may not have been as big of a hit with critics but made a ton of money at the box office at the time. Both films have their pluses and their minuses and you’re probably better off watching both of them if you’re interested in this franchise for whatever reason. But if you only have time for one, it depends on what kind of moviegoer you are. If you’re willing to sacrifice a more understandable and linear plot for a more effectively creepy visual effects and sound design with really good acting, stick with the original. But if you’re willing to deal with a lesser creep factor and a more Hollywood presentation of horror for a stronger story with deeper characters with logical motivations, 2004’s THE GRUDGE is for you. I personally feel both films are two sides of the same coin, each side depending on what you look for in a horror film like this. And considering what I’ve been hearing about the 2020 reboot for this series, you’re probably better off watching either one of these two films anyway.
JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) & THE GRUDGE (2004)
2.5 Howls Outta 4
JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002) Trailer
THE GRUDGE (2004) Trailer