Sunday, October 24, 2004

A Future DVD Purchase I Won't Regret: The Grudge (2004)

The Grudge opened last Friday amidst a brutal critical drubbing. Almost to a man, reviewers have described it as illogical, repetitive, clich├ęd, and -- the kiss of death for a horror film -- not scary. I saw "The Grudge" yesterday, and in my opinion these reviewers are out of their goddamn minds.

When deciding whether or not to see a film, I tend to give a lot of weight to critical consensus. Although I always take the opinions of individual reviewers with a grain of salt -- I remembered Roger Ebert's shrill anti-Bush editorials and his so-glowing-it's-radioactive review of "Fahrenheit 9/11" when I read how much he despised "Team America" -- when legions of reviewers hate a film, I figure it's for a good reason. Before I saw "The Grudge," the only positive review I read was from a guy who loved "Ringu." And as you can see a few posts back, I thought "Ringu" was godawful. But "The Grudge's" trailer had intrigued me and I'm fascinated by the film's Japanese setting and I'm a sucker for anything with Sarah Michelle Gellar in it. So I plunked down my dough for a matinee ticket. I'm glad I did.

"The Grudge," a remake of the Japanese film "Ju-On" (2000), concerns a haunted house so potent that even if you manage to escape it, the ghosts will just follow you home and kill you anyway. The story occasionally moves backwards in time, but unlike most of the reviewers who've seen it, I didn't find this confusing in the least. And I don't think most other people will either. The present-day storyline with Sarah Michelle Gellar moves steadily forward, and it's intercut with the stories of the man who killed himself after visiting the house and the first family to move into it after the deaths of the previous tenants. The film lays out these puzzle pieces for the audience and then proceeds to fit them all together into a compelling whole. This technique culminates with a masterful sequence in which the house seemingly transports Gellar to a day three years in the past, allowing her to witness the impetus for one of the deaths. Director Takashi Shimizu increases the tension with moments in which the dead character seems to be aware of Gellar's presence. As an amateur horror story writer, I can tell you that one of my biggest challenges is finding ways to impart backstory without making it tedious. "The Grudge" accomplishes this quite deftly.

Most of "The Grudge's" negative reviews focus on how the various characters always investigate strange sights or noises instead of running away or calling the police. I feel I must defend "The Grudge" on this score. I watched the film with an eye for this sort of thing, and I think in most cases the characters' behavior is logical. They are usually following what appears to be a small child or a cat (although it's actually something that manages to be both and neither) or someone in distress. At one point, a ghost even disguises itself as another character. Is "The Grudge" repetitive? In the sense that the house keeps killing people, I suppose so. The difference, however, is that the victims in the grudge are not the ciphers of a slasher film but are instead interesting, sympathetic people. If their personalities are only lightly sketched, I can forgive that in light of their limited screen time -- as opposed to something like "Don't Look Now," which had a whole film in which to make me care about Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and failed miserably.

I think a lot of reviewers were put off by a lack of a central character in "The Grudge." Although Gellar gets top billing, her story occupies only about half of the actual running time. The film's puzzle-box structure gives us glimpses of many characters' lives... before they are dispatched by the house's bloodthirsty ghosts. This is not a character study, but something far more visceral. The movie doles out its scares pretty regularly and always manages to keep them from being repititious. There's a powerful scene with a character in her office tower's stairwell, with the lights flickering out in the upper levels, causing darkness to sink down towards her while something is crawling up from the lower levels. During an elevator ride, we see through the window (but the character isn't looking) a ghostly little boy standing on one of the passing floors. And the same ghost is waiting on the next floor, and on the next, and on the next...! "The Grudge's" ghosts also have a sense of humor. When a character in an apartment building gets a phone call from another character who claims to be waiting several floors down -- and who the audience knows is dead -- the first character agrees to "buzz [him] in." She does so, unlocking a door several stories below. She turns around, aaaannnd... cue doorbell. (Candygram!)

Is "The Grudge" perfect? No, although it's pretty damned close. There are a few scenes that are meant to be frightening but just aren't -- like the shower scene with Gellar finding a dead hand (or as a brilliant Television Without Pity post described it, "zombie baby ass") on the back of her head. She feels the hand, looks scared, turns around, and that's it. That's not scary. That's just weird. Also, the film would have been even better if it had ended one scene earlier. Still, it was well worth my time and money, it did a great job of repeatedly scaring the bejeezus out of me, and I plan to see it again. And you can bet your (zombie baby) ass I'll be buying the eventual DVD.

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