First time tragedy, second time farce. Fifth time? Judging from Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge, by then you know what you're doing. The Japanese director has essentially been recycling the same eerie ghost story since 2000, first in two installments made for Japan's video market (entitled Ju-On and Ju-On 2), then in two theatrical-release remakes (Ju-On: The Grudge and Ju-On: The Grudge 2), and now in a Hollywood-produced English-language version, The Grudge, just released on video. And Shimizu hasn't yet exhausted his (or his audience's) enthusiasm for the material: Two further sequels--one Japanese, one American--are already in the pipeline. It's somehow heartening to know that this is one instance in which America does not lead the cinematic world in the methodical repackaging of past successes.
Let me first note that, while I do not speak Japanese, I'm convinced that "grudge" is not the best English word for the films' title. (The video releases are sometimes translated as "the curse," which seems a good deal closer.) Shimizu's oft-told tale concerns a man who, suspecting his wife of an affair, brutally kills her, their small child, and himself. Forever after, their home is spiritually poisoned by the crimes, systematically destroying everyone who so much as sets foot across the threshold. I think you'll agree this stretches the usual definition of holding a grudge.
From this premise, the films unfold in episodic fashion, flashing backward and forward in time as various loosely interconnected characters enter the house and encounter malevolent spirits bearing the likenesses of the murdered wife and child. These ghosts dispatch the intruders in a variety of ways, from simply frightening them to death to, in one case, performing a gruesome mandibular extraction. The result is less a single narrative than a series of nightmarish set-pieces--a distillation of the horror film, beyond plot or characterization. After each haunting, the film essentially rewinds (or fast-forwards) and begins again, carrying someone new to his or her inevitable doom. (I have only seen the English-language version and the original Japanese theatrical release, but by all accounts, Shimizu hews closely to the same blueprint in the other iterations.)
At its best, this structure creates a kind of hallucinatory rhythm, a metronymic throb of dread. As they deal with their terror and despair, the film's victims are all alone, at least in any meaningful sense. In this creepy, isolated atmosphere, the smallest disturbances--the movement of a shadow or unexpected appearance of a black cat--quickly become terrifying. (Many of the film's "scares" are startlements of this nature; with the exception of the aforementioned act of unlicensed dentistry, there is charitably little bloodshed.) The frequent shifts of perspective from one character to another may prevent us from taking their individual fates too much to heart, but they also serve to keep us off balance, without a strong protagonist through whom to make sense of the proceedings. (On some level, the films are trying to repeat ad infinitum the disorienting effect that Brian De Palma achieved with Angie Dickinson's death in Dressed To Kill.)
This sense of estrangement is further heightened in the English-language incarnation of the film because it uses mostly American actors but is set, like its predecessors, in Tokyo. (Produced by Sony Pictures, The Grudge may be the first movie ever to feature an American cast performing for a Japanese director employed by an American studio owned by a Japanese corporation.) Even before they encounter the spectral little boy who cries like a cat or hear the glottal clicking of his demonic mother, the expatriates of The Grudge are already strangers in a strange land. One of the best scenes in the film shows us an apprehension no less mundane than that of an American shopping in a Japanese grocery store. Even the architecture of the house itself--a sophisticated Asian box featuring sliding screens and a rectangular staircase--feels slightly alien and disconcerting.
The Grudge seems to improve on Shimizu's earlier versions of the story in other ways as well. The technical aspects of the film--sound, lighting, effects--are vastly upgraded from the relatively low-budget Japanese theatrical release. (As a result, there are no longer scenes in which the pale, diabolical ghost-child simply looks like a little boy who got into the all-purpose flour.) The script, by Stephen Susco, is also better, pared of some of its inconsistencies and extraneous characters, and now featuring a quasi-central character played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. A new storyline featuring Bill Pullman has also been added, helping to close the circle of the plot and supplying a minor mystery to untangle. The film still contains imagistic moments that bear little obvious relation to anything else--a scene in which Gellar pioneers a novel method of rinsing shampoo comes to mind--and it still unravels a bit at the end. But with the help of Susco (and, one imagines, that of co-producer and horror vet Sam Raimi), Shimizu has wisely tempered his idiosyncratic vision for an American audience.