If you’re the kind of camp-horror fan who likes to watch scenes in which people go into the basement/attic/mysterious locked room for no reason except that it’s time to wake the audience with another cheap jolt, then you might have a good time screaming (or giggling) at The Grudge. In a modest corner of Tokyo, there is an ordinary-seeming split-level house, and a bad thing once happened there, and ghosts now reside in the house, and the principal spectre looks like a medieval feminine demon out of Japanese folklore. It has silky long black hair, a powder-white face, and a way of slithering up to whomever it’s trying to spook before popping open its eyes in a mad grimace of frozen fear.
One after another, people enter the house, and inevitably they wind up on the receiving end of the Kabuki death stare. The Grudge, which stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as a transplanted apprentice social worker and a number of lesser-known actors who look even more at sea than she does, is a horror film that consists of virtually nothing but don’t-go-in-the-attic suspense scenes strung together with a reasonable degree of brooding mood and a minimum of logic. The film moves vaguely backward in time — emphasis on vague — as it wends its way toward the source of the house’s curse. The director, Takashi Shimizu, was invited by producer Sam Raimi to do a Hollywood remake of Ju-On, his horror thriller that played in the States earlier this year, and given the degree to which that film was overrated, expect to hear cries about how the purity of Shimizu’s vision has been toned down. But really: Ju-On had a few potent scare images plugged into a barely functional story line, and the same is true, more or less, of The Grudge.
A movie like this one depends on the sinister, goosing effectiveness of its soundtrack, which in this case is a pushy cacophony of rustles, scratches, clangs, bangs, bumps in the night, whining kitty snarls, and the sort of tuneless violin skittering that Kubrick first employed as the sound of high anxiety in The Shining. In a rare moment of quiet, there’s a nifty sequence, reminiscent of The Ring (a far superior thriller in both its Japanese and American versions), in which the ghost appears, almost as a gathering puff of smoke, on a grainy surveillance videotape. The rest of the time, what The Grudge has going for it is the novelty of bare-bones fright-film conventions exported from another culture. ”Boo!,” at least, doesn’t get lost in translation.