A dish best served cold
Not a big fan of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (The Grudge, 2002), basically a series of setpieces loosely held together by the notion of vengeance after death. The plot is intricate, and frankly illogical; the characters are notable mostly by the manner in which they expire; the dialogue is, at best, functional.
The real star of the movie is Shimizu's claustrophobic style, and the battery of inventive effects he employs in realizing that style. The slow creep, either of hair or camera, into one corner of a house or another; the implacable creaking noise as the violently murdered Kayako (Takako Fuji) tries to moan through her twisted throat, or do her memorably crablike crawl. Ju-on may not make much sense, but in the hands of Shimizu it has all the sense it needs to send shivers down one's spine.
The American remake (The Grudge, 2004) did one thing right: it imported Shimizu all the way from Japan to direct. Aside from a touch more explicitness and an American actress (Sarah Michelle Gellar of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) in the lead, the remake was a shot-by-shot copy of the original; the sequel (The Grudge 2, 2006) featured a brief cameo by Gellar and a series of stories that expanded on Shimizu's revenge philosophy (actually the only elements that really expanded were the variety of settings, the confusing plot lines, and the ways in which characters died).
Enter The Grudge 3 a straight-to-video production, with Shimizu bowing out (he "prefers to produce," as he puts it) and even Ms. Fuji failing to reprise her long-running role as Kayako (Ms. Aiko Horiuchi steps in as substitute). Toby Wilkins as director doesn't seem to have a very substantial filmography, but his visual effects resume is as long as your arm--one suspects that the special effects, which aren't too bad, have been well-served in this installment. Brad Keene, who did the screenplay, has written a handful of other features, most if not all horror.
One must hand it to Keene, there's some attempt at characterization here--the family, now a band of two sisters and a brother, the youngest sister often wheezing and in dire need for an oxygen tank, the middle one on the verge of becoming a famous fashion designer, the eldest brother managing an antiquated apartment building in exchange for free rent. Sister loves sister loves brother; a neighbor named Gretchen (Marina Sirtis, doing the best she can after Star Trek: The Next Generation) occasionally babysits for them. Fact is, there's so much love and affectionate neighborliness--even the building owner seems like a decent enough person--that you wonder who could be holding anything against anyone.
When the scares start happening, of course, people stop making sense and start shrieking, which is probably one of the biggest problems I have with Shimizu's horror franchise--people don't seem to deserve their horrible fates; all they need to do is step into the apartment, or house, or whatever, and poor Kayako starts snapping her limbs in their direction. Once cursed, they do little more then peel their lips back and shriek--Kayako's going to get you no matter what you do or how well you hide (not that any of them bother too much). There's no emotional buildup, no sense of drama, no narrative momentum; people walk in, nose around, then bones start snapping. The Grudge movies are little more than the Final Destination gimmick translated into J-horror, with Shimizu's talent for creeping atmosphere and unsettling effects the only (if not inconsiderable) distinction. In Hideo Nakata's Ringu the plot had a real motor, a genuine source of suspense--the heroine's attempt to investigate the source and cause of the curse, mainly because she herself was cursed (Nakata ratcheted the suspense quotient considerably by counting down the days till she died, and at one point caused an unsettling sense of confusion--playing cunning games with one's expectations--when the countdown continued even after matters were supposedly resolved).
The filmmakers have boasted that their Grudge movie is bloodier, more explicitly violent--a pity, actually, as part of Shimizu's appeal was that he inspired terror (or at least profound unease) out of so very little: some special effects, some sound effects, a little inventive staging, not much else, not even a real plot. With Shimizu gone, or at least out of the director's chair, there isn't much to the picture--more blood, I suppose, give or take a few gallons, and a near-sex scene that comes to not much when the lovers are quickly interrupted. If I really needed to say something nice, there's a brief scene of unseen forces playing patty-cake with red paint that is fitfully memorable--one might wish, however, that the sequence didn't end with the standard-issue Grudge scare, a corpse with the lower mandible ripped off.
And that's about all, folks. Revenge might be a dish best served cold, but this one's been served again and again and again, with no sign of relenting. You wonder if the dish is still edible, considering the number of times it's been taken out of the fridge--there's a distinct aroma pervading the air, as if of a corpse kept on display way past its time of burial. Enough, already.
First published in Businessworld, 9.11.09