The Grudge, the latest American remake of a Japanese horror film, demonstrates a clear divide between audiences and critics. The press panned the film, yet it made a surprising $40 million in its first weekend. Why? The film's trailers looked scary, and, although it's not much else, the film is scary.
More amusement park ride than feature film, The Grudge (rated PG-13) delivers at least some of what it promises. To complain about the heavy atmosphere, the creepy sound effects and music, the red herrings-as have many critics-is like complaining that a roller coaster goes too fast and features too many upside-down loops. A rider isn't meant to enjoy the view while plummeting, screaming, down the track.
What little story there is involves two graduate students (Jason Behr and Sarah Michelle Gellar) studying abroad in Tokyo. Ms. Gellar plays Karen, an aspiring nurse who volunteers at a care center. Karen's first in-home assignment takes her to an address where an elderly, deranged woman lies alone in bed. In a sequence repeated many times, Karen hears a noise upstairs, creeps down the dark hall to muffled rustlings behind a closet door, and . . .
You get the picture. The Grudge opens with some ridiculous on-screen titles to set up the story: "When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born . . ." The "curse" is trapped in the house Karen visits, and the entire film involves the camera following all who enter that home to their untimely end. The same tricks are used too often, and a black cat figures far too prominently in the story. But, then again, it's hard to argue with what works.
The strength of this and other Japanese horror films is their comparative subtlety. The Grudge is filled with disturbing, frightening images, but very little actual violence or gore. Director Takashi Shimizu and his colleagues understand that our minds tend to fill in the blanks (guided by visual and aural cues) in a manner far more frightening than anything spelled out onscreen.
The PG-13 rating suggests a conscious appeal to younger teen audiences. The film has no sex (although it's clear that Karen sleeps with her boyfriend), and very little bad language. But the disturbing images, particularly of a murdered mother and young boy, along with a twisted view of what happens after death, mean that parents ought to think carefully about this one.
But critics should admit when a film does, at least modestly well, what it sets out to do-and The Grudge will make you jump.