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The Grudge (2003)
Writer and director: Shimizu Takashi

review by Tony Lee

I have long felt that few ghost films are as spooky as they ought to be. If someone we meet appears distressed, it's a commonplace and reassuring clich´┐Ż to say 'you look like you've seen a ghost' but, I'd suggest, it's not really the notion of seeing a ghost in movies (and, by implication, in reality, too!) that's scary. I think what's truly unnerving to contemplate, and makes for better entertainment, is when a 'ghost' notices the protagonist in a genre movie (and, by extension, as we're presumably meant to identify with the character on-screen, the audience).

TV miniseries The Green Man (1990), adapted Kingsley Amis' novel concerning a haunted manor house with variable success, but it features one startling moment when Albert Finney's innkeeper is confronted by a spectre which enters the room, sits down in a chair, and looks him straight in the eye (and, as suggested by the camera angle, the ghost is starring directly at us, 'safe' at home, too). It's a classic example of how to ensure a ghost story makes viewers shiver with dread and/or laugh out loud as a release from overwhelming suspense. As with several recent Japanese supernatural fantasy chillers, such as the Ring trilogy, The Grudge (aka: Ju-On) uses this quite deliberately confrontational approach to the livings' encounters with visions of the dead (or undead?) to remarkably dramatic effect.

Rika (Okina Megumi), a volunteer worker from the social welfare office, discovers a disabled elderly woman seemingly neglected at home by her absent family, and is shocked by the sinister, naked boy, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), found hidden inside a wardrobe. The narrative backtracks to show how obviously possessed salaryman Katsuya (Kanji Tsuda) murders his suspicious wife Kazumi (Risa Matsuda), who exclaims: "It's not my child!" And then a brief visit from Katsuya's sister Hitomi (Ito Misaki) shows how the spread of this diabolical force results in further death and madness... Surprisingly, halfway through, the police arrive to investigate the spate of disappearances, traumatised victims, and bodies stashed in the attic. As the prologue explains, the lingering psychic 'imprint' of violent rage prompts a curse of 'Ju-On', and so the ordinary house at the centre of these evil goings-on turns out to be haunted by spirits of past murders that occurred there five years ago.

A horrifyingly 'broken' woman crawls downstairs headfirst. A malevolent shadow creature (with long dark hair like the well-dwelling 'witch' of Ring) stalks Hitomi, and kills a security guard, at her office building. The baleful, black-eyed boy-child somehow manages to appear everywhere, including many places that he is not particularly welcome, like in the frightened Hitomi's own bed while she's cowering beneath the duvet covers!

Baffled detectives consult ex-cop Toyama (Yoji Tanaka) because he once worked on the still-unsolved murders case. At the police station, Toyama seems reluctant to become too closely involved, and yet when he's left alone to study CCTV footage from a crime scene, the shadow presence appears on the monitor to glare directly at him. The implication that we all project our darkest fears and mortal dreads onto the TV screen (The Grudge is certainly a film intended for home viewing) has rarely been explored so brilliantly as it is here. Panicked into action, Toyama attempts to burn down the haunted house, but is struck by a horrifying premonition of how his impressionable teenage daughter Izumi (Misa Uehara) meets her weird fate.

Although it's been criticised for lacking both coherent narrative and fully developed characters, it's rather churlish to attack The Grudge simply because the director chooses surrealistic flourishes over mystery-solving rationality. Much of the film is comprised of bizarre and uncanny images, disquieting music, and eerie sound effects (the creaking bones and popping tendons of that crawling 'ghost-woman' are likely to make even the least-sympathetic viewer wince). It's the recurrent, if fleeting, glimpses of supernatural beings and events that will give fans of spooky movies the willies. There's no point in expecting a horror movie with phantasms from beyond to make perfect logical sense. The only sense you'll find here is that of imminent doom. Compelling and engagingly stylish, this is a picture aimed at ghost story aficionados. Go ahead then, watch The Grudge on your own with the lights turned off (I dare you!). It'll scare you silly. Hollywood's remake, steered into production by Sam Raimi, with Sarah Michelle Gellar cast in the lead, looks promising enough, if the UK cinema trailer can be trusted...

The film has been digitally re-mastered and restored for Premier Asia's Region 2 DVD, and is presented in anamorphic widescreen format enhanced for 16:9 TV, with dual language sound (Japanese with English subtitles, plus English dubbed version), in Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks. Disc extras: an exclusive commentary by genre-expert critic Bey Logan.
The Grudge

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