That’s the reason I did it. I like being challenged. I’ve played Buffy. No one is ever going to out-Buffy Buffy, so I’m not trying to
— Sarah Michelle Gellar, AP, 18 October 2004
Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is an exchange student, recently moved to Tokyo with her boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr). Pretty and in love, they snuggle in the morning before his architecture exam, and before Karen heads off to a social work office, in need of a credit to buttress her nursing degree. Here her supervisor, Alex (Ted Raimi) sends her to her first solo home visit. Karen is apprehensive: even too-busy, distracted Alex can see it. True, he admits, by way of comfort, the regular girl Yoko (Yoko Maki) appears to be missing, but it’s an English language home and easy to find by subway, so Karen should be fine.
By the time Karen is on her way, only a few minutes into Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge, you’ve already seen a couple of grisly deaths, and so are likely anticipating the visit will be daunting, especially if you’ve seen Shimuzu’s first, Japanese version, Ju-On: The Grudge or its sequel, Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (not to mention the TV versions — this film is the fifth time through for the director and a few of his original cast members). Karen appears alternately lost and at ease in Tokyo: as she and Doug cross a busy street that first morning, the camera soars up overhead, their smallness and lostness suddenly concrete; from here, she takes him to observe a cemetery, where visitors burn incense and pray to ancestors’ spirits, her knowledge and appreciation of the ritual impressing even her supposedly intimate partner. They must have lost someone they love,” she murmurs. Translation: uh-oh.
The visual trajectory of Karen’s journey to the English language home — by train, city sidewalk, and long-and-windy driveway — includes shots familiar from the original film. Carefully composed frames of urban and ancient architecture give way to Karen’s face, deftly shadowed and shot from low angles, as she watches her fellow subway riders or gazes up at street signs and maps, struggling to decipher the symbols that set her course. Once she arrives at the house, Karen’s frowning face becomes the predominant image, as again, she endeavors to parse the strangeness all around her. A jumble of contradictions, she’ at once frustrated and curious, boxed in and also mobile, her stylish white sweater hugging her form but hardly suggesting that she feels warm or secure.
Taking a deep breath, she enters the house to find it in disarray and Emma (Grace Zabriskie), the bedridden client, crawling on the floor, her hand clawing violently at Karen’s foot. This distinctly eewwy event, plus odd noises coming from upstairs, leads Karen to investigate discover a little boy, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), in a closet that’s been taped shut. A crumpled photo shows the boy smiling with his parents, though his mother’s face is ripped out to leave a disturbing, jagged little hole. This is a slightly strange discovery, as Emma and her attractive American family — breezy son Matthew (William Mapother) and feeling-out-of-place daughter-in-law Jen (Clea Duvall) — are the house’s current occupants. Though they are granted a flashback sequence (during which Emma’s succumbing to the house’s horrors is instantaneous and daunting), at the film’s present moment, the couple is, like Yoko, missing.
When the cops arrive to scour the scene — red lights flashing, photographers and fingerprint dusters underfoot — they let slip that the house has an eerie history. “It is said in Japan,” intones Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi), that when someone dies in a state of extreme sadness or rage, an apparently highly contagious curse remains, a “stain” on the space where the death occurs. And once you “become a part of it, it will never let you go.” This would be the general menace behind Shimizu’s meticulous imagery: the house harbors ghosts — in particular, that scary little boy whose cries sound like they’re coming from the black cat he cradles in his arms, as well as a wraith-like female figure, her long black hair shroudlike, her eyes popping open on cue, startling Karen and anyone else who wanders within her reach.
As it turns out, the ambiguity of this reach is reduced in the U.S. version. In Ju-On, the female ghost, Kayako (Takako Fuji), was able to move beyond the house that compels her grief and rage, and so grants her power, wreaking unseen and chilling havoc on, say, a security guard who works in an office building. In The Grudge, however, Kayako, while rendered in more elaborately sinister digital effects, is also less threatening, as her ruinous designs appear to be more focused. Though she does follow Matthew’s sister Susan (KaDee Strickland) to her cubicled workplace and sleek apartment building, the creature holds off on assaulting anyone who hasn’t set foot in the house.
While this cleans up some of the weirdness and seeming illogic of the original, it also reduces the grudge’s potential; it no longer appears wifty and random, but is instead deliberate, its bloody victims ordained with unghostlike reason. Indeed, Stephen Susco’s script tends to clarify the house’s secrets, more or less motivating the violence and arranging time jumps so they eventually form a legible order, and — no small thing — insisting that characters (especially girls) do the wrong thing repeatedly, wandering through the house with heads titled and eyes wide, seeking definition and asking, “Who’s there?”
The Grudge also makes Karen its explicit hero: briefly confined to a hospital bed following her first encounter with the house, she looks tearfully at Doug, earnestly concerned that “something’s wrong” in that house. But she’s soon back on her feet, investigating the mystery (her particular athleticism is showcased during a Buffy-like sprint across town near film’s end). Still, she has to get through some uncanny time configurations in order to figure out just what’s happening.
For the most part, her film, like the famously un-chronological Ju-On, is intriguingly disinterested in clever plot twists, special effects, and easy scares (though it does include the bodies or limbs or bloody ghosts appearing and disappearing suddenly), and more fixated on complexities of overlapping time and space. Karen’s quintessential “American” identity — blond, do-gooding, intrepid — makes her sense of dislocation especially acute. By the same token, the movie’s “American” inclination is to resolve mysteries, and so The Grudge comes to a creepy, explicable closure, its pieces come together, even in sadness and rage.