Funny how dated a blue painted, scream-in-throat little Japanese boy seems now, doesn't it? It's only been five years since the $100 million-plus box office for 'The Grudge' (along with 'The Ring') kicked off a short-lived wave of Asian horror movie remakes, but it might as well be a million. Thanks to a subsequent flood of even-worse knock-offs ('Dark Water,' 'Shutter,' 'One Missed Call,' not to mention the dreadful 'Grudge 2' and 'Ring 2'), just the thought of the words "Asian," "remake" and "horror" in the same sentence sends chills down my spine -- for all the wrong reasons. I guess these PG-13-ready, ghost-lite scares were scary once to American audiences, but a half-decade on, the spooks of 'The Grudge' are about as terrifying as Casper the Friendly Ghost.
As 'The Grudge' begins, things aren't going so well for fish-out-of-water exchange student Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar). She's doing volunteer work in Japan, but the locals don't seem to much appreciate her kindly aspirations. Then she's sent to the house of an invalid American woman, after a social worker sent earlier goes missing. There she finds the woman dead, and a little boy named Toshio in a state of apparent shock. As the mysteries of what happened in the house slowly unravel, Karen will learn of an ancient curse that has befallen her, involving a long-dead spirit with a grudge to hold. It seems, according to Japanese legend, you don't mess with no spooky house with pissed-off ghosts inside...
'The Grudge' is culled from a popular series of Japanese horror films, known as the 'Ju-On' saga. I haven't seen all four of those flicks, but I did see the first one. There's no use in complaining about Hollywood's poor track record in remaking foreign films (let's tick off the failures: 'City of Angels,' 'The Vanishing,' 'Point of No Return,' et. al...) But it's easy to argue that 'Ju-On' is generally superior to 'The Grudge,' at least in terms of originality. spookiness, and general unease factor. 'The Grudge' is certainly Americanized and toned-down for PG-13-friendly box office returns, and that fresh layer of gloss takes away the edge the original Japanese version had.
That may come as a surprise to some, as 'The Grudge' was directed by Shimizu Takashi, who also helmed 'Ju-On.' This is not the first time a foreign director has remade his own film with diminished results (see 'The Vanishing' and 'Funny Games'), so against such less-than-formidable competition, 'The Grudge' doesn't come out that badly. Takashi re-uses many of the same shots and set-ups from 'Ju-On,' though alters the story enough (a couple of major characters are completely axed, and Karen becomes the main protagonist, which she wasn't in the original) that 'The Grudge' still has a few surprises, even for those who have seen the original.
The problem with watching 'The Grudge' today is that, like 'Halloween' and the slasher phenomenon it spawned, the wave of copycats that follow inevitably diluted the effectiveness of the forebearer. Though not as good as the American remake of 'The Ring,' 'The Grudge' still has a sense of passion to it, with the cast and filmmakers seeming jazzed to be doing what felt, at the time, to be fresher material. I've never been that taken with Gellar as an actress (sorry, Buffy fans), but her trembling-puppy-dog expression works well for Karen's growing sense of panic and confusion. The rest of the cast, a mix of American and Japanese actors, is uneven (Jason Behr -- remember him? -- seems particularly lost) but then 'The Grudge' is not about great acting anyway. 'The Grudge' still barely pulls it off because, at it's heart, it's an old-fashioned ghost story in modern dress.
'The Grudge' remains notable because, like 'The Ring,' it remade an Asian source and stayed, essentially, traditional in its scares. There are a few of the expected cheap "shock" moments in the movie, but Takashi mostly goes for the slow build. Trendy or not, and even after all those 'Scary Movie' parodies, there are moments in 'The Grudge' that give goosebumps. 'The Grudge' is not a true classic horror flick, but it remains an important footnote in the history of the genre, and one any serious student of horror should add to their Netflix queue.
'The Grudge' comes to Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1). Both the PG-13 theatrical and unrated cuts are available via seamless branching. It's a nice, if sometimes dour, presentation that's appropriately spooky and moody.
Like the pale kids that seem to be hiding around its every corner, 'The Grudge' looks pasty and a desaturated. There is some color here, but nothing that pops out. The palette is clean and free of noise, however, and fleshtones are accurate. More of a bummer is the flatness of the image. Contrast seems skewed down, and rarely did I get that 3-D "high-def" effect. Blacks are deep and consistent, with shadow delineation usually pretty good if sometimes suffering from the finest details lost to the murk. The source has held up well over the past few years, with a trace of dirt and grain here and there, but it's otherwise clean. Likewise the encode, which is free from artifacts. 'The Grudge' didn't wow me, but all-around it's not bad.
Sony offers us an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit), but I was disappointed. More could have been done with the film's sound design, and what we get is rather flat and lifeless.
Where are the creepy surrounds? The rear channels are surprisingly absent, even for mood and atmosphere, and score bleed certainly could have been stronger. There are a few instances of shock discrete effects, but it wasn't enough for me. The mix does sound strong, however, with hefty dynamics and tight low bass. Dialogue is well balanced and always intelligible. Too bad 'The Grudge' just doesn't sound more involving.
All of the extras on the previous standard and special edition DVD versions are provided here, again presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only. A solid package, if a bit dated.
'The Grudge' benefits from being one of the first Japanese remakes to hit these shores, and as such feels a little fresher than most. It still hasn't held up spectacularly over the past five years, however, and I can't say it was particularly scary (tweens looking for their first horror movie are probably the target audience for this). The Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty good, though, and there are plenty of extras. A purchase is fine for fans, but all others should just confine 'The Grudge' to a rental.