When people think of J-Horror, the first thing that pops into their heads is usually The Ring. It’s America’s touchstone for Japanese horror.
It shouldn’t be. I like The Ring just fine, but if anything represents J-Horror, the power it has, the meaning it holds and the unabashed way it can get out of control and larger than life, it’s The Grudge. There are something like 16 Grudge movies in various formats (give or take a few, it’s hard to keep track of all of them sometimes). I adore The Grudge movies for a number of reasons and firmly believe that they are the pinnacle of J-Horror and represent the best and brightest of its glories.
That said, my reaction to seeing that there was a new American Grudge movie vacillated. When I first heard I was super excited. Yeah, there shouldn’t be any more remakes. They’re lazy money grabs. But in this case you’re being lazy in a grab specifically for my money (why the hell else would you make The Grudge part 2,548? My $20 must be special somehow) so I’m okay with it. The trailers started coming and my hopes started to ebb. There was still hope. It looked like they were trying to translate the concepts into an American format. Yes, that means some parts of it were gonna end up stupid (I have an extremely low opinion of American horror), I can deal with that.
Then I saw the movie. In general, I think less and less of it the more I contemplate it. The reasons vary from simply what the movie is to the more complex comparison of this movie with the core Grudge films of Takashi Shimizu. So, I’ll be breaking my discussion up into two parts, the first a spoiler free review of only this movie on its own merits. The second, a super spoilery discussion of this movie as a product of the movies and culture it came from.
Part 1 – In Which I Review This Very Short Season Of True Detective
2020’s The Grudge is a reboot of the series. They’re starting at the beginning. Kind of. They link this movie to the 2004 American Grudge that Takashi Shimizu directed (it’s possible they’re trying to link it to the 2002 Ju-On, but they failed if they did try) by inserting an American care worker before Sarah Michelle Gellar. I don’t wholly disagree with this decision. I’m a big fan of the spreading of the Grudge, but the connection really wasn’t necessary. And The Grudge continuity is nothing if not messy.
The first problem presented itself right away: We see the ghost in first freaking scene of the movie. I hope you don’t think this is a spoiler, because, I repeat, the first scene of the movie. So, as a horror fan, I’ve already got my hackles up. Why would you show us the ghost that quickly? (there is also a tangent rant about the ghost itself, but that will be discussed below in the nerd out section) If they directing this movie at people who have already seen and enjoyed The Grudge films, that move would make sense (though I still don’t like it). But then you need to move into new territory and give the nerds you clearly made this movie for something we haven’t seen before. But the makers of this film didn’t do that. They remade Ju-On pretty much scene for scene, just putting them in slightly different order and in a more obviously American context.
The context they chose was cops investigating a murder. This is not a bad choice. The problem is, that choice, coupled with the long shots in the beginning of people driving in cars through fields and the pervasiveness of the color yellow in the art design made you think of True Detective. You have people sitting around, smoking and talking about how terrible their lives are, contemplating the bad things going on at the scary house, and explaining them over and over while living in ratty houses and driving crappy cars (seriously, the movie clearly says we’re in the mid-2000’s. Why is everyone, including the hot shot real estate agent driving a huge, ratty 70’s piece of shit car? And why do all the houses look like they’re from the 60’s?) and “trying to put the pieces together.” The problem with it here is the same as the problem with the first season of True Detective: We’re promised something supernatural and because of all this “contemplative” hullabaloo, we never get it. For True Detective you can debate whether or not the supernatural was all that important. In The Grudge, you cannot. The Grudge is a movie about ghosts in a haunted house. End of story.
And it is here that I will say it again, because Americans have a legitimate problem with this:
RESPECT YOUR GHOSTS!
If you have ghosts in your story, make them a part of your story. They were people, which means they are characters. They have stories, they have reasons for doing what they do. Respect that by exploring it and allowing your audience to as well.
As for the rest, I thought the performances were fine. Basically no one had much to work with, so it’s hard to judge the actors in this film. The art direction was rather blah, but did have some nice spots. There was one pretty corpse, but that’s it.
The biggest problem for this as a horror movie was the singular lack of tension. There were no stakes for the characters in the movie. Muldoon never seemed to realize that she was on the ghost’s radar, even when it was toying with her (aided by the fact that the Landers seemed to dick around a lot when haunting people. Kayako had shit to do. If she was gonna kill you, she was gonna kill you now. Also, the Landers needed to stop screaming at people. With all those flies around you can’t leave your mouth hanging open like that). This led to there being basically no dread built up in the movie. Everything was based on jump scares which were telephoned in (I predicted every single one of them, and that’s not bragging about how smart I am. That’s saying they were that obvious), and most of them were just slight twists of scares from the original so if you’ve seen Ju-On or The Grudge enough times, you’ll see them coming too. Add to this the fact that we see a ghost every two seconds (and those stupid flies! Who thought that was a good idea?!) and there’s nothing to look forward to either. The only scare I give them credit for was their version of the surveillance video incident. That was pretty cool.
The original Grudge films are a mess, and they aren’t very popular outside a group of American horror fans with certain tastes because of it. But those of us who love them watch them and see the magic. We see the curse that Shimizu unleashed when he created Kayako and we love it all the more because it is so messy. Nicolas Pesce loves that mess as much as the rest of us Ju-On fans, I believe this movie makes that abundantly clear. He’s reaching for the magic with this movie. He’s reaching for the curse so he can spread it. But this movie is nothing more than fan fiction trying to imitate what someone else did. He took no chances and because of that very un-Shimizu like decision, The Grudge reboot fails. And not even gloriously.
Part 2 – In Which I Prattle About J-Horror Minutiae Like The Nerd I Am
WARNING: This is where the spoilers will be and where I will end up sounding bat shit crazy quite a bit.
I have quite a few little tin gods that I set up on the altar in my head. Takashi Shimizu is one of those I hold most dear. His films are borderline incoherent at times, and many would call him a one trick pony, they do tend to follow the same threads. But his films are also works of beauty and heartbreak that show how tragedy can swallow whole communities. Shimizu films may fail, but they fail trying to express more than a typical studio horror movie does and because of that I love them.
For me, there are three hallmarks in Shimizu’s work: 1.) non-linear storytelling, 2.) the way his ghosts move and 3.) an extremely keen eye for detail and As The Grudge is basically fan fiction that seeks to recreate Ju-On, it’s fair to judge them based on these three criteria.
This newest version of The Grudge fully embraces the non-linear storytelling Shimizu loves to use. This is risky because it is so… so easy to screw up. Shimizu himself doesn’t actually do it well, despite the fact that he keeps trying. In this respect, this version of The Grudge actually succeeds better than the original Ju-On. It is much clearer how everything connects together.
Shimizu’s ghosts, most famously Kayako, have a distinct way they move. Shimizu wasn’t the first one to have his ghosts move all herky-jerky like their bodies were broken, but he was the one who made it an art. There is actually a specific reason Kayako moves like that, the things Takeo did to her before he killed her, and that didn’t happen to the Landers in this version, so I can let that go. Though I would have liked to see it.
The extremely keen eye for detail is where Pesce’s problems with imitation really become glaring. There are many shots held for no reason. Pans are slow and the camera lingers. Shimizu does this as well. The difference is that Shimizu lingers for a reason. The long shot of the front of the Grudge house gives you a glimpse of Toshio in the window. Mar the cat runs across a room. Kayako’s reflection flits across a mirror. There is no emptiness in Shimizu’s long shots. They’re full, and you’ll see that when he wants you to. That’s his eye for detail. The stories, though messily told, are quite tightly plotted and everything means something. It often gets lost in the non-linear storytelling though. The tension is created in the twitch at the corner of our eye, in the shadows we know hold something but we can’t see what. Not in staring at an empty facade. This shows the fundamental problem with this version of The Grudge: Pesce and his team knew what worked, they didn’t understand why it worked so they can’t recreate it properly.
This lack of understanding become the mostly painfully clear in dealing with the supernatural elements of the movie.
I’m going to go on a tangent here that bugs me personally, but ties in to the lack of understanding. In the first scene of this movie, when Fiona is leaving the original Grudge House and we see Kayako (the scene where we see the ghost too early I was complaining about above). I instantly got annoyed by something that was pretty innocuous but pretty telling as well. Kayako was standing behind Fiona.
Kayako doesn’t stand. Her body was broken before she died. This actually became a distinctive feature of her as we see her crawling. She floats sometimes, she’s a ghost, ghosts can do that if they want. We can see why this is important when she does stand because then she just looks like the other big Japanese ghost Sadako (Samara) from The Ring. This has to do with the uniformity Kabuki theater created in how a ghost is represented (white white face and clothes, the hair in the face), but it makes those small differences that much more important in recognizing who we’re dealing with. The portrayal of Melinda the child bothered me as well. She’s always wet. Well, she was drowned, that’s understandable. However, Toshio, her equal in the original, was drowned as well and he wasn’t wet. That’s because, while there are water-based ghosts in Japanese folklore, the wet ghost is actually a specific reference to The Ring. Koji Suzuki, in his novel, sets up very specific parameters for the creation of his ghost and water is one of them (his take on ghosts is actually really interesting and I would recommend reading Ring if you haven’t yet). In short, Pesce didn’t understand that the ghost he was borrowing was not the ghost designed to inhabit his world.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is a small part of a larger issue. To get to that, I’m going to have to go over some folklore.
American horror and Japanese horror, philosophically, can be seen as opposites. Japanese horror is about chaos being imposed on order: things are going fine, then something happens to knock everything out of whack and everyone suffers accordingly. American horror is order imposed on chaos: people are doing/have done something they should not, they need to pay for it, the agent of “evil” punishes/scares them straight, everything is corrected.
Because of that fundamental difference, it can be hard to translate Japanese horror into something the American palette can handle.
Now, Kayako is an onryou. An onryou is a revenge ghost that is basically the most badass of Japanese ghosts. They are extremely dangerous and extremely difficult to defeat. One of the reasons they are so dangerous is the chaos they create. An onryou, and a Grudge like the one that rules the Saeki and Landers houses, are indiscriminate. One Japanese folklorist compared them to a boulder that gets pushed down a hill. Maybe it will strike the people who made it fall, maybe it won’t. The boulder itself doesn’t care, it’s just going to crush everything in its path. The best example of this is the legendary Japanese ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan, where a murdered wife comes back as an onryou and proceeds to kill a ridiculous amount of people who may or may not have had anything to do with her death (in one version she impales a 4-year-old girl on a bamboo fence) before killing the husband who killed her. This is one of the reasons the original Grudge films are so messy. Revenge is messy is goes on and on until, like in the end of the original Ju-On, the entire community has been sucked into the cycle and is wiped out.
This indiscriminate and pointless chain of killing is something American just can’t fathom. We don’t know what it is, how it functions. Revenge is a straight line, for us. You find the person who did the bad thing and punish them, happy ending.
This leads to the way the ghosts were treated in this movie and, in what I think is a very interesting turn, the way Americans deal with difficult problems we don’t fully understand: We deal with the symptoms, not the disease. Muldoon spends the whole movie investigating all the deaths that are linked to the ghosts of the Landers, but never the Landers themselves. She doesn’t go to the root of the problem and try to understand it and figure out a solution from there. She simply goes and burns the house down, not sure that that will solve the problem. There isn’t even a good showdown between her and the ghosts. She has a small exchange with Melinda and that’s that. But Melinda isn’t even the ghost that is the issue. Fiona was the person who killed her family and created the Grudge. She’s the one who needed to be faced. To be fair, burning the house down will solve the problem at least in part. If the house isn’t there, you can’t go in it and get cursed. But it lacks the emotional punch of the original Ju-On, when Rika goes to burn the house down and stomping down the stairs comes Takeo. Not Toshio, not Kayako, Takeo. The big boss just arrived, and your stomach tightens because you know Rika is in for it even if we don’t see what happens.
Of course, having just said all that, I have to admit to thinking repeatedly during the movie, “that’s not how a Grudge house works.” Again, the philosophical difference rears its head. Japanese ghosts stem from selfish actions that don’t align with the good of the whole, creating a ripple effect that destroys a community. By tying the events of this movie to the events of the 2004 movie, the makers are essentially saying this outside thing came in and screwed up our community. These nice American people were affected by some scary foreign thing that made them crazy and different (I’m not trying to accuse anyone of xenophobia here, I don’t think that was the intent, but it seems an accidental by product). The simple tweak of setting the story entirely in America (you want to give it a specifically American flavor? Make the Grudge house a building where a mass shooting took place and the curse spreads its tendrils from there) would have improved the story immensely. It’s also a very American thing to do, blaming our problems on someone else, rather then admitting to them and saying that we’re screwed up.
My point in all this is that when you attempt to translate a story for a culturally different audience the spirit is what matters, not the motions. Understanding what the onryou, the Grudge house, Kayako and Toshio are meant to represent means you can take those same ideas and rephrase them so Americans really feel what these tropes are meant to tell us. It’s not going to get you something you can instantly market, but it’s going to get you a better movie, or, at the very least, a movie where you fail as gloriously as Shimizu often does. Because when you try and fail gloriously, there will be someone out there who loves you for it as much as I love Shimizu-Sensei.