by Hope Madden
Any time a film is remade, you have to ask why. Not to be cynical, but because it’s a legitimate query. Is there a compelling reason to watch this new one?
Nicolas Pesce hopes there’s reason to watch his retooling of The Grudge.
The Grudge began in 2000 with Takashi Shimizu’s Japanese horror Ju-on, which spawned three Japanese sequels and now four English language reworkings, two of which Shimizu directed himself. His 2004 version starring Sarah Michelle Geller became a tentpole of our J-horror obsession of the early 2000s.
Pesce, working with co-writer Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train—that was your first problem), pulls story ideas from across the full spate of Ju-on properties and braids them into a time-hopping horror.
Is there room for hope? There is, because Pesce landed on horror fanatics’ radars in 2016 with his incandescent feature debut, The Eyes of My Mother. He followed this inspired piece of American gothic in 2018 with a stranger, less satisfying but utterly compelling bit of weirdness, Piercing.
And then there’s this cast: Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Lin Shaye, Betty Gilpin, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, Damian Bichir—all solid talents. You just wouldn’t necessarily know it from this movie.
Pesce’s basically created an anthology package—four stories held together by a family of especially unpleasant ghosts. But that one sentence contains two of the film’s biggest problems.
Let’s start with the ghosts. Shimizu’s haunters—Takako Fuji and Yuya Ozeki—were sweet-faced, fragile and innocent seeming. The perversion of that delicacy is one of the many reasons Shimizu’s films left such a memorable mark. Pesce’s substitute family loses that deceptive, macabre innocence.
The way the film jumps from story to story and back again undermines any tension being built, and each story is so brief and so dependent on short-hand character development (cigarettes, rosaries, ultrasounds) that you don’t care what happens to anyone.
Jacki Weaver, who seems to be in a comedy, is wildly miscast. Go-to horror regular Shaye has the only memorable scenes in the film. Riseborough, who is a chameleonic talent capable of better things, delivers a listless performance that can’t possibly shoulder so much of the film’s weight.
Jump scares are telegraphed, CGI and practical effects are unimpressive, editing is uninspired and, worst of all, the sound design lacks any of that goosebump-inducing inspiration Shimizu used to such great effect.
So, no. There was no reason to remake The Grudge.
Who wants to scare your kids? Because there is ample opportunity to do so without breaking any laws. Yes, year after year the cinemas are lousy with God-awful PG-13 horror (Rings, Ouija, Wish Upon, Bye Bye Man) aiming to cash in on the underaged market with jump scares and lazy writing.
But, if you look closely you can find some scary shit. Nightmares in the making. So, we looked closely…
6. The Grudge (2004)
The amazing thing about The Grudge’s PG-13 rating is the remarkable amount of violence in this film. There is a death, dismemberment or supernatural act in very nearly every single scene in the movie.
There’s also the larger, scarier idea of a contagious haunted house. You’re not just in jeopardy when you’re in it. This shit comes home with you.
The Grudge is one of the rare American remakes of J-horror that stands up, partly because the antagonists from the original are involved (Yuya Ozeki as the terrifyingly adorable Toshio and Takako Fuji as the just terrifying Kayako). It’s also a benefit that director Takashi Shimizu (who also wrote and directed the original, Ju-on) is back, and that he keeps the setting in Japan. Plus those creepy-ass sounds!
5. Insidious (2010)
Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell took a break from each other after a disappointing follow up to their breakout 2004 collaboration Saw (Dead Silence—yeesh). The the pair were back strong in 2010 with a wildly imaginative descent into “the further.”
This is the film where Wan finds his way as a director, and a director of horror in particular. Whannell’s bold story offers plenty of opportunity to work, and the atmosphere, practical effects and clever use of jump scares has become the trademark of the filmmaker.
They are also the elements that help this genuinely frightening effort maintain a PG-13 rating. Man, this guy knows how to milk that rating, doesn’t he? That lady in black, that red-faced guy, the whole organ thing, that kid? Tiptoe through the Tulips?
The pair takes a ghost story premise and does what very few people can do well: shows us what we are afraid of.
4. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Oh, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.
A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.
With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.
Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.
3. The Woman in Black (2012)
Director James Watkins was fresh off his underseen, wickedly frightening Eden Lake. Screenwriter Jane Goldman (working from Susan Hill’s novel) had recently written the films Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, both of which are awesome. And star Daniel Radcliffe had done something or other that people remembered…
I’d have been worried that Radcliffe chose another supernatural adventure as his first big, post-Hogwarts adventure were it not for the filmmaking team putting the flick together. Goldman’s witty intelligence and Watkins’s sense of what scares us coalesce beautifully in this eerie little nightmare.
A remake of a beloved if rarely shown BBC film, the big screen version is a spooky blast of a ghost story. It makes savvy use of old haunted house tropes, updating them quite successfully, and its patient pace and slow reveal leads to more of a wallop than you usually find in such a gothic tale. Glimpses, movements, shadows—all are filmed to keep your eyes darting around the screen, your neck craned for a better look. It’s classic haunted house direction and misdirection laced with more modern scares.
Ten points for Gryffindor!
2. The Others (2001)
Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar casts a spell that recalls The Innocents in his 2001 ghost story The Others. It’s 1945 on a small isle off Britain, and the brittle mistress of the house (Nicole Kidman) wakes screaming. She has reason to be weary. Her husband has still not returned from the war, her servants have up and vanished, and her two children, Anna and Nicholas, have a deathly photosensitivity: sunlight or bright light could kill them.
What unspools is a beautifully constructed film using slow reveal techniques to upend traditional ghost story tropes, unveiling the mystery in a unique and moving way.
Kidman’s performance is spot-on, and she’s aided by both the youngsters (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Bentley’s tenderness and Mann’s willfulness, combined with their pasty luster (no sun, you know), heighten the creepiness.
With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and supporting actress Fionnula Flanagan, Amenabar introduces seemingly sinister elements bit by bit. It all amounts to a satisfying twist on the old ghost story tale that leaves you feeling as much a cowdy custard as little Nicholas.
1. The Ring (2002)
Gore Verbinski’s film achieves one of those rare feats, ranking among the scarce Hollywood remakes that surpasses the foreign-born original, Japan’s unique paranormal nightmare Ringu. Verbinski’s film is visually arresting, quietly atmospheric and creepy as hell.
This is basically the story of bad mom/worse journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) investigating the urban legend of a videotape that kills viewers exactly seven days after viewing.
The tape itself is the key. Had it held images less surreal, less Buñuel, the whole film would have collapsed. But the tape was freaky. And so were the blue-green grimaces on the dead! And that horse thing on the ferry!
From cherubic image of plump-cheeked innocence to a mess of ghastly flesh and disjointed bones climbing out of the well and into your life, the character is brilliantly created.
by Hope Madden
Before cashing in on Hollywood’s J-horror remake madness, Japanese writer/director Takashi Shimizu captured his own nation’s imagination with this low-budget tale of one tough to rent house. Its previous tenants don’t just scare you away, they follow you home. Ghosts never die, you see, but apparently interlopers do. Just visiting the house once is enough to saddle you with tag along spirits who will kill you and then stack you up in the attic.
Shimizu’s first effort in the series that spawned the American remake The Grudge and sequels on both sides of the Pacific is basically just a story about some nice people trying to do the right thing. Idiots!
The picture does not rely on sustained suspense, or even the hope of escape or salvation. The narrative is simply a non-sequential look at a handful of lives irreversibly damaged by contact with the house. There may be a total of half a dozen scenes in the entire film without a specific shock or scare. And most of the scares are pretty creepy.
The bigger budget of the Hollywood counterpart helped Shimizu create a richer, more atmospheric nightmare, but the limited funds of the original effort required more strategizing. With his unique pacing, inventive sound editing and use of shadow he creates a sense of something always on the periphery.
Ju-On: The Grudge screens at 4:30 PM on Saturday (8/10). You can also see:
1:30 PM: Ringu
7:30 PM: Horror Stories
10:30 PM: IP Man: The Final Fight
12:0 AM: The Slit Mouthed Woman