Dir: Takashi Shimizu. Japan. 2003. 92mins.
The Grudge (Juon), the scare-a-minute hit by newcomer Takashi Shimizu, is the latest Japanese horror film to join the Tokyo-to-Hollywood parade, with Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures picking up the remake rights and hiring Shimizu to direct the US version. It is hardly surprising, given the current vogue for English-language remakes of Oriental horror (especially after the success of the English-language The Ring, which has taken more than $170m worldwide), with Hideo Nakata's Dark Water and The Pang Bros' The Eye also gearing up for US-based versions. Meanwhile the original The Grudge is still going strong in its home market after seven weeks, taking $1.2m (Yen150m) and still playing on 35 screens. Business has also been brisk in overseas sales for sales agent Kadokawa Shoten, with the US (Lions Gate), France (Metropolitan)and other major territories locked down.
The groundwork for this success has been well laid. In 1999 Shimizu scripted and directed two straight-to-video films - The Grudge and The Grudge 2 - that became a cult sensation. Then with scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi (Ringu, Ringu 2) and horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Circuit) serving as "supervisors," Shimizu directed a theatrical feature that continues the story begun by the videos.
Rika (Megumi Okina), a home help, has come to care for a bedridden woman in a mouldy firetrap of a house that sits among a jungle of weeds. Arriving, she finds her charge in a state of shock, unable to speak. Hearing strange noises upstairs, Rika investigates and, when she opens a closet door covered with duct tape, sees something that frightens her out of her wits.
Backtrack a few days, when the woman's son Katsuya (Kanji Tsuda) returns home to discover his wife (Risa Matsuda) upstairs, prostrated and speechless. Knowing that strange things have happened ever since they moved in, he becomes determined to learn why. What he finds, though, is beyond all reason - and unhinges his. Later, Katsuya's sister Yoshimi (Misaki Ito) arrives to find Katsuya mad and murderous. She flees, but is pursused by something unholy, determined to spread its evil.
Acquaintance with the videos is unnecessary to understand the film, which is more like a reel through a house - or rather a world - of horror than conventional entertainment. The Grudge may scramble its chronology, but once the audience are in its grip the puzzles matter less than the atmosphere of impeding doom.
While Shimizu keeps the shocks coming, though, he cannot mask the production's chinztiness. Little boys in scary white make-up do not quite cut it against the hyper-realistic ghosts of Hollywood. Shimizu, however, makes a virtue of necessity by emphasising the everydayness of his Ghost World, which looks like our own, especially if you only clean the house once every five years.
The Grudge's daisy chain of death builds its momentum by aiming for psychological realism than effects-driven shocks, reproducing the spectral stuff the audience see out of the corner of its eyes in dark corners: evil black shadows, not CG ghosts climbing out of televisions.
Every good horror movie has a girl with a good scream - and The Grudge has several, particularly Megumi Okina as Rika. Though she may not have the decibels of Naomi Watts in The Ring (or whoever dubbed those decibels), Okina has the right desperate look of someone who can not believe this is happening to her - and becomes determined to stop it. The Grudge, however, will probably be unstoppable as the latest cult sensation from Asia.
Prod cos: Pioneer LDC, Nikkatsu, Oz, Xanadeux
Japan dist: Tokyo Theatre, Xanadeux
Int'l sales: Kadokawa Shoten Publishing
Prod: Takashige Ichise
Cinematography: Tokuaki Kikumura
Prod des: Toshiharu Tokiwa
Ed: Nobuyuki Takahashi
Music: Shiro Sato
Main cast: Megumi Okina, Kanji Tsuda, Risa Matsuda, Misaki Ito