Friday, October 5, 2012

Ju-On: The Grudge

31 Days of Horror: Day 5
I set a goal for myself this October: to watch and review a Japanese horror movie and its American remake.  I chose The Grudge and Ju-On: The Grudge, mostly because I didn't remember much about the story.  It turns out that re-watching The Grudge was a mistake.  It's pretty terrible.  However, there are some genuinely creepy images at the core of the film.  I was kind of depressed when I finished watching it because I knew that I had already decided to watch the same basic movie again, only with subtitles.  I started to perk up when I gave the matter a little more thought, though.  Of course the American remake sucks; it is a remake and American movies tend not to do supernatural horror as well as Asian cinema.  It would also follow that the American version was a lot tamer than the Japanese version, since Americans keep paying to see the same sequels over and over, while Japan is the home of tentacle porn, which is obviously far more disturbing, and I'm pretty sure it's the source of our conflict in WWII.  At the very least, I hope watching Ju-On: The Grudge will help me figure out why they wanted to make an American version at all.

Ju-On: The Grudge is assembled in a series of six vignettes, named after the main character of each chapter.  Rika (Megumi Okina) works as a visiting caretaker, giving families a helping hand by caring for the elderly relatives in their homes.  When Rika stops by her newest patient's home, she finds only the catatonic patient home --- the husband and wife who own the place are gone.  They left it a mess, too; it looks like grandma had a few friends over and they had a "throw wads of paper on the floor" party.  While cleaning up, Rika hears some scratching noises coming from an upstairs bedroom closet.  The closet in question is covered with tape, to keep it closed.  At this point, Rika seems willing to leave whatever is trapped in there --- a dying child, a sex slave, a magical elf king, or whatever ---alone.  In retrospect, that reluctance was a pretty good idea.  She only tears the tape off and opens the door when she hears a cat's meow.  She opens the door and finds a cat; she is also disappointed (I assume) when she sees a creepy child in the closet, as well.
More proof that you should never let kids out of closets
As Rika is trying to call social services (or, as they call it in Japan, "Super Ethical Family Dilemma Extreme GT") about creepy little Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), she sees a black cloud-thing hover over the old grandma lady; the cloud made a guttural, reverse-burping noise and then and then it had eyes and they were looking (LOOKING!) at Rika and...and...Rika faints.  ***deep breath***  The gist of the story is that anyone who goes into this cursed (grudged?) house is going to die by demon-cloud/Asian-lady-with-stringy-hair.  Their death may not come right away, but that's because this cursegrudge wants to spread, like a virus.  Some people die because they interact with people who have been to the house.  But wait...that must mean that Rika...might...die?
Is that a flashlight in a creepy attic?  Hell, she deserves what she gets.

The acting in Ju-On: The Grudge is fairly low-key.  The normal characters seem to act fairly realistically, which was nice, but their parts were not overly dramatic.  I liked Megumi Okina in the lead role, if only because she seemed suitably scared; she is that rare case of a horror movie character acting more frightened than a normal person would in the same circumstances.  Yuya Ozeki and Takako Fuji played the creepy ghost people (Cat Boy and Hair Girl, respectively), and they were fine.  There's not a whole lot of acting going on, but they can hold stares and poses pretty effectively.
In the director's cut, this shot lasts ten minutes
Misaki Itô was okay as Hitomi, the girl from the office building.  I don't like her character very much, but she seemed suitably frightened.  Misa Uehara gave what I felt was the best performance in the film, that of Izumi, the daughter of the lead detective.  She looked absolutely ragged and exhausted by fear in her vignette.  Hers was probably the least subtle performance in the movie, but it was nice to see something a little more emotional in this otherwise quietly acted movie.
Man, I wish she was calling for Gamera in this scene.  That would have been awesome.

Ju-On: The Grudge is the third film in the Ju-On series, and from what I can tell, they're all pretty much the same thing.  That may be because Takashi Shimizu wrote and directed them all.  Of course, he also directed the American remake (and its first sequel).  Like it's American sister, Ju-On: The Grudge suffers from pacing problems.  The editing is decent, which means that the scary scenes were handled well, but they were too spaced out for most of the film.  The budget for this movie was also pretty low, so the CGI of the GrudgeMonster as a black cloud looked kind of weird and the whole fingers-in-your-hair gag didn't look all that great.  Most of the acting in the film was unmemorable, but I was surprised to find that I liked two of the featured characters; after hating everyone in The Grudge, I consider that a significant improvement.  While I wasn't a big fan of the pacing in this movie, I have to admit that there were some striking images.  I would pee my pants (just a little bit) if I looked underneath my table at a restaurant and saw this:
"Is it time for me to murder you yet?  How about now?"
The more famous creepy moments (the ones you see in the trailer) are still noteworthy, but I liked the more subtle ones, like Cat Boy under the table.  Most of the script doesn't live up to those weird images, but the last two vignettes had a bizarre supernatural vibe to them that fit very well with the antagonists.

So what is it about the last two vignettes that made such a big difference?  They were what I like to call "extremely Japanese."  In other words, they were bizarre but interesting.
"Is it okay if I take your underwear to replenish the vending machine downstairs?"
The killers in Ju-On: The Grudge open the storytelling door to supernatural stuff, and it was cool to see the narrative take advantage of that fact.  This story was told out of chronological order, and it covered a large number of years, so it was interesting to see how much perspective the lens of time gives the main events in this story.  Specifically, it was interesting to see how the curse can be delayed and avoided, and the price of that act.  I also thought that the weird time-shifting worked pretty well here, because the two people involved were father and daughter; it doesn't make sense, but hey, it's close enough for a Japanese script. 
...as is this: Grrrudge Cats!
Just as important as the influx of weird supernatural stuff into the story was the way the curse was treated.  It would have been very easy to set this up as a mystery that the main character had to unravel.  And they did that, to a certain extent.  However, the cause of the curse was shown briefly during the opening credits.  Without that mystery hanging over the story, it allowed the characters a little more room to breathe and gave them some more interesting paths to take.  One of my favorite parts of this movie is the (completely ridiculous and, therefore, perfectly Japanese) realization that peeking through your fingers --- like the way some people watch horror movies --- lets people see the GrudgeMonsters.  The concept was introduced with someone at an old folk's home playing peekaboo with Cat Boy (FYI, Japanese for "peekaboo" appears to be "Ny ny ny ny...Blah!"), and it led to a couple of very cool visual moments toward the end of the movie.
"Trust me, this is the only way you want to see The Grudge"

So, I guess the only mildly important question that remains is how Ju-On: The Grudge compares to The Grudge.  Both movies share the same basic story, the same basic run-time, the same actors playing the ghostly killers, and the same director, so it's not surprising that they are very similar.  And, for the first two-thirds of the film, "very similar" means "for all intents and purposes, identical." 
In the American version, she stands on the other side of the elevator
And, if you read my review of The Grudge, you can imagine how pissed off that made me.  But then the last two vignettes pop up and added some much-needed variety.  Those two bits were not included (for the most part) in the American version, even though they were definitely the most interesting bits.  They were weird, atmospheric, and fairly unique.  Does that make up for a movie that is 67% crap?  No, they would have needed to be something closer to Ballstastically Awesome to make up for the rest of this story, but they did drag the film up from "absolutely wretched" to "Oh, I get why they remade this."  In the end, I suppose that's all I was hoping to get.

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