Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: The Grudge (2004)
The Grudge (2004) seems to be one of those films it’s cool to hate. The only thing cooler is preferring the Japanese original. I’m going to be uncool (not a stretch) and play a little devil’s advocate (assuming my proposed generality is accurate). I’m going to try to focus on what I think is the film’s greatest virtue. It may even be the case that The Grudge (2004), Takashi Shimizu’s English language reworking of Ju-on, has a great deal to teach us about how to make an effective horror film, even if it ultimately fell flat for you.
What is the virtue in question? The Grudge is played straight. Its premise is held up to the light to live or die by its own merit. The film doesn’t lean on homage the way many horror films have done. Recent successful horror installments like Hereditary and A Quiet Place share this quality with The Grudge. All of these films owe something to the catalog of horror films that preceded them, but they are the clear result of careful digestion and organic integration of classic tropes, not so much ham-fisted nods to their predecessors. There’s a sense that the creators were excited about the stories they were telling. They felt they had something unique in hand, and the general consensus seems to be that they were right.
I’m not saying I believe The Grudge is on the level with Hereditary and A Quiet Place, but I am suggesting it was made with similar earnestness. The reason, I think, that a filmmaker will sometimes use homage as a crutch is, he knows the premise of his film is either derivative, weak, or both. A wink and a nod sprinkled in here and there gives the viewer the often-false notion that the filmmaker is purposely making a subpar film in order to communicate his love for films passed. This may be true, but it renders the film in question empty of any intrinsic value—it can only be judged by how it measures up to the films it claims to court. The Grudge, for all of its potential faults, wants to tell us a scary story. It wants us to forget everything else, slide in close, and engage with its core premise—it does not want us to think of how similar it is to anything else. That would be a distraction, disrupting “the dream,” something metafiction and heavy homage do intentionally to varying effect.
The Grudge achieves sincerity by establishing a clear premise—a curse takes hold of a house following a tragic murder/suicide. Now, anyone who sets foot in the house is beset with the curse. While not an unfamiliar setup, the curse manifests in a way that is unique to the film. Even if you have never seen The Grudge, you are familiar with the throaty croak and sentient black hair of Kayako’s ghost. You are likely also familiar with the young boy, Toshio, who screams with the mew of a cat. That said, I admit that after watching the film originally in 2004 and again recently, I could not have adequately explained what exactly transpires. I had to read several articles to help fill in a few gaps in my understanding. This could very well be due to my short attention span, but it is also a common criticism of the film. I’m no filmmaker, but even I can confidently point out that the plot, what there is of it, unfolds in a confusing fashion, jumping back and forth through time from one group of characters to another. I’m not going to pretend the plotting or pacing are positives for The Grudge. In fact, I think those aspects would make excellent fodder for a review focusing on the negatives of the film—and they have many times over. Again, I’m here to defend the film’s earnest attempt to scare us.
This attempt is most apparent in the scenes involving the ghosts. Now, you might be thinking, Duh, the filmmaker’s attempt to scare us is most apparent in the scary scenes. Hmmm, quite the insightful reviewer we have here. And, though rude, you are right. It is obvious that the scary scenes are meant to scare us. The part that isn’t quite so obvious, the part I only conceived of as I sat down to write this, is that these “scary” scenes most clearly show the film’s earnestness.
The film has an almost innocent belief in its story, in the scares it has in store for us. It doesn’t timidly present cloudy notions, ready to pull back its hand and make excuses if the scares fail. Instead, the camera holds on the over-spoofed face of Kayako as she croaks. It zooms in and it holds, like a boy opening his fist to reveal the slimy frog just before he lobs it at you. The film has no doubt it is shining over a theater of screaming patrons, which, in 2004 was likely true. In that way, if no other, revisiting The Grudge is somewhat of a comfort in a time when it often seems we’ve passed a tipping point in horror, where the attempt by a filmmaker at a straight scare feels naïve, like a cheesy tactic better suited for a bygone era.
Dominic Stabile’s bizarre fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and he is a regular contributor to Manor House Productions’ horror podcast, which produces haunting audio dramas. His bizarro-noir series, The Stone Series, is published through Sinister Grin Press. The first two books in the series, Stone Work and Stone Wall, are currently available. Book three, Stone Dead, is set to be released in late 2018. His Weird Western, “Full Moon in the West,” was released by Grinning Skull Press in 2016, and boasts a healthy serving of “black magic and hot lead.” Dominic runs the MoonLaser Reviews schlock film blog at dominicstabile.com, where they discuss “genre-busting films that are so bad they’re good.” You can head there for more information on Dominic’s books, or simply to say hi.
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