I didn't expect much from the Grudge. Whenever a trailer has difficulty in explaining the plot, I lower my expectations. "When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born" seems a bit awkward. The "grip" of a "powerful" rage? Not a really bad rage? What exactly is a rage's grip anyway?
This challenge, the failure to explain exactly the plot behind the horror, saps the terror from the movie. I should warn readers now that I'm going to make a lot of comparisons to The Ring, a movie that scared the living crap out of me, because the two have a lot of similarities. We are venturing into Spoilerland.
So let's talk about similarities. Although The Grudge is most certainly not a copy of The Ring, there are enough similarities to make comparisons inevitable. Besides the simplistic titles ("The NOUN, a new Japanese horror, coming to a theater near you!"), both films feature crawling girls with long hair covering their faces, a viral curse, and ghosts that defy the traditional boundary of staying in their respective haunted houses. The climax is even similar: both heroines struggle to save the male love interest before he too becomes infected.
The primary difference between the two films is style. Where The Ring creates a set of rules and then systematically breaks them (or, depending on your perspective, doesn't break them at all but stops reminding you about them), The Grudge isn't encumbered by such rules, to its detriment. This makes the movie hard to follow. In addition, the scenes unfold out of order, explaining what happened to each victim and thereby illustrating the original murder, Memento style.
Here's what I was able to piece together from the deleted scenes: Kayako (Takako Fuji) and Takeo (Takashi Matsuyama) Saeki move into a new home with their son, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) and his pet cat. While attending school, Kayako becomes infatuated with Peter Kirk (Bill Pullman), her professor. When Takeo discovers her many love notes to the professor, he goes on a berserk rage, murdering Kayako, Toshio, and the cat. Then he kills himself.
The curse kicks in pretty quickly after that. Peter discovers something is wrong and visits the house, only to be infected by the curse, which eventually causes him to throw himself off a rooftop.
Three years later, Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her pretty-boy boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr) move to Japan as part of an exchange program. Karen is a healthcare worker who specializes in taking care of the elderly. A house now inhabited by the Williams family, including Matthew (William Mapother), his wife Jennifer (Clea DuVall), and Matthew's elderly mother Emma (Grace Zabriskie). When the regular healthcare worker doesn't show up for work one day, Karen is called in to pick up the slack. She's got a new assignment that just happens to be in that Saeki house…
The beauty of The Ring was the development of its characters. It established people who, when faced with spreading evil or the death of their family, gladly chose the greater evil. It dove into the complicated relationship between two parents in a modern age who don't know how to be adults, much less parents. And it peeled away at the voyeuristic core in every one of us, who engages in peeping merely by sitting in a movie theater or watching television…and then punished us for it.
The Grudge is not nearly so high-minded. The curse spreads quickly; so quickly, in fact, that I had a vision of the Japanese National Guard being finally called in to stop the madness when two hundred people are found dead at the Sakei house. Ghosts change form, appear on camera, make weird cat noises, show up seemingly at random, and kill some people quickly but take longer to murder others.
I've never been a fan of Gellar, and her performance didn't change my mind. Karen has no spark with Doug on screen, and their relationship is barely fleshed out. Culture shock is briefly explored in Jennifer's struggle with understanding the Japanese world, but not enough to make us really feel her pain. Not even Jennifer's relationship with Matthew has any real depth. And Gellar seems way too old to be a giddy exchange student.
The only characters that are actually fleshed out are the members of the Sakei family. The deleted scenes make it clear that we're not witnessing one traditional American ghost haunting, but a ghost house of sorts, which utilizes all four bodies (yes, even the cat), to kill its victims. And we come to realize that they are all reenacting their deaths over and over, from the croak of Kayako's severed vocal chords to the shriek of Toshio's poor cat. Unfortunately, critical plot points connecting the first murders with the subsequent deaths were cut, seriously undermining the shuffled scenes. Half the fun is piecing together why the curse took place and connecting the murders to the original event; when you can't make those connections, the film just becomes incoherent.
And that's the problem. With a ghost that can invade your office building, your home, or your bed, we lose all hope that the heroine can even defeat it. The final solution, that the house must be burned to the ground, doesn't seem like a solution at all. When the ghost(s) can look like people you know and call you on your cell phone, the evil seems to have such power that we never believe the heroine has a realistic chance of surviving.
The movie is still creepy. After all, Sam Raimi executive produced. The film is beautifully shot with minimal special effects. The same creepy-crawly stumbling that made Samara so horrifying is in evidence here. The Grudge also makes use of a multitude of horrible sounds, including the aforementioned caterwauling and death-rattling.
Unfortunately, that's not enough to really make The Grudge a scary movie for Western audiences.