I'M NOT SURE if this is good news or bad, but there isn't all that much difference between last year's "Ju-on: The Grudge" and "The Grudge," the new, slightly Americanized remake of the cult Japanese horror film about an extremely haunted house. Barring the tweaking of a couple of plot elements and the introduction of some American actors (notably Sarah Michelle Gellar) to make the film more appealing to a Western audience, the movies are pretty much identical -- not to mention identically silly.
They're also pretty darn scary, that is if you're susceptible to such "Carrie"-style creep-outs as a hand suddenly reaching out to grab someone from a stagnant kitchen drain.
The similarity is no surprise. Director Takashi Shimizu worked on both films. In a feat of creative bankruptcy -- or remarkable purity of artistic vision, depending on your point of view -- he even recycles many of the exact same spooky shots from one film to the next. He even uses the same child actor (Yuya Ozeki, who plays the creepy ghost-boy, Toshio) in both films.
Set in Tokyo, both films center on a home care worker (in this case, Gellar) who discovers a catatonic elderly woman (Grace Zabriskie) sitting in befouled bed sheets in an otherwise empty house. Okay, it's not entirely empty. Gellar's Karen also discovers a small, saucer-eyed boy (Ozeki) and a black cat duct-taped into an upstairs closet. (The thing is, he's not really "there," at least not in the sense that most of us normally use the word "there," if you catch my drift.)
Subsequently, it becomes apparent that everyone who comes into contact with the house -- Karen's boss (Ted Raimi, brother of the film's producer, Sam), her boyfriend (Jason Behr), the police detective (Ryo Ishibashi) who investigates the boy's appearance and subsequent disappearance -- all fall victim to the kind of unspeakable evil that aficionados of this type of film will by now be overly familiar with, and that here sometimes takes the form of a bloblike cloud of black hair.
Where "The Grudge" and "Ju-on: The Grudge" deviate is in their relative levels of obviousness. In what could be read as a response to critics of the first film, some of whom complained about the vagueness of whatever, or whoever, was haunting the house, writer-director Shimizu this go-round makes a herculean effort to explain everything to a fare-thee-well. In "The Grudge's" most ridiculous sequence, Karen watches -- courtesy of a cast of obliging ghosts led by Bill Pullman, whose character throws himself off a high-rise balcony in the film's first minute -- a kind of reenactment of what exactly happened in the house three years ago.
It's just too, too much, and anyone other than the most cretinous viewer, or those who stepped out for popcorn at an inopportune moment, ought to feel insulted.
That being said, it's effectively frightening. It's just not the kind of frightening that stays with you very long, unless of course someone decides to make the same movie . . . yet again. And given the fact that there were three iterations of the Japanese "Ju-on," there's already talk of an English-language sequel to "The Grudge."
THE GRUDGE (PG-13, 88 minutes) -- Contains disturbing, occasionally violent imagery and mild sensuality. In English and some Japanese with subtitles. Area theaters.