Among our many crimes as an imperialistic exploiter of other nations' cultures, stealing their movies ranks lower than selling them cigarettes but higher than killing their game. If you've seen big stupid American versions of France's "Three Men and a Cradle" or, recently, Japan's "Shall We Dance?," you can only mutter: Guilty, guilty, guilty.
Now along comes "The Grudge," adapted from a terrifyingly creepy Japanese film, and the only verdict is: Innocent, innocent, innocent. That is because "The Grudge," though it now stars perky, attractive Yanks, assiduously avoids Americanizing the film's essential bleakness of spirit. The film is still set in Japan and still directed by the original creator, Takashi Shimizu, and its ending is just as crushing. In fact, you might argue that this version of the film is a little better than the original.
For one thing, Shimizu has more money to play with this time around. So the effects are much better, but they're still Japanese effects -- and they don't overwhelm as they have in so many American films of late. In the originals (he made four: two for video, then two theatrical releases), he was limited to chalky-faced ghosts slipping in and out of the corridors of his haunted house; here he can evoke a demon hovering in the air, with a penumbra of inky dread shimmering about the corpse's face. It's pretty damned alarming.
He's also found a cool new level of apprehension to add to the mixture: That's the subtle fear most American new to Japan feel in that highly organized and internalized place. They don't quite get it. (Nobody who's not Japanese quite gets it.) So they're always slow to interpret, slow to respond, tentative and vulnerable. In fact, one of the most disturbing moments depicts a young American woman in that most horrifying of venues, the supermarket, where she consults price tags that resemble drafts of contracts between multinational corporations in $200 billion deals. When she swallows glumly, her larynx clotted with a tide of overmatched outsider's phlegm, you find yourself swallowing, too.
Basically, Shimizu sticks exactly to the plot of the original, including its somewhat lackadaisical storytelling style. There's this house, see? It's somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo, a place of ample rooms with a garden, in that stark Japanese aesthetic of bare wood and sharp angles. One could be so happy there if one were drawn to things Japanese, but it seems that some time ago, in that comfy dwelling, a man discovered his wife was having an affair. So in a fit of insanity, he murdered her and their son, then hanged himself. A Japanese tradition insists that those who die enraged leave their bitter fury behind, and it takes the form of demons, which assail all who enter.
Enter, stage left, one at a time, a whole parade of Americans. The most prominent of them is Sarah Michelle Gellar, and it's pleasing to report that she never goes all Buffy (as in the vampire-slaying TV character she played) on the Japanese demons. Instead, like all the others, she is simply terrified into gibbering insanity. And let's give Gellar some credit: She appears without much makeup and hasn't insisted upon being photographed in that romantic American starlight of pure adorability. She lets Shimizu and his cinematographer light her plainly, so that her eye-shadowless orbs lose their cosmetic power and the shortness of her chin is not hidden by soft shadow.
She plays Karen, a young nurse living with her boyfriend, Doug (Jason Behr), an architecture student, in Tokyo. She's volunteering at some sort of outreach counseling service for disabled Americans (I guess; details are somewhat hazy here) and is sent to a house where an elderly American woman needs tending. That woman's original tender, Takako Fuji, has been disappeared in the movie's first few seconds; Fuji appeared in the first four all-Japanese "Grudges" as well, and has presumably been disappeared before. This time we've watched her dragged screaming and kicking into the attic.
So we know, up front, what Gellar's Karen doesn't: There's something evil living up there.
Gellar's character is an axis upon which the movie either rotates forward or backward in time to study other Americans in the house -- a young family, for one; and before that an American visiting college professor played by eternal nice guy Bill Pullman -- who come to unwholesome ends. Thus the movie, like its predecessors, never modulates or acquires momentum or seems to reach any kind of climactic action; it simply keeps watching as this or that pretty lad or lass has a close encounter with the horror in the attic. It's enough to send you home with jiggly knees and a tummy ache.
The Grudge (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13, which is a scandal, since its intensity and unpleasantness and love of disturbing imagery, though short of gore, are too intense for most young people.