#7: The Grudge
Why am I watching The Grudge? Couldn't I at least pay the Japanese some respect and watch Ju-on? The answer is simple: I never intended to watch The Grudge, my copy of The Haunting (1963) has yet to arrive, and my boyfriend happens to, for some inexplicable reason, own a copy of the 2004 American remake of this Japanese ghost story. And it fits the haunted house theme. Plus, you know what?
It's kind of good.
There is something evil there.
What's particularly great about this scheduling mishap is that I get to talk about the differences between American and Japanese haunted houses. They are so different, I often find Japanese horror very difficult for my American-raised brain to comprehend. But, looking on the bright side of Hollywood's early 2000s obsession with remaking the best of Japanese horror, if you start with a comfy-cozy American remake like this one, you can start to find your way around in the dark a little bit. Maybe even get yourself acquainted enough to venture to the places I'll be going later this week.
The typical American haunted house is haunted by some entity. It might not always be named (The Shining), it might be a physical ghost (Poltergeist), or it might be a presence of some thing or someone that at some point, did some bad thing inside it (Amityville Horror).
Japanese ghosts, and the ways they inhabit a place, are far more complex.
Consider that Japanese ghosts, or Yurei, go back to Kabuki and woodblock art in the 18th Century. If you google Japanese art and demons or ghosts, you'll get an incredible amount of these iconic images, and you can get a nice mini-foundation in what Japanese horror film is drawing from, both in tone and imagery. You'll also notice there are several different classifications of "ghost" within the Japanese language. Kind of like we have the notion of ghost or poltergeist (if you know that kind of trivia), but far more serious, and with a lot more variety.
As I understand it, our Grudge ghost is an example of Onryo, a vengeful spirit materializing when someone has suffered a particularly violent death (murder or suicide).
In a classic American, or even European gothic storyline, that ghost would haunt the house, and therefore the people that move into it. However, the haunting itself is generally limited to the bounds of the house - in The Shining, the crisis is averted when Wendy and Danny escape it. In The Haunting in Connecticut, The Campbells are freed once Matt releases the souls of the bodies trapped in the walls (you've had a couple days to watch this one already, guys).
In The Grudge, the haunting has its roots in the house, but may attach itself to a person or many people. Once the fury contained within the house has infected you, its ghost is capable of following you into the outside world, seemingly spreading itself, or seeking out those it can continue to lay vengeance on. So not only are you and your family within the house vulnerable, but anyone connected to you is fair game. Naturally, this ups the stakes quite a bit, as Kayako's ghost travels from one apartment to the next, through phone lines and video feeds, seeking out anyone close.
I think the natural inclination is to go with the actual materialization of Kayako's ghost (her head in the doorway!), or the "hand-in-the-back-of-the-head" scene that everybody was talking about in 2004, but I must admit, the very first scene is the best for me. Bill Pullman pushing up on the railing, and then casually throwing himself over the balcony, is perfectly unnerving.
Other Things to Notice:
I can remember why I didn't care for this when I saw it in the theater, and it had a lot to do with some not-so-special effects (and also, for anyone who had just seen The Ring remake, you were jaded because it was legit TERRIFYING, and there were very high expectations for all things coming after it). Those are still there, but looking past them on this second viewing, I noticed just how pretty the movie is. The design of the ghost, her long black hair, her pale face and big black eyes, the little flecks of blood on her skin - this is a very pretty creature. And at its best, it really does evoke the woodblock figures of the art it's based on.
The setting is equally beautiful in its minimal, muted tones, and there's no denying the genuine fear that's present when moving yourself to a new country. Having Sarah Michelle Gellar play an American exchange student new to Japan is an effective piece of characterization, and a great way to introduce an American audience metaphorically to a very different culture of horror film.
Also, love to SMG (Buffy, herself), who is as adorable and vulnerable as ever. And the excellent casting of Grace Zabriskie (underused!!) and Bill Pullman (go watch him in The Serpent and the Rainbow to get the full Bill fix).
If You Like It, Watch:
*I'd really like to pretend I watch a lot of J-Horror, but I'll be the first to admit, it's an area I lack a lot of knowledge in. HOWEVER, I'll hopefully be changing that in the next week or so. In the meantime, I highly suggest...
The Ring - The American remake helmed by Gore Verbinski was probably the scariest movie made in the early aughts. It holds up even in a post-VHS era. I have not watched Ringu, but I hear it's superior. Take your pick.
The Eclipse - Turning to Ireland for a moment, I'm reminded of this Ciaran Hinds film from 2009. It's a slow building gothic-style ghost story, and it also has a very different haunting logic from what Hollywood delivers. It's awfully sublime, and even non-horror fans will enjoy this one.