Just as Gore Verbinski’s The Ring did two years back, The Grudge seeks to cash in on a profitable J-horror franchise—this time sticking with the series’ original Japanese director, Takashi Shimizu, and Tokyo setting, while introducing an American cast. The premise of this high-gloss, low-resolution remake simply transcribes the standard haunted-house exegesis of Shimizu’s Ju-on (released here mere months ago): “When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born.” We presume such a deathly birth has occurred in the abode where a brother-sister pair of American transplants installs their mother, who suffers from early-stage dementia but appears instantly attuned to the creakings and rattlings that waft from the walls and ceilings. Mom, it seems, has a few secret roommates, notably a bloodied, blue-tinted little boy who can open his throat in a deafening feral-cat howl.
As he did in Ju-on, Shimizu builds his film out of chronologically jumbled set pieces that each proceed by an alternating pattern of tense lulls and payoff jolts. The overdetermined approach preempts character shadings or social subtext—just compare Hideo Nakata’s original Ring, which tapped its dread from viral-replicant mass culture and its pathos from a broken home, or Nakata’s Dark Water, which channeled the sorrow, guilt, and paranoia felt by a young divorcée mired in a custody battle. (The latter film never even received a proper release here—we’ll have to wait for, natch, the remake, directed by Walter Salles and due early next year.) The soundtrack’s Dolby thumps and screaming violins head off any genuine scares, but at least the casting constructs a shivery echo chamber of frightenings past: Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays an exchange-student caretaker; Ryo Ishibashi, so memorably divested of his foot in Audition, is the lead detective; and when Sarah Michelle Gellar tiptoes into the hexed dwelling to find decidedly dead Bill Pullman chatting on the phone, viewers may wonder if they’ve somehow strayed onto Lost Highway.