Almost all horror movies have a social agenda, or at least seek to redeem their heroes in some way. "Nightmare on Elm Street's" villain was a damned child-killer, "Friday the 13th" raged against teen sex and even the "The Sixth Sense" encouraged a tortured soul to move on.
A master of atmosphere, Japanese director Takashi Shimizu leads his audience along on a celluloid leash to his pitch-black attic of horror, inviting each hair on the back of your neck to stand up.
When an American family moves into a Tokyo home, things more than go bump in the night. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Karen, a young American student sent by a service when the family's original caregiver disappears. She finds no sign of the family, save a creepy little Japanese boy trapped in a taped-up closet and her catatonic charge, an elderly woman who stares at the ceiling and says, "I just want her to leave me alone."
A close encounter leads Karen on a path to reconstruct the history of the house, aided by a torn photograph and the story of a professor's (Bill Pullman) suicide.
"The Grudge" is a rare bird in cinema: an American remake by its original director. The 2003 original, "Ju-on: The Grudge," is part of the new wave of Japanese horror, joined by "Ringu" (in America, "The Ring") and the Pang Brother's "The Eye."
Shimizu's remake integrates seamless ensemble acting while allowing Gellar to break from previous warrior woman roles to become more vulnerable, though not helpless. Despite its American stars, however, "The Grudge" stays uniquely Japanese.
On the surface, it's simply another creaky-hinge haunted house fright fest. But unlike many Western ghosts, Shimizu's spirits of wrath can't be reasoned with, don't stick to their prescribed territory and can't be laid to rest with the resolution of their unsolved murders.
They're rather unreasonable in that respect.
This unpredictability makes for a truly alien and unknown evil that can only vaguely be understood as a curse that spreads like a virus, much like the videotape in "The Ring." (In fact, "The Ring's" Japanese producer, Taka Ishice, teamed with "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi to bring "The Grudge" stateside.)
"The Grudge" still clings to universal horror conventions such as the malfunctioning light switch, the close-up on the unopened door and the shock-to-the-system "boo" provided by ghoulish figures who jump into the frame just as the soundtrack goes quiet.
But even if you know how "The Grudge" pulls your strings, you can't help but be yanked back in your seat by Shimizu's superb pacing. And even if his plotting doesn't ultimately jell, due to what American audiences have come to expect from character (and ghost) motivation, you can't deny his precise manipulation.
Non-linear storytelling and a third-act shuffle of the narrative deck elevates "The Grudge" above most of its contemporaries, but for true test of how scary Shimizu's remake is, check your seat cushion.
Directed by Takashi Shimizu; screenplay by Stephen Susco, based on Takashi's Japanese script; photographed by Hideo Yamamoto; music by Christopher Young; edited by Jeff Bettancourt; produced by Taka Ichise, Sam Raimi and Robert G. Tapert. A Sony Pictures Entertainment release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 (mature thematic material, disturbing images, terror, violence, some sensuality).
Karen - Sarah Michelle Gellar
Doug - Jason Behr
Jennifer Williams - Clea DuVall
Matthew Williams - William Mapother
Susan William - KaDee Strickland
Peter - Bill Pullman