As far as promising starts go, having the ever-unbearable Bill Pullman toss himself off a Tokyo high-rise hotel balcony stands as one of the year’s most satisfying cinematic intros. Regrettably, Pullman doesn’t stay dead—do people ever in ghost stories like this?—but his presence as an otherworldly specter hardly weighs down The Grudge, an occasionally creepy (if derivative) tale of infectious, malevolent hate. A Hollywood update of the Japanese horror hit Ju-On: The Grudge, the film—directed by Takashi Shimizu (who also helmed the original)—is less a straightforward remake than an Anglicized remix, providing minor tweaks to the original’s oblique narrative but generally retaining its source material’s sets, characters, and camera setups.
Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is studying abroad as a home care nurse so she can be with her architecture student boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr), and becomes embroiled in a nightmare when she’s assigned to visit a zombie-like old woman residing in a malignant haunted house. As the pre-credit exposition portentously explains, “When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, a curse is born,” and after a bit of Nancy Drew-ish investigating, Karen soon discovers a web of murders and disappearances caused, it seems, by the lingering spirits of a family slain in the middle-class home years earlier.
Shimizu barely alters his original’s poltergeists—most notably a gaunt ghoul who shuffles and crawls after her victims as if her bones were broken, and a pasty, shirtless tyke named Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) who meows like an unholy hell-cat. Yet The Grudge is slightly more frightening than its predecessor, in part because the director punctuates each icy jolt (including a doozy of a shampoo shower scene) with a bigger thump, and in part because the American characters’ cultural alienation amplifies the film’s disquietingly uneasy mood. Alas, that ominous atmosphere is infinitely more compelling than the transparent protagonists, with cutie-pie Gellar vainly attempting to transcend her role as the prototypical pretty-blonde-in-distress and the blank Pullman draining all life from the screen as a college professor stalked by a love-sick student.
The film never fully overcomes the awkward sight of Tokyo populated by innumerable L.A. transplants, nor the fact that—courtesy of distorted video-monitor footage, a cinematographic pall of overcast grayness, and a long-haired female monster and creepy kid—the grisly proceedings have been shamelessly plagiarized from Hideo Nakata’s superior Ringu. Still, Shimizu’s slithering camerawork and claustrophobic compositions (especially during ground-level shots) help prevent such narrative familiarity from breeding utter contempt, and an abundance of above-average scares ultimately make The Grudge‘s portrait of contagious anger, violence, and death—especially in light of the recent real-life spate of mysterious mass suicides in Japan—creepily unsettling.