Of all the different types of remakes, reboots, and revivals, none puzzle me as much as those adapted from contemporary foreign films. It’s as if Hollywood didn’t trust its audience to relate to a situation unless it involves white Americans. Take, for instance, 2004’s The Grudge, which boasts the same director as the original building on the same sordid myth as the original about the same Japanese house as the original haunted by the same tortured spirits as the original portrayed by the same actors as in the original. At this point, why not just watch the original?
In fact, what with every production element of The Grudge matching that of its source material, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), I like to pretend both movies take place in the same universe, wherein a madman by the name of Saeki Takeo (Matsuyama Takashi) butchered his family after uncovering his wife Kayako’s (Fuji Takako) infatuation with a school teacher. Now she and her son Toshio (Ozeki Yuya) haunt their former home, killing anyone who sets foot in the suburban Tokyo estate. In the Ju-On flicks that means an awful lot of Japanese youths and, in the remake series, an unlikely amount of white American tourists.
Granted, a shared continuity would mean that Kayako keeps cycling through the same bag of tricks, what with director Shimizu Takashi repeating major set pieces wholesale, but then no one said onryō ghosts had to be creative. Besides, there are subtle differences in the execution, such as the level of gore. Whereas Ju-On: The Grudge was content to make us pee our pants with creepy imagery, The Grudge seems intent on nauseating us as well, replacing ingenious bits of surrealism, like Toshio perching himself at our heroine’s bedside, with material straight out of The Walking Dead, like the shot of a chinless corpse pulling out its tongue.
Another major omission pertains to the title cards marking each chapter. You see, Ju-On: The Grudge was really more of an anthology, with storylines occasionally crossing over the way Lost characters pop up in each other’s flashbacks. The Grudge adopts the same structure, and largely the same plot, but presents the whole thing as a single narrative, making for a hot nonsequential mess. Did screenwriter Stephen Susco think we wouldn’t notice how little Matthew (William Mapother) and Jennifer’s (Clea DuVall) misadventures in the Saeki house have to do with Susan’s (Kadee Strickland) desperate attempts to keep Kayako out of her apartment?
Though each thread in The Grudge proves terrifying in its own right, only one carries any real weight: Nurse Karen’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) investigation of Kayako and her so-called relationship with Professor Kirk (Bill Pullman). Adding ever so slightly to the Ju-On myth, the subplot plays on clever notions of unspoken racial segregation and cultural alienation. It’s like Lost in Translation (2003) but with a dead little boy who shrieks like a cat. Can you imagine encountering such a creature in a strange land where everyone is a stranger speaking a strange language?
Of course, one might ask why none of these white Americans bothered to learn Japanese before moving to Japan, but that’s beside the point. Karen brings something unique to The Grudge. Whereas most characters in the Ju-On series are portrayed as helpless victims, the gai jin nurse takes active steps to wipe out Kayako’s curse, first researching what happened to the Saeki family and then setting the house on fire when her boyfriend (Jason Behr) becomes prey. Whether or not she succeeds, this proactive stance makes her a heroine in the truest sense of the word. It’s very American when you think about it, which comes a long way to justifying the remake.
Then again, I can’t help feeling like we’ve seen all this before. Even if you missed Ju-On: The Grudge, you’ll likely recognise the image of a long-haired ghoul crawling out of nowhere one jerky step at a time from Nakata Hideo’s Ringu (1998) or its own American remake, The Ring (2002). As for those completely uninitiated to J-horror, well, I suppose they might enjoy The Grudge just fine, but that brings us back to the same question: at this point, why not just watch the original?