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THE GRUDGE
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Kadee Strickland, Clea Duvall, Bill Pullman, Grace Zabriskie
Director:  Takashi Shimizu
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  May 12, 2009

“Your boss told me what happened…I’m sorry.”

“I’m not even sure what DID happen.”

“An old woman passed away in her sleep.  It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.”

“Is...that how they’re saying she died?”

Film **1/2

The reason Sam Raimi was always a great horror filmmaker is simply that he truly loves the genre.  He wasn’t one of those up and coming slicksters who started on low-budget scare flicks just to try and drum up some attention for himself so he could move on to bigger and better things.  That’s why I’m pleased to see that despite the blockbuster bonanzas of the two Spider-Man movies, Raimi continues to work to show new horror visions on the screen.

He re-teamed with original Evil Dead producer Rob Tapert to bring The Grudge to American horror films.  Both were fans of the original Japanese version as directed by Takashi Shimizu, who has become something of a horror legend in his native country.  But both were concerned that the distinctly Japanese style of horror he produced wouldn’t translate to American audiences.  So their idea was to have Shimizu remake his own movie with some American leads and craft something more palatable for Western tastes.

But I couldn’t help feeling something got lost in translation (no pun intended).  The Grudge is a film with plenty of good, solid and imaginative scares, but suffers from weak, uninvolving characters and a fractured storyline that doesn’t quite make the whole concept gel.  The best part about this extended director's cut is that you get about 7 extra minutes of footage.  Some of it is quite graphic and unsettling, but key bits make the structure a little more sound, and certain parts that didn't quite make sense before (at least in my eyes) became a little clearer.

Horror is more challenging than most people might believe.  I love to write, and always wanted to write a good horror story.  The problem is that you can sit around a dream up scenarios that are frightening and effective…but at the end of the day, you need some sort of string to hold it all together and make it cohesive.  The Grudge plays as though they scripted and filmed their scary ideas and weren't all that concerned with how it would all play in the structure of a plotline.  The extended version offers a little more glue for the fabric, but not enough to pull it all together in a fully satisfying way.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, a veteran of horror at a young age, plays Karen Davis, an American exchange student in Japan.  While working to get a social welfare credit, she ends up in a strange house caring for a frequently zoned out old lady (Zabriskie), who rarely speaks and stares into space for hours. 

The problem is, of course, that the house is haunted…cursed would be a better word.  As the opening titles explain, if someone dies in an extreme state of rage or sorrow, the emotion remains behind.  Then, anyone who comes in contact with their place of death becomes affected.

The story focuses on Karen, then aborts to tell the story of Peter (Pullman), a professor who seemed to make an untimely exit in the first few moments of the film (but you figured a guy like Bill Pullman wouldn’t be brought into a movie for only a minute of screen time).  Then we go back to Karen.  Then we go to the story of the people who recently bought the house and what happened to them.  Then Karen again.  Then, at the last moment, we finally get a rushed-through version explaining what’s been happening.

I’m fine with non-linear storytelling as long as it serves the overall story.  The Grudge feels more like the filmmakers kept reaching points and then thinking they’d better go back and explain certain things before the audience gets lost.  The problem is, we do get lost…not because we can’t follow the story, but because the hatcheted-up narrative prevents us from getting involved in any segment of the tale.  There’s real tragedy in the back story, but we don’t get close enough to care.

All these complaints officially logged, I do have to give credit and say the movie is effective at its central purpose, which is to scare.  This is arguably a more frightening film than The Ring, also an Americanized version of a Japanese horror hit.  But it’s less satisfying overall because of the lack of cohesion.  Yet there are plenty of moments that will rock you back in your seat, including some not seen in the theatrical version, and at least one sequence that had me, a grown man, cringing in my seat…as much as I love horror movies, that’s a rare experience for me.

The supplements explain the mythology behind Japanese horror a little better, and will add to some appreciation of the movie, but it also points out another critical flaw…a movie should be self-contained and able to communicate all of its ideas as it plays in front of you.  The moment cast and crew members need to offer explanations, you realize somebody goofed.

So ultimately, there are about an equal number of aspects about the film that merit recommendation as criticism.  I wouldn’t refrain from recommending it to anyone who wants a good scare or two…as long as that’s the only thing he or she wants.

Video ***1/2

This Blu-ray offering delivers the qualities of the DVD and some more besides.  This is a crisp, clean and detailed transfer that delivers in both lighter and darker settings.  The haziness of some of the more dark scenes is improved and is cleaner than I had seen it before.

Audio ****

The TrueHD soundtrack offers a dynamic and ambient listening experience.  The quieter scenes are filled with subtleties coming from all corners of your system, and the music and more explosive moments come through with a punch and crispness that will rock you back in your seat more than once.  Dialogue is well rendered, and the overall balance and mixing of effects is terrific.

Features ***1/2

This Blu-ray release offers the best of both prior DVD incantations.  Both commentary tracks are included; the one with cast and crew members and the one featuring director Takashi Shimizu, producer Taka Ichise, and actress Takako Fuji.  While the former commentary was a more fun listen, this new one gets more into the substance of making the film and offers insights on what constitutes a scary movie for Japanese audiences.

There are 15 deleted scenes with optional filmmaker commentary, Shimizu's two original short films that evolved into The Grudge, video diaries from Sarah Michelle Gellar and KaDee Strickland, a tour of the film's house, plus production design sketches and storyboards.

Summary:

It’s possible the new wave of horror in the millennium might be coming from Japan.  Films like The Ring and The Grudge boasts some new and different approaches than what Western audiences are used to.  I wasn't the biggest fan of the theatrical release, but the extra footage in the director's cut was definitely a plus, adding to the already disturbing effect.  If you're a fan of that original version, you should really check this Blu-ray offering out just to see what you've been missing.

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