There’s that numbness in the back of your neck when a movie really scares you. Its something you really can’t explain. Sometimes that fear creeps up at night when you’re at your car or you’re in a part of your house by yourself and you don’t know exactly what’s putting that fear in, you just know something is wrong. Its a creeping fear that sneaks into your consciousness and kind of paralyzes you. The best of horror cinema does this efficiently. Any film can give you “BOO” jolts and try to scare you that way, but the best horror films are the ones that build on that surprise and keep you there, squirming in your seat, trying to get you to turn away.
The best examples of 2004 for scaring you deep down like this are Chris Kentis’ Open Water, which opened earlier this year, and Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge. Many films give you the feeling of being there, of living out your dreams vicariously. For these films, the exact opposite is true. But the advantage of Open Water was that it played on a natural fear. It made you feel isolated and alone, and when the sharks came…well let’s not talk about it any more. The point is that Open Water played on people’s fear of sharks and the unknown that is the ocean. What makes The Grudge successful is that it takes a bizarre supernatural situation and scares you just as much as Open Water’s under sea menace.
The Grudge stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kare Davis, an American nurse who’s recently moved to Japan. Having only her boyfriend to talk to, Kare is still having trouble adjusting to Japanese culture. She seems to know the language well enough, but there still seems to be an undercurrent of isolationism. Suffices to say Gellar doesn’t come off as the confident smart-aleck that Buffy Summers always was. A nursing student, Kare finally gets her big professional break to care for an elderly woman who is apparently bedridden. Once in the house though, things start to go horribly awry.
To tell too much would be to ruin the fun of The Grudge, or whatever word you would use for “fun” in describing the intense sensation of fear you would feel while Japanese ghosts rip your body apart and steal your soul. The movie seems much more terrifying than 2002’s The Ring as the scares are just more consistently bombarding you. Most horror films give you the “BOO” scare, and then the tension lets up by cutting to another scene. While The Grudge does do this on occasion, the majority of the scares hold you there, pushing you back further into your seat or squeezing your date’s hand till it’s bruised. This is very typical of director Shimizu’s style as well as Japanese horror in general. 1998’s Ringu, the film basis for the aforementioned American remake, The Ring as well as Takashi Miike’s Audition feature more squirming than ten AVP’s or Exorcist prequels.
The film’s scares can really be traced back to its roots in Japanese cinema. “Less is More” is really the film’s mantra when it comes to gore effects. At PG-13, the film has really only two scenes that are particularly gory. Compare that to the bloody remains in Exorcist: The Beginning which were well adept at grossing us out, but not really at shocking us. Director Shimizu just knows what is creepy and runs with it. Yuya Ozeki, the little boy in the film absolutely terrifies as Toshio. He needs no guts hanging out or CGI to make him scary, he simply creeps you out with his performance. In fact, the one instance of real gore effects in the film last for only a moment, but the tension built up for that moment takes place over an excruciatingly long period. CGI effects are also used effectively as the female ghost in the film appears once as a mist or a morphing collection of hair. CGI in the film is always used to help The Grudge along instead of overwhelming what you’re seeing on screen. There are no goofy CG Werewolves or Vampires like this year’s so-called horror Van Helsing.
Director Shimizu’s storytelling style is also reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon as the pieces of this cinematic puzzle are put together by playing with different time frames without even slowing down for the viewer. You can really see the director’s confidence in his audience as he goes from one storyline to another without missing a beat for title cards. The only problem with pacing comes with a few scenes of exposition that could probably have been explained with more subtlety. The audience is figuring out what is happening along with Gellar’s character when all of a sudden a character goes into “Well let me tell you what happened” mode. The scene feels forced like that studio may have wanted the scene in there to explain what was going on. Other than that, there are some moments when you wish some of the characters wouldn’t fall into Horror Movie Cliche type traps, but for the most part, this isn’t too frequent.