Like so many Japanese innovations, the late-'90s genre known as J-horror took its time reaching the West, but now seems poised to become part of the fabric of everyday life. The Ring began the cycle in 2002, bringing American crowds into a remake of what was, in Japan and much of Asia, already a long-running franchise of horror films about a cursed videotape. The Grudge tries to do the same with a similar project. In Japan, The Grudge has become a cottage industry for writer-director Takashi Shimizu, who's already directed a pair of TV movies and their big-screen remakes. That makes the American version, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and other familiar Western faces, Shimizu's third go-around for the same story. Maybe he's weary of it, maybe not, but the film feels plenty tired.
In that respect, it shares a lot with the original theatrical version, released in America earlier this year as Ju-On: The Grudge. With The Ring, Gore Verbinski polished and even improved Hideo Nakata's sturdy original. In his remake, Shimizu simply repeats himself, sometimes shot for shot. With strong source material, that wouldn't matter so much, but as before, The Grudge functions primarily as a fright machine, using a haunted house and a time-leaping chronological structure as an excuse to tie together a bunch of bumps and jolts. As such, it functions reasonably well, operating as kind of a greatest-hits collection of J-horror tropes. Supernatural happenings that operate like diseases? Check. Creepy ambient sounds aggressively mixed into the soundtrack? Absolutely. Ghosts manifesting themselves in modern technology? They show up on videotapes, security cameras, and cell phones. Lurching bodies? Yes. Ghostly children staring into space? Oh, most certainly.
Boiled down to its essence, The Grudge doesn't have much plot—it simply lets various characters stumble into a Tokyo house tainted by a horrific crime, then watches as various beasties scare them. As an aide to the infirm visiting the home to care for Grace Zabriskie, Gellar gets the most screen time, but she proves no more important to the story than the other victims. She doesn't even receive the most memorable menacing: That scene belongs to KaDee Strickland, who, in the film's most sustained stretch of fright, makes a long journey from an abandoned office building to her high-rise apartment home, finding no safe haven amid the gleaming steel and glowing lights.
That sequence brilliantly builds from slow portent to heightened terror, but like every other scene, it could just as easily exist in a vacuum. Less a film than a terror delivery system, The Grudge repeatedly shows off Shimizu's technical chops, but never gives viewers a reason to care about or identify with the victims. That's the difference between true horror and mere sensation. As a spectral roller coaster, The Grudge works well enough, but is anyone really afraid of roller coasters?