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Friday, October 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Jeff Shannon
A word of advice: If you ever encounter a Japanese girl with long black hair obscuring her ghostly pale face, run for your life, or you're likely to lose it.
That eerie visage has become a recurring motif in recent Japanese horror films. It's especially dominant in "The Grudge" Takashi Shimizu's effectively spooky though somewhat unnecessary Americanized remake of his 2003 film "Ju-On: The Grudge" starring Sarah Michelle Gellar in her first post-"Buffy" horror film.
It's actually the fifth incarnation of Shimizu's original concept, which began as a student film, was expanded into a pair of made-for-video features, then a deservedly popular Japanese theatrical release, and now this redundant but still-enjoyable version, co-produced by Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi.
It's an English-language Japanese film under Shimizu's able command, with a Japanese crew and Tokyo locations well-suited to an angst-ridden ghost story rooted in domestic violence. It's based on a self-perpetuating curse that originates when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, dooming anyone who enters the place where the original death occurred.
That's where Gellar comes in, and her pedigree as a former vampire slayer is no match for the Ju-On curse. Here she's an exchange student earning extra credit as a home health-care volunteer. When she calls on a traumatized American woman (Grace Zabriskie), whose family is living in Tokyo, she's unaware that she's kick-started a series of deaths that may lead to her own.
The sick woman's home was the site of unspeakable violence three years earlier, leaving behind the specters of the aforementioned girl (Takako Fuji, reprising her role for the fifth time), a younger boy (Yuya Ozeki, also reprising his "Ju-On" role) and a black cat that howls on cue. They're all the source of a repetitive series of shocks (each accompanied by a sudden jolt of Christopher Young's score), along with a thrumming soundtrack full of ominous rumble, while the girl ghost is accompanied by a nerve-racking sound like the death-rattle of a bullfrog.
As a directorial do-over, "The Grudge" allows Shimizu to refine the best moments of his original (especially a chilling corridor sequence viewed through a security surveillance camera), and the whole film works as an exercise in anxious atmosphere underscored by downbeat acting and a subdued color palette. But it's also been streamlined and simplified (by hot new screenwriter Stephen Susco) to emphasize Gellar's starring role, and some subtleties (including a trio of ghostly schoolgirls) have been sacrificed to accommodate a tormented flashback role for Bill Pullman.
It's all a bit thin, with a so-what ending likely to disappoint American horror fans accustomed to gory extravaganzas. Still, it's refreshing to see a PG-13 horror film that aims for good old-fashioned spookiness.
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