As I said at the conclusion of last week’s article, Ringu was a massive hit in Japan, and massive hits inspire imitators. Ringu was no exception, with a legion of knockoffs, some of them were good, some of them were bad, but most of them were pretty forgettable. But the fact that it had an equally massive hit in its remake meant that some American execs were immediately going to go diving for other Japanese movies to bring over to America and hopefully turn into hits. And since, even when digging through Japan’s horror library, film execs are notoriously risk averse, they would of course go looking for things as similar as possible to The Ring.
Ju-On: The Grudge is not a great movie, not by a long shot, but it is a film I can see being made, or at least greenlit, in the wake of Ringu‘s massive success (the first one came out in 2000, 2 years after Ringu‘s release). It’s not a ripoff per say, but it contains a lot of similar elements and concepts, like the long haired ghost girl attacker or the inescapable curse, that make it easy to market to the same audience. That doesn’t make it bad, it just means that it feels less original and as a result less engaging.
But if I’m being fair, there’s more than a handful of things to like about it. It doesn’t have Ringu‘s atmosphere or attention to character, but its scares are consistently well executed and its non-linear story telling does a lot to keep the (fairly mundane) plot interesting. The standout segments, for me, are the ones toward the end, when the nonlinear stuff starts really getting involved in the plot, and the characters start seeing stuff that hasn’t happened yet or that happened a long time ago. And while this is a minor thing, I really like the post-apocalyptic feel to the ending, something that is very much missing from the remake.
Still, that’s not really enough to make up for its flaws. The good points are minor, surface element things, while the flaws run bone deep. It doesn’t have a conventional hero, leaving the audience distant from the story, and never really engaged with the characters. The movie eventually turns into a game of “Guess when the next scare is coming” which is a bad place for the audience to wind up in. It’s also technically the third movie in the series, but you’d never guess that watching it in isolation, since it never indicates you’re missing out on backstory.
Still it’s alright I guess. I’ve certainly seen worse horror flicks, both American and otherwise, and the ghost girl doing the creepy crab walk still unnerves me deep in my core to this day. It was also a solidly sized hit in its home country, and while the reviews were middling, they were also reviews that made the inescapable comparison to Ringu. And so it was inevitable that some executive, searching for the next Japanese horror movie to try and bring to America, would stumble across it.
The Grudge has never been a movie I’ve been super fond of, with my chief argument being that it’s less a complete movie and more a series of loosely connected scare scenes. That criticism could be leveled at the original Japanese film, but when watched back to back with the original, it becomes crystal clear just how unoriginal and uninteresting it really is at its core. Once you’re reasonably familiar with the original film and its surrounding sequels and prequels, it really has no cards left in its sleeve.
The most notable element of the film is that it was directed by the creator of the original franchise, and all it does is remind me of why I stopped trying to follow the franchise, because while I’m sure Takashi Shimizu is a talented man, he has limited strings to his bow when it comes to directing horror. That’s a long form way of me saying, in the remake, he repeats himself, a lot. A lot a lot. Almost every scare is pulled from one of the Ju-On movies, often shot for shot, and it undercuts their effectiveness, as well as smacking of sloth.
It also has the problem where it hires big-ish name actors and then, because of the plot setup, just wastes them. The big name is the once and future Buffy, Sara Michelle Gellar in our…I guess lead role, but while she gets the most screentime, she’s not the most important to the plot, nor does she get the biggest scares. I get that Gellar was in the middle of that awkward period of her career where she tried to make the transition to film, but if you’re not going to have her do anything, why hire her in the first place? She’s too firmly placed as an action hero in the public’s mind for her to transition into being a Scream Queen.
Perhaps the most awkward element of the film is that it still takes place in Japan, but with a predominantly white cast, which just feels…off. I get that you wanted to keep Takako Fuji as the ghost girl (since, if nothing else, she’s really good at it), but less than 1% of Japan’s population is white, why not just relocate the setting to California or something? Which I guess sort of sums up the film: Flailing attempts to keep it as close as possible to the original without thinking about the broader picture.
But with a PG-13 rating and a good marketing campaign, The Grudge managed to make a f**kton of money all on its own (something like 18 times its budget) and the parade of Asian horror remakes continued, while back in Japan, the parallel parade of Ringu knockoffs continued. And it became prevalent enough that even notable filmmakers began to step in and either join in on the fun or, perhaps (just perhaps) gently mock it. Including one legendary Japanese filmmaker named Takashi Miike.