Ghosts stories are always creepy when it is in a decrepit old mansion at the far reaches of a small town. A ghost story that takes place in a modern Japanese bungalow in a residential district of one of the most densely populated cities in the world is creepier by putting the eerily aggravated poltergeists right next to everyday life. The frights come regularly and logically adhere to what little story there is. As a cinematic haunted hayride, this Americanized version of "The Grudge" succeeds with intelligence and reserve. It doesn't have anything to say, it just works like hell ? and succeeds - in making you feel terrified.
The prologue is a gruesomely realistic death that does not hint at the supernatural, but the story is told out of sequence. The reasons behind everything become clear with time. It is a device that that keeps you very naturally involved through curiosity. We are introduced to the house in question. The living people are a transplanted American couple with a catatonic mother-in-law and a local visiting nurse (Yoko, played by Yoko Maki). Yoko comes to visit the mother-in-law and they are the only ones home when noises come from upstairs. Naturally, Yoko goes upstairs to check in the midst of checking an answering machine message; only to disappear with an astonished scream after meeting the first ghost, Kayako (Takako Fuji). The care center sends a replacement when Yoko fails to report the next day. Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) follows in Yoko's footsteps through the messy house to the immobile patient and falls into a shocked state after a glancing introduction to the horrors. Fortunately, her supervisor (Ted Raimi) has become suspicious of the absences and comes looking for her and gets the police involved. The terror comes frequently and unrelentingly after this encounter. It expands to consume the family, the investigating police officers and everyone Karen cares for in Tokyo. The bounds of this ghostly rage are not simply to be escaped by leaving the property, staying awake or lasting until sunrise.
Director Takashi Shimizu keeps everyone reined in with the emphasis on minimalism in both production and acting in this Americanized follow-up to his original "Ju-On". There are special effects to enhance the supernatural, but the horror is done largely with the physical: lights turn off without explanation, a knock at the door comes impossibly fast after the person at the far end ends a phone call. This control urges the audience to anticipate and this ratchets up the tension. Bill Pullman has proved in various roles that he is adept at bringing quiet intensity to roles and he does here. Every character is given equal respect and screen time. Although this is an ensemble cast, the headlining star on the poster is Sarah Michelle Gellar. Clearly she and her agent are trying to edge her away from the threat of the "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" role becoming a career buster. There are no sassy one-liners for her to fling at the monsters here. She is understated and finds a polite and frightened but upstanding demeanor to make Karen work. There is no melodramatic plot contrivance between events. People are drawn in by fear and curiosity. There are no ghost hunters, exorcists or supernatural experts of any kind here. The reasons for the ghosts' rage are hinted at through the characters' speculation and memories. Although I understand the original film is used as the back story.
"The Grudge" might not break new ground in creating a haunted house story, but it brings real terror, The camera isn't there to dazzle you, but rather to show you exactly what Shimizu wants you to see. You can't help but hold your breath for the next scare that comes forward to consume both characters and audience trapped like deer in headlights.