28 September 2011

Fin's Review: The Grudge

I have to say when Clarky revealed that he was bringing an Asian horror film to the table I was not hugely excited. I thought about the awful Korean films we had watched in the last two years and I feared the worst. I don't think there is a member of Horror Club who is not haunted by the experience of watching The Host. There has never been a sub-genre of horror that has ever been as over-hyped as Asian horror. It seems that any Korean or Japanese horror film which is excessively violent while simultaneously being ridiculous is hailed as a horror masterpiece.

The Grudge was definitely not without its problems and did share a number of features of Asian horror cinema that I really don't like, but it is undoubtedly a film of quality. Without doubt this is a well crafted, well shot creepy film but it is not a film I could ever fall in love with. But, as my mother used to say, if you have nothing nice to say don't say anything at all and therefore I will start with the positives.

The Grudge has a lot going for it and was an enjoyable watch throughout. The director Takashi Shimizu definitely knows his business and the way to use a camera in a horror film. Some of the shots he employs are masterful - his use of close ups are fantastic, often not allowing the audience to see much of what is going on around the characters and as result really upping the dread factor. The ghosts themselves are genuinely creepy. The small boy Toshio, who we see a lot, is unnerving, particularly when making cat noises. But it is his mother who steals the show - she is properly scary. When she drags herself across the floor, her face fixed on her next victim, she is truly hideous. At a particular point in the film Toshio's mother drags herself down the stairs, evoking strong memories of the infamous spider walk from The Exorcist.

The acting is good with no particular stand out performance but a solid ensemble effort. The Grudge is not an overly long film and is well-paced, providing a short, thrilling experience. However...

The Grudge may have much to recommend it, but it never really sets the screen on fire. I had a number of issues with the film and the more I thought about it the more niggles I had. I mentioned above that the ghosts are both effective and genuinely unnerving and are a real strong point of the film. However, I thought Shimizu played his trump card too early and too often. Shimizu is excellent at using a mix of close up and panning shots to create an atmosphere of dread, but it felt like he bottled out of a few of the scenes and decided he had to cut these tense scenes short with a dramatic shot of one of the ghosts. It was as if the director, similar to 19th century authors being paid by the word, was being paid every time he showed one of his ghosts. The ghosts are excellent, but in a weird way it is a hindrance to the film as it becomes too reliant upon them to replace a coherent story and their overexposure means that they begin to lose their power.

And for me this is the rub with this film, and much of Asian horror: the story is just not good enough. I have to admit that in many cases this may be my fault as much as the films'. Many Asian horror films are based on cultural references and myths that simply have no resonance to most Western viewers and in many cases are completely missed. Whether it is my cultural misunderstanding, or simply poor writing, the stories in Asian horror - including The Grudge - never grip me or draw me in. Very often, in fact, I find them alienating. In this particular case, the story is so convoluted and so complex that it just does not hang together.

The initial concept is actually quite strong: a cursed house that is so possessed by hate and anger that anybody who comes into contact with the house is doomed. In practice, however, it doesn't really work. What we get instead is a loose collection of stories that never quite hang together and instead would maybe be more suitable as short films. This doesn't become a major problem until the story starts to make jumps backwards and forwards in time and becomes very confusing. Another problem with this approach is that characters are introduced and then forgotten about. One interesting character is the grizzled old policeman who leaves the film just as you warm to him and become interested in his story.

This film has a lot of strengths and I wouldn't want to ignore these. It provides a creepy 80 or so minutes but, that said, this film is ultimately pretty forgettable. The Grudge, despite its quality, confirmed my existing opinion of Asian horror - it really isn't for me. This is one of the best that Asian horror has to offer and it still left me cold.

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