tl;dr Don't bother, check out the Japanese one instead.
My viewing of this film, undoubtedly, was biased by the fact that I had already seen the Japanese source film, Ju-on. Ju-on holds quite the significance for me too, as it terrified me so much that since I saw it no horror movie since has really scared me. It's the movie that hardened me from coward to someone who can now stomach most horror. When watching the American adaptation I was unable to forget the original, so remember that throughout this review the ghost of the original is hanging over my experience of the Hollywood remake, even when I'm not directly comparing them.
The movie starts off on a note that is unnecessarily confusing - it remakes the movie with white protagonists, almost everyone important is white, yet retains it’s setting in Japan. This results in a perplexing movie that just seems whitewashed. Just setting the film in America would make much more sense, but in the highly homogeneous Japan, having so many white people so well placed to fill all of the major roles in this story beggars belief.
Such concerns are not necessarily all that important if the characters and plot are good. We join our intrepid cast with a suicide, a man walking off a roof for unexplained reasons. Then we see a Japanese carer, looking after a scared old woman, before she ventures deeper into the house and ascends, with classic horror movie canniness, to the attic where a ghost woman takes her. After these two preludes we meet our protagonist, the new carer, an American student studying in Japan and her American boyfriend. When she goes to care for the woman, she encounters the ghost woman and is dragged into the nightmare.
They fall flat pretty damn quickly - the closest we get to a compelling character is the man who committed suicide, Matthew Williams, and only in comparison with the flatness of Karen Davis can we even pretend that he is a compelling character. The plot is something of a muddled affair too, bringing in a tad too many subplots that seemed to be more an excuse to get the source’s memorable set pieces in as big a volume as possible. Whilst some of the subplots do ultimately tie up quite cleverly together, the main ghost story ends really messily and in very much an unsatisfactory nature.
But forget that, this is a horror. If a horror is scary, it really does not need to be anything else. The original certainly succeeded, above all else, on that level. There’s a few scenarios, taken straight out of the original, that certainly have power, but more often than not the pay-off would not be equal to the build-up. A memorable moment early on, where the shadow bleeds out of the wall and becomes the woman looks laughably fake. This is a movie that can create tension, but delivers very little in the way of fear.
The heart of the movie is that the house is cursed, because of death due to strong, negative emotions. The curse spreads to anyone who goes to that house and spreads over and multiplies when other people are killed elsewhere. In this concept is the theme of violence, and the cyclic nature of it. It has been a while since I saw the original, but I was interested in the curse as a metaphor for how death and violence could spread almost like a disease. This interesting idea never really gels in the Hollywood version and the whole thing just seems a lot more shallow.
There’s no good reason to see this movie, quite simply, unless you demand the familiar production values of Hollywood or don’t know how to read subtitles. If The Grudge tickles your fancy then watch the Japanese one, not the watered down Hollywood remake.