by Lucius Shepard
November 9, 2004
I think the day after Election Day should have a name.
Like Just Shoot Me Now Day. Or maybe, National Lets Move to Canada Day.
Befitting my status as one of the fifty-five million smartest people in America, I spent the morning of the day after Election Day walking aimlessly about, pondering whether or not to do something drastic along the lines of emigrating or offing myself before our president could spend that political capital hed earned on a tax cut for homophobic billionaires or a nucular lesson for some newly designated demon-loving populace . . . and in my wanderings about the town, at one point I found myself gazing dazedly at a theatre marquee.
Why not?, I thought.
What better way to numb those ol post-election blues than with a dose of Hollywood Novocain?
But which movie?
Sean of the Dead?
A comedy about zombies seemed to express certain of my basic feelings about America, the lines of dead-eyed voters shambling forward to cast their ballots against self-interest, against jobs and tax relief, all so they could nourish their hatred of the love that dare not speak its name.
Nah, I decided. Too realistic.
Id already seen Team America: World Police, or that might have been a good choice . . . but then I was not in a mood for satire.
Saw was a possibility. The scenario of two men forced to saw off a limb so they could free themselves to kill the otherwas that not a distillation of the condition of the working class in George W.s vision for America?
Too close to the bone.
Surviving Christmas? Though the title stated the existential problem admirably, the sight of Ben Afflecks inane mugging might cause a Kerry-liberal flashback.
It was a remake, as a second Bush term would certainly be, and it was a remake of a Japanese movie, which itself was a pale imitation of a better Japanese movie, standing in relation to Nagatas The Ring and Dark Water as did W to George the First. Further, I was feeling kind of grudgeful, wasnt I?
Actually, The Grudge was no ordinary remakeit was one of those films for which Hollywood had brought over the original director to remake his own intellectual property. Previous efforts along these lines, movies such as George Sluizers The Vanishing and Ole Bornedals Nightwatch, had proved to be embarrassments for everyone concerned. I saw no reason to expect more of Takashi Shimazu and The Grudge. But as it happens, the remake is somewhat more effective than the original, though to say that might fall under the heading of damning with faint praise.
Despite the replacement of Japanese characters with Americans, most of them unreasonably attractive, Shimazu has managed to hang onto the wintry coloration and spirit of the original. In fact, blessed with a considerable budget, he has succeeded in amplifying that spirit; whereas in the original he was limited to showing pale ghosts gliding past in corridors, here he gives us inky presences materializing above bodies and outside doors, terrifying faces redolent of Japanese woodcuts emerging from the darkness, a child with a gaping mouth who howls like a cat, etc. And these effects are not, as is generally the case, rendered too luridly, too loudly, but have retained their Asiatic bleakness.
The basic premise of the Grudge is that when someone dies in a state of rage or terror, demons are left behind in the place where they died and thereafter attach themselves to whoever enters it. The movie opens with the suicide of an American professor, Peter Kirk (Bill Pullman), who pitches himself off the balcony of his apartment; the scene then shifts to a house in a Tokyo suburb where a young Japanese nurse (Takako Fuji) is caring for an old demented American woman. Made curious by noises in the upper regions of the house, the nurse explores the second floor and, eventually, pokes her head into the attic and is dragged kicking and flailing to her death. Her replacement, Karen Davis (Sara Michelle Gellar, looking a bit less perky after her lengthy stint as the Slayer), is not immediately taken by the demons and learns that some time before a Japanese man, enraged by his wifes infatuation with another man, killed both her and their child, and then hanged himself. Gellars character serves as a pivot upon which the movie slides forward and backward in time, allowing us to see all those who have entered the house and met with deaththe professor, the old womans family, Gellars boyfriend, etc. Shimazu enhances the creepy atmosphere by illuminating the discomfort of the American characters with Japanese culture. They are disoriented by it, sluggish in their reactions, their interpretations, and this causes them to seem all the more innocent of and vulnerable to the purely Japanese fate that awaits them. This circumstance is crystallized in a scene wherein an American housewife shopping in a supermarket, confronted by deceptive packaging and unreadable prices, is forced to break open cartons and taste the contents before making her purchases. The plot of The Grudge . . . Well, there is no plot, not in the traditional sense. There are only the unraveling of a few slight mysteries (Why did the professor jump?, Who was the man the murdered wife was infatuated with?, etc.), moved along by repetitions of that hoariest of horror tropesan unsuspecting victim approaches a door behind which we, the audience, know lies a gruesome death and, against all reason, opens it. In spite of the attendant shocks, the temptation to close ones eyes against the inevitable, the shout of Dont go there! that we are tempted to offer, a certain tedium attaches to this narrative strategy after the third or fourth repetition; but at the same time I realized how apt it was, how reflective of reality, of human idiocy, of our stubborn refusal to accept the obvious because of our doggy faith in our own survival.
The movie ended, anti-climactically, with a few last shocks, a few last flinches, and, as I walked out into the dregs of a wintry November day, I realized that we had been given warnings aplenty. Iraq; the proliferation of terrorism; the economy; the environment; Halliburton; the vice-presidents sinister behavior; the little-mannish posturing of the president; the cadaverous spectre of George the First behind the scenes, possibly enacting through the proxy of his spawn an old mans vicious retribution at having been rejectedeach of these had been a shout warning us away from the door to a second Bush term. And yet fifty-nine million of us had gone ahead and opened it, had done so with a conviction as to the soundness of their judgment that verged on the lemming-like, ushering us into a kind of demon-haunted political afterlife. As if to attest to this, an e-mail awaiting me when I arrived home announced George W. Bushs intention of appointing one Dr. David Hager to head up the FDAs Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, a body which makes crucial decisions relating to drugs used in the practice of obstetrics, gynecology, and related practices, including hormone therapy, contraception, and medical alternatives to surgical procedures for pregnancy termination. This was the same Dr. Hager who authored the book As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now, who refused to prescribe birth control to unmarried patients, and who was in the habit of advising women who suffered from PMS to treat themselves by reading the Bible and praying. Having already lost the War on Drugs, engaged in losing the War on Terrorism, Bush would undoubtedly prosecute the War on Women with unswerving vigor. The time for warnings, for grim oracles, had passed. The door into a bleak milieu had been opened and we, as a nation, had gone there.