To be fair, let's assume the multiplex mob hasn't visited the art house in recent months for the mostly identical Ju-On: The Grudge. Gently retooled by screenwriter Stephen Susco (Dumbstruck), The Grudge now concerns an American exchange student named Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) stationed in urban Japan with her boyfriend, Doug (Jason Behr), who is slightly prettier than she is. Thus challenged, she distracts herself by volunteering at a welfare center, which leads her to a bland yet disturbing suburban house where she encounters one of those terrifying-force-that-destroys-everybody things.
Because monsters need meat, we're introduced to young Yoko (Yoko Maki), a Japanese welfare agent who visits Emma (Grace Zabriskie), a catatonic Caucasian woman living in the dubious house. Karen is sent in after Yoko vanishes. Meanwhile, in a flashback, we meet Emma's children, Susan (Kadee Strickland) and Matthew (William Mapother), as well as Matthew's wife, Jennifer (Clea Duvall), all of whom are sensationally boring and thus marked for slaughter (PG-13-rated slaughter, mind you). Right up front, we also get to observe Bill Pullman committing suicide, but the hellish curse of endless rage and fury still punishes him by forcing him to return later in the movie.
And what is "the grudge"? Well, as before, it involves a scary little boy (Yuya Ozeki) and his scary little mom (Takako Fuji). Their shared mission is to pop up at inappropriate times amid weird noises -- the director's penchant for croaking still summons abject terror of mutant frogs -- to make scary faces at Gellar. This is where the remake succeeds over the original -- it bumps some grisly murder footage from the top of the show back to its nether regions, leaving us confounded while it rigs a payoff. Without saying too much, the ghosts' murderous grudge is the equivalent of driving badly because somebody just cut you off. Balanced in karma they are not.
The movie's shocks are Hobbesian -- nasty, brutish and short. This is Shimizu's primary strength: setting up brief, creepy moments that quickly turn mean, then leaving us adrift to wonder what just happened.
If only this production had begun with, you know, a script, rather than a retread of random twists. Susco excises Shimizu's more extraneous bits (the multiple cats and screeching schoolgirls are gone), but despite the tighter rewrite and the slicker production, it's obvious that Shimizu is still searching for what scares him. And until he finds it, he doesn't stand -- ahem -- a ghost of a chance of frightening us.