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‘The Grudge’ just isn’t scary enough

Sarah Michelle stars in the remake of the Japanese film ‘Ju-On.’ By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

Another week, another remake of a hit Japanese movie.

First we had Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez tangoing their way through a tepid Americanization of the comedy “Shall We Dance?”

Now we get to behold “The Grudge,” an English-language version of the popular horror series about a house that’s haunted by the unsettled spirits of its previous inhabitants.

This week’s offering should be more pleasing to purists: Director Takashi Shimizu, who originated the “Ju-on: The Grudge” films, stays true to his roots by keeping the action in Tokyo.

Shimizu’s first movie in English is sufficiently moody and has the requisite slow pacing and quick scares to make you jump, but it’s never deeply frightening. That may have something to do with its antiseptic aesthetic — all cold silvers, grays and neutrals and hard light — keeping the audience at arm’s length despite trying to reach out and grab it.

Sam Raimi’s name is prominently displayed with the movie’s title as if he were the director. But here the creator of the creepy cult classic “Evil Dead” movies — and more recently director of “Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man 2” — serves as producer.

But between the popularity of the “Ju-on” movies and the success of “The Ring” — the 2002 remake of the hit “Ringu” — Japanese fright flicks seem to be crossing the Pacific Ocean more easily all the time, even without having a famous name attached to them.

“The Grudge” has one, though: Sarah Michelle Gellar stars as an American exchange student and social worker who stumbles upon supernatural horrors while helping an elderly, catatonic woman (Grace Zabriskie).

Stripped of her Buffy powers, Gellar nonetheless perseveres as Karen Davis, presumably because she’s the cute, plucky heroine in a horror movie. Everyone else who enters the home eventually succumbs, and we learn in flashbacks who they were.

The elderly woman, Emma, is the mother of brother and sister Matthew and Susan (William Mapother and KaDee Strickland), Americans whose jobs have taken them to Japan. Matthew and his wife, Jennifer (Clea DuVall), live with Emma in the big, gray house surrounded by a stone wall on a secluded, leaf-covered drive.

Soon after moving in, they began hearing creaking noises and seeing shadowy creatures that ultimately render them petrified. But the spirits also like to leave the house occasionally and run a few errands, such as tracking down Susan at her office late at night. While this development is ridiculous, the vision of one of the dark figures slinking down a hallway on a security-camera monitor is one of the film’s most startling.

Karen, who moved to Tokyo with boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr from “Roswell”), knows none of this when she arrives as a substitute for her colleague, Yoko, who mysteriously fails to show up for work one day.

All Karen knows is that she walks into the disheveled house, hears scratching noises upstairs and discovers a spooky little boy trapped inside a closet with an inordinately vocal black cat. (What’s the word for “redrum” in Japanese?)

If you haven’t seen the original “Ju-on,” we won’t reveal the source of the spirits’ angst. Let’s just say it’s vaguely reminiscent of “The Amityville Horror,” or — since we’ve already alluded to it — “The Shining,” either of which is far more frightening than this.