Saturday, August 30, 2014
In “Eye of the Beholder,” a blind woman, Allie Kingston, arrives on New Texas with the hope that the mineral Kerium might be utilized to help blind children on man worlds see again.
Allie oversees the processing and preparation of Kerium for off-planet transport, but Tex Hex interferes, and wants the Kerium for himself. After one of his plans fails, Allie and Tex Hex meet face-to-face. But because of her handicap, Allie doesn’t know that she is dealing with a hardened criminal. She senses that he is a “stranger…a loner,” but not a monster.
Instead, Tex-Hex shows Allie kindness, and recalls how he lost the love of his life over the choices he has made. Allie assures him he is not really evil, but for Tex Hex it may just be too late to change.
Sympathy for the devil?
This episode of BraveStarr is a most welcome entry in the series because it adds some meat to Tex Hex’s skinny bones. Thus far in the Filmation series, he has served as a kind of transparent Skeletor stand-in, always putting up an evil plan, always getting quashed by his nemesis, in this case, BraveStarr. He has always seemed evil, well, just because…he’s evil.
But in “Eye of the Beholder,” a blind woman, Allie, learns about Tex Hex, and more than that, Tex Hex opens up about himself. We see flashbacks from his past, including his failed relationship with another woman. The episode ends with Tex Hex watching Allie leave the planet, in silence. There is no guarantee that he will change, but suddenly we feel a human connection to him that other episodes have lacked.
The much-appreciated message, even if not terribly subtle, is that there is good in everybody. And more than that, people can change, both for the worse and for the better. Tex Hex became what he is -- a thief and a bandit -- because of his choices. If he made better choices, he could change again.
So many cartoon series of the 1970s and 1980s deal in absolutes, and in two-dimensions, good and evil. BraveStarr features its share of those episodes for certain, but “Eye of the Beholder” is a nice change, and one that indicates a willingness on the part of the writers to explore their world, and even the villains of that world.
The message at the end of the episode this week concerns treating people with disabilities fairly, tying into Allie’s blindness. That’s a worthy cause, but it might have been better for the episode to comment on Tex Hex, and the idea that it is always good to have empathy or people, even people who you don’t judge as good. For with empathy, comes understanding.
Next episode: "Eyewitness"
In “The Energy Beast,” a meteorite crashes near the Sundance Mesa and the hydro-electric dam there.
A hostile alien that resembles a giant terrestrial centipede soon emerges and demonstrates an unending appetite for energy, but also the uncanny ability to mimic other life forms.
When the dam is cracked and begins to leak, the Calico’s crew summons Godzilla to help out. The giant green beast uses his laser vision to solder up the holes in short order. But when fighting the giant centipede, Godzilla is drained of energy, and retreats from the scene in exhaustion.
Later, a being that resembles Godzilla appears at the hydro-electric power plant and begins consuming more energy from it.
Quinn, Peter, Brock and Carl are at a loss to explain Godzilla’s anti-social actions, at least until the real Godzilla shows up to put down the impostor from the stars.
“The Energy Beast” pits Godzilla against a fierce monster from the stars, one who nearly does in the Giant Green lizard.
Thus far in the series, we haven’t seen Godzilla winded or fatigued, but this episode showcases him holding on…just barely. It’s a bit disturbing to see an avatar of such strength reduced to exhaustion, and so the episode works very efficiently in getting us on Godzilla's side, and reckoning with the dangers of the space monster.
Indeed, Godzilla’s weakened condition is the very thing that sells the tension of the latter half of “The Energy Beast,” as Godzilla appears to attack an electrical plant. We know that if Godzilla were in his right mind, he wouldn’t undertake this action. And even though the audience knows the alien is a shape-shifter, there is still some doubt here.
Could Godzilla be so weak that he has lost his senses? That he needs to re-charge? I enjoyed watching the scenes where the humans yell to Godzilla, and try to sway him from his anti-social actions. They also wonder, rather amusingly, why Godzilla doesn’t recognize them.
Wouldn’t it be great to be on a first name basis with Godzilla?
The final battle in “The Energy Beast,” which essentially pits Godzilla against an evil twin or duplicate, vexes the humans, who don’t know who to root for at first. When the real Godzilla demonstrates his kind nature by saving Godzooky during battle, they finally understand what’s going on. This reminded me of the end of a Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy” in which Spock was able to detect the real Kirk (instead of a shape-shifter) by a self-less act on the part of the Captain.
Friday, August 29, 2014
In the early 1950s, sci-fi author (and now legend...) Robert Sheckley (1928 - 2005) penned a story titled "The Seventh Victim."
Published in Galaxy Magazine in 1953, Sheckley's tale depicted a post-World War Six future world in which an "Emotional Catharsis Board" had established a worldwide "hunt," or "game" during which mankind could satisfy his need for violence by hunting down human "victims" as a licensed, carefully regulated hunter.
In fact, after seven successful hunts (alternating turns as hunter and victim...) a person could achieve great wealth and even join an exclusive hunter's club.
How did such a world come about? Well, it was believed that the Hunt (established originally by men for men) could curb the violent tendencies of a "large percentage" of men and prevent any further world wars.
The protagonist in "The Seventh Victim" is Stanton Frelaine, a New Yorker who finds himself unable to kill his assigned victim, a young actress named Janet Patzig who, for some strange reason, does not defend herself or even hire "spotters" to help her target her would-be-murderer.
Curious about this unusual young woman, Stanton befriends Janet and eventually falls in love with her. Finally, Stanton confesses to Janet that he is her "hunter" but that he wants to marry -- not murder -- her.
"You don't kill the girl you love," he informs her...
From this description, you might guess the ending of the story. Or maybe not.
But, in keeping with Sheckley's literary canon, "The Seventh Victim" is a futuristic satire of sorts, an absurd tale about mankind attempting (with questionable results) to exorcise his "high degree of combativeness" through an officially sanctioned and legislated sport.
In 1965, The Seventh Victim was re-fashioned as a motion picture called The Tenth Victim that starred Marcello Mastrioanni and Ursula Andress.
Made in Italy, The Tenth Victim is directed by Elio Petri (1929 - 1982), a former neo-realist. As you may recall, the Italian neo-realist movement in cinema occurred immediately post-World War II, and some of its trademark stylistics include a focus on location shooting, non-professional actors in major roles and a narrative focus on poverty and difficult economic situations.
By the 1960s, however, thanks in large part to talents such as Antonioni and Fellini (who gets name-dropped in The Tenth Victim), the Italian neo-realist movement gave way to a more individual cinema that focused on internal existential angst rather than the external difficulties of life in a more-prosperous Italy. It was a big shift, but perhaps a natural one given improving economic conditions in the country.
The Tenth Victim arises from this second movement: a more colorful, dynamic cinema, but also one that questions many aspects of modern life. Petri was well-known as a political/social filmmaker, and in The Tenth Victim he is abundantly aware that he is forsaking the neo-realist obsession on stark reality. In one specific scene, for instance, the film's main character, Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni) is heckled (and nearly stoned) by a cult of neo-realists who object to the hedonism and romanticism of another cult, the local "sun worshippers." This is Petri's play statement on his sci-fi film: he knows he's forsaken his background and heritage. But bloody hell, those neo-realists are such downers...
This all sounds like inside baseball, but you don't have to remember the details of the Italian cinema to enjoy The Tenth Victim and contextualize it in terms of dystopian science-fiction cinema (a current obsession of mine).
Indeed, this forward-looking film from the 1960s has much in common with later American films on the topic, such as Death Race 2000 (1975). In both ventures, the government gleefully administers a violent contest (the cross-country race there; the Big Hunt here) that is judged, after a fashion, a "social good," but which actually appeals to our most base and awful instincts as a species.
In terms of social commentary, The Tenth Victim also serves ably as a comment on overreaching government, on our thirst for violence, and also -- perhaps most dramatically -- the unending battle between the sexes.
On that last front, the story by Sheckley suggests that women may be far more effective (and cold-blooded killers...) than are men. And indeed, one might detect a sexist aspect to the film since Poletti is hounded relentlessly throughout by three women: his wife Lidia, his mistress Olga (Elsa Martinelli), and his would-be terminator, Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress). The final moments of the film also explicitly compare marriage to "death," which is certainly a funny joke if you take it in the spirit intended.
Weighed in total, the satirical The Tenth Victim boasts a wicked sense of humor from its tour-de-force first "hunt" all the way through its surprising last shot "bang," and it eminently deserves its reputation as a 1960s cult classic.
"I'll tell you, this year it's trendy to kill women..."
As The Tenth Victim commences, American hunter extraordinaire, Caroline Meredith (Andress) makes her ninth kill, luring her "hunter" to the Masoch Club and then -- during a striptease -- murdering him with her double-barrel brassiere gun.
The Ming Tea Company is so impressed with Caroline that they offer her corporate sponsorship for her tenth and final kill.
Caroline agrees to the company's terms and sets off to Rome, where she is take out her tenth victim, a hunter named Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni). With the Ming Tea film crew in tow, Caroline decides to murder Poletti at the Temple of Venus (the Goddess of Love...) and with the Colosseum in the background. And yes indeed, this locale is symbolic.
Meanwhile, Poletti -- who has just completed his sixth hunt -- is growing twitchy about his upcoming role as victim in the seventh. He's recently annulled his first marriage to Lidia and is being hounded by his mistress, Olga. When a third woman, Caroline, enters his life claiming to be a TV interviewer doing a story about sexy Italian men, Poletti is immediately suspicious of her, fearing that she is his new hunter.
Caroline and Marcello orbit each other suspiciously and Poletti sets up his own product placement deal with Coca 80 to murder her. His plan is to lure Caroline poolside at the Big Hunt Club, and then -- using a spring-loaded chair -- to eject her into the jaws of a man-eating crocodile. At that point, Poletti would look to the camera and say "You always win with Coca 80..."
Things don't go exactly as planned, however, and Poletti ends up at the Temple of Venus, face-to-face with his would-be murderer and now lover. Will she kill him? Or has Poletti let himself be trapped in this fashion?
"Legalize Your Homicides"
As is the case with other movies of concurrent vintage, such as ZPG (Zero Population Growth), Westworld, THX-1138 and Zardoz, The Tenth Victim predicts a future world in which governmental efforts to help solve a problem in fact succeed only in creating a corrupt new regime and civilization.
In The Tenth Victim, a new agency called "The Department of the Big Hunt" (sanctioned by a global moral institution, "which moralized this century") has put an end to all war with the advent of this strange murderous ritual. Loudspeakers at the Bureau constantly trumpet the wisdom of this war-ending Big Hunt.
"To avoid the dangers of the big wars, register with the Big Hunt," crows on announcer. "Legalize your homicides," "One enemy a day will keep the doctor away," suggest others.
My personal favorite of these violent government platitudes suggests a unique resolution to the problem of over-population: "Why control the births when you can increase the deaths?"
I also like the announcer's urging to "live dangerously...but within the law." Good advice, no?
As director, Petri does an admirable job diagramming the absurdly violent nature of this new world order, especially during a scene set at the Bureau. As Poletti walks down the front stairs of the building, a woman in a white dress (a victim) is shot in the back by her (male) hunter. A police strolls by and cites the sanctioned hunter...for a parking violation.
What this scene suggests is that there is still rule of law in this future...it's just a very different sort of law. Murder is legal in this future world...under certain circumstances. The funny (or sad...) thing about this whole dystopic set-up is that today it doesn't seem all that far from the truth in modern, twenty-first century America. Indeed, The Purge (2013) dealt with similar issues. Don't retreat, reload, right?
In The Tenth Victim, a hunter decries new Big Hunt regulations in Rome which prevent gun-men from opening fire in restaurants, hospitals and "nursery schools." Caroline responds proudly that such restrictions on personal freedom have not yet been approved in America, and Poletto shakes is head and notes, simply, that "America is...something."
Legalize your homicides indeed. In this country, you can bring a gun to church if you want.
So, If a film like Zardoz was a brilliant right-wing picture about the danger of unconventional family units (specifically the 1960s hippie communes) then The Tenth Victim is a left leaning picture about, at least partially, a world in which the NRA makes the laws.
But the really forward-thinking aspect of the film involves how Poletti ties the pervasive violence of the culture to mass media, and to business interests. Specifically, both hunters in the film gain corporate sponsorship, and both sponsors actively encourage colorful, on-camera murder.
In a very funny scene set aboard a helicopter, Caroline and her Ming Tea TV producers scout locations for the next kill, debating studio interiors versus exterior locations. At first, the producers want to kill Poletti near the Vatican, but the Pope doesn't approve of the Big Hunt. Then, they discount the Colosseum as "too run down."
After the company settles on the Temple of Venus as a locale for Poletti's death, set-designers hoist up a giant sign in the background of the shot, reading "MING TEA."
Then, before long, the equivalent of Solid Gold dancers (all waving prop guns around...) appear to make the murder scene even more colorful.
Watching these sequences, you can't help but think of the last decade of reality television programming, of being "voted off the island," or of being "fired" from a job. This Big Hunt (not unlike a certain Amazing Race) is all about big business.
I also found the film forward-thinking in two other instances. In one scene, an announcer declares that "The National Association of Homosexuals" has officially sanctioned the Big Hunt, suggesting a world in which gay rights are already established by law. Again, that seems to be the direction we're heading.
And secondly, one scene dramatizes Poletti reading a comic-book from his expansive collection of such works. The last few decades, in real life, have seen the mainstreaming of comic books in our culture, and as a critical part of modern Geek life. The Tenth Victim gets this idea right as well.
There's even a subplot in the film about Poletti hiding his elderly parents in his home (in a secret room...) so that the State can't take them away and murder them; an idea we saw with Sarah Palin's "Death Panel" commentary a few years back.
Finally, I really got a real kick out of the moment in which Poletti flashes Caroline a small card that read simply (in three languages): "I am a victim."
Talk about an embodiment of the victim mentality! Today, we don't actually have card-carrying victims anywhere, but so many folks play the outraged victim role to the hilt, even without the official cards. Everyone seems to have a grievance: about government, about insurance, about employers, about freedom. You name it.
"When people are in love, they make mistakes..."
Thursday, August 28, 2014
At Flashbak: Would You Buy a Computer from this Man? William Shatner: Ad Man of Outer Space (1974 – 1990)
My new article at Flashbak remembers the pitch-man history of Captain Kirk, himself, Bill Shatner.
Here's a snippet (and url: http://flashbak.com/would-you-buy-a-computer-from-this-man-william-shatner-ad-man-of-outer-space-1974-1990-19103/ )
"As the captain of a starship, William Shatner has but few peers.
Another prodigious talent of the Shat, however, involves his ability to expertly hawk a product.
We remember Mr. Shatner today from all the amusing Priceline commercials, but that series was only the latest in a long line of appearances as a product spokesman.
Over the years, Mr. Shatner has sought to sell us food products, computers, kerosene heaters, cars, and even grocery store shopping experience."
What if all the devices of modern convenience -- like cell phones, I-Pods, or laptop computers with broadband Internet -- are actually the gateway to pure evil?
That's the premise of the horror film Pulse (2006), another remake of a popular Japanese genre film, Kairo (2001).
The American film, co-written by Wes Craven and Ray Wright and directed by Jim Sonzero suggests that the very tools we use to connect with others only isolate us, taking away pieces of our souls a huge chunk at a time.
Not unlike The Ring (2002), the conceit underlining Pulse is that Evil can spread to millions of innocent folk quickly, and that there need be no reason or rhyme to the pattern of widespread infection. Anyone with Internet access, a cell phone or digital cable may suffer.
As I’ve noted in my reviews of The Ring and The Grudge, this new breed of horror film is all about two key notions.
First, the J-horror remake genre concerns our discomfort with rapidly-advancing technology, and the widespread broadcast of pain, misery and tragedy.
Secondly, these films ask if there could be a karmic or supernatural price for these widely-seen horrors?
What do such things do to the "global" human psyche?
Pulse goes even further, however, and suggests that living a life of electronic connection actually destroys the will to exist in our own world.
Accordingly such “online” life leaves this world an abandoned, untended, rotting place. This fact is reflected in the film’s metallic color palette, and in images of a world with rotting infrastructure and much organic decay.
“Do you want to meet a ghost?
A college student, Mattie (Kristen Bell) worries about her sometimes boyfriend, Josh (Jonathan Tucker), who has been out-of-touch of late. When she visits his apartment, Josh commits suicide before her very eyes, and she is traumatized.
Soon, an epidemic of suicides plagues the campus and the city.
Mattie tries to track down Josh’s computer hard-drive, and learns that it has been purchased by man a named Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), who puts some of the pieces together.
Before his death, Josh had hacked the computer of a telecommunications expert named Zeigler, who developed a new frequency to transmit huge torrents of information: a super wide-band frequency.
Unfortunately, the ghoulish spirits of the Dead can piggyback on this revolutionary carrier wave and squeeze back into our world.
Once back on the mortal coil, they promptly suck the life out of the living, stealing that which we cherish the most: life itself.
As society collapses, and everyone with a computer or cell phone is devoured by the restless spirits, Dexter and Mattie attempt to upload a virus that will shut down the telecommunications system.
But it is too late to undo the damage, and the apocalypse arrives, with surviving humans forced to huddle in satellite “dead zones” where cell phone and Wi-Fi transmissions cannot touch them..
“I’m not even me anymore. I’m all gone.”
Pulse is not a perfect film by any means, and one senses some that some crucial scenes may have been drastically cut to shorten the running time.
Despite this fact, Pulse is much better than it is given credit for, especially following a rocky start. The second act works like gangbusters, when one starts to realize how all the pieces fit together.
Pulse’s central tenant is a critique of the “online” or “connected” world of the Web 2.0 Age.
Following Pulse’s opening credits, for example, the film cuts to frequent insert shots of students walking on campus playing with laptops, talking on cell phones, and snapping digital pictures. The idea made explicit by this imagery is that technology is ubiquitous, and therefore the perfect avenue for an invasion. As a culture, we have turned our attentions away from nature and reality, to this new cyber world of the Net.
Accordingly, much of the film's visual palette also seems to exist in the half-world of flickering fluorescent lights, which makes a kind of sense. It’s as though the audience is gazing at a computer screen in the dark half the time. The form thus echoes the films content nicely. The world is becoming increasingly ugly-looking, and that ugliness stems from the invasion of the “other world” but also the lack of attention we give this one.
For example, almost every location in Pulse looks filthy. Mattie finds rotting food in Josh’s refrigerator. She also stumbles upon a rotting, dying cat, actually, in one of his closets.
These discoveries suggest that Josh -- his soul now robbed by the online “spirits” -- has forsaken all interest in this world. He doesn’t care to eat. He doesn’t even care for his pet cat. Once consumed, literally, by the denizens of the Net, the here and now on Earth mean nothing to him.
And unfortunately, this kind of obsession with the digital realm is not merely limited to movies. You may have read, for instance, about the case of a couple in South Korea that spent so much time online -- tending to a virtual baby -- that their real-life, biological baby died of malnourishment.
Pulse comments on that very dynamic, and has done so prophetically.
This leitmotif is given voice, again, in the description of life on Earth after being consumed by the digital world. “They take your will to live,” states one zombie-like character. “You’re a shell. Your body dies right out from under you.”
Continuing the comparison to real life, there was a study from scholars at the University of Michigan, less than a year ago, about how spending too much time on Facebook makes you feel unhappy.
Pulse is thus a horror allegory for people who spend too much time online, but shirk real life relationships and real life responsibilities doing so, and with ultimately, nothing to show for it. The answer, according to Pulse (rather amusingly): “dispose of your technology!”
What many reviewers have tagged as Pulse’s weakness, a kind of fever-edited -- nay hyper-edited --visualization, actually seems to reinforce the content too. Everything seems to happen at the lightning-fast speed of information transmission, and there’s always a new scene demanding attention, even when you might like to further mine a scene already in progress.
What tethers the movie, perhaps, is a series of repetitive shots of Mattie’s campus. Little by little, it grows abandoned, as our world dies, and these shots help to establish the timing and progression of the invasion.
Finally, the film rises to a fever pitch during an apocalyptic and surprisingly effective conclusion. There's a spectacular shot of a jet airliner crashing into a building as it is overcome by ghosts, and this is a beautiful and unexpected vista for a small budget horror.
And then the end of the world arrives. It isn't averted by a hoary “happy” ending, and Pulse doesn't cop out with a cheap way of stopping the invasion. The main characters attempt to upload an anti-invasion virus into a server mainframe at the college computer center, but the Dead circumvent the plan. The die is cast.
The "survivors" are left with no choice but to flee to America's "dead zones," those few places out in the wilderness that don't get cell phone signals. As it winds to its shattering denouement, Pulse makes audiences contemplate the end of cities; the end of urban American, and the end of “connected” civilization. It’s ironic that the “dead zones” of no Wi-Fi are the only place where natural life can grow.
Then again, perhaps that irony is the movie’s point.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Now at Flashbak, my look at the five worst monsters of the horror films of the seventies.
Here's a snippet, and url: (http://flashbak.com/the-5-worst-monsters-of-the-1970s-horror-film-19033/):
"In the 1970s, the horror film underwent a dramatic transition in terms of monsters. Hammer Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein series were ending their long reign on the silver screen and a new breed of monster -- slashers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees -- waited in the wings for the next evolution of the format.
In this time of shifting fears and shifting expectations, new monsters rose to fill the void at the cinema, and some were very effectively-crafted. This was the era, after all, that first presented audiences with terrors like the demonically-possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973) and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Yet for every big screen monster that proved absolutely terrifying, there was another that, oppositely, proved…absolutely dreadful.
Inspiring fear in absolutely no one, are these: the five worst horror movie monsters of the 1970s."
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
In “Secret Underground,” Julie (Faye Grant) and Mike (Marc Singer) infiltrate the Los Angeles mothership when the couple learns that Parrish’s old flame, Maitland (John Calvin) is working on a deadly virus that could destroy humanity. This is Diana’s “final solution to the human question.”
Meanwhile, Diana (Jane Badler) plans a nasty shock for her competitor, Lydia (June Chadwick). As the Visitor’s Feast of Ramalon approaches, it is tradition to have a “sacrificial lamb” for the festival, typically the youngest hero of the fleet. Diana thus transfers Lydia’s brother Nigel (Ken Olandt) to Earth, and then offers him up as sacrifice.
Lydia seeks Philip’s help to outlaw the barbaric ritual and save her brother’s life, realizing that Diana will show her no mercy.
“Secret Underground” involves yet another instance of human Resistance fighters infiltrating the mothership successfully, destroying property there, and returning to Earth unscathed. Already this sequence of events had occurred in “The Dissident,” to name just one episode.
Uniquely, this episode features a nifty trick in regards to that over-used plot-line. Donovan and Julie wear Donovan and Julie masks (over lizard mask, over their own faces…) so that when caught, they will look like Visitors.
Diana does the unmasking herself and is completely flummoxed when faced with the notion that her enemies are actually underlings who resemble her enemies.. I should note, this is the kind of story detail that Faye Grant said, at one point, would be her preference: stories of secret infiltration rather than gunfights. The only problem in “Secret Underground” is that it strains plausibility that the Resistance should successfully mount this mission with no casualties.
In terms of character background, we learn in this episode of Julie’s previous relationship with Maitland, which sets up a kind of faux jealousy battle between Maitland and Donovan.
Julie reports that she and Donovan are “just friends,” which is a change in premise. As late as “Visitor’s Choice” their code names in the Resistance were Romeo and Juliet, and in V: The Final Battle (1984) we saw them together as a couple. I have no problem with the idea that they may have broken up, or otherwise ended the relationship, only that it would have been nice to see that point of character development.
Rather, we suddenly -- after weeks of Julie’s absence -- suddenly get the “we’re just friends” routine. It happened to Jessica and Logan, it happened to Buck and Wilma, and here it happens again to Donovan and Julie.
“Secret Underground” reveals a more “human” side to Lydia, if that’s the right term.
She realizes what Diana has planned for her brother, Nigel -- ritual sacrifice -- and does everything in her power to stop it, though is stymied at every turn. It is clear she is in torment, and never believed Diana would stoop so low as to go after her family. In some way, “Secret Underground” paves the way for the show’s last episode, “The Return,” in which Lydia is seen to readily make peace with the humans. Perhaps allying herself with Philip here has led her to a reckoning about her behavior, and treatment of humans.
Also, the name Nigel is quite funny in relation to Lydia. June Chadwick played Jeannine, the nemesis of one Nigel Tufnel, in 1984’s This is Spinal Tap.
Next week, we get to our final episode of V: The Series: “The Return.”
Based on Ju-On (2002) -- which is actually the fourth film in the Japanese horror franchise -- The Grudge (2004) is the second big American film of the Japanese horror remake boom of the early 2000s..
In short, The Grudge is very much the Friday the 13th (1980) to The Ring’s (2002) Halloween (1978).
Many of the creative elements of The Ring, in fact, are repeated in The Grudge (2004).
For example, The Grudge, directed by Takashi Shimizu continues with the new (for America) horror paradigm that simply being present is enough to render one guilty in the eyes of the supernatural. One need not commit a significant wrong, beyond being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Even more than that, The Grudge displays significant uneasiness with (then) modern technology such as VCRs and answering machines.
Similarly, certain visual symbols -- buzzing flies, an oval mirror, photographs, videotape imagery, the dead boyfriend, and a secret family trauma -- recur from The Ring to The Grudge.
And yet, this is -- again much like the American slasher film examples I listed above -- not a case of “copying” or ripping off” another property.
Operating within similar moral and structural parameters, The Grudge instead stakes out unique horror territory, and emerges as a successful work of art.
Although the film may not possess, in the final analysis, the raw power and terror of The Ring, The Grudge is nonetheless deeply creepy, and trades successfully on the notion that a trauma -- much like an answering machine message or a videotape recording -- can be replayed and re-experienced, only with horrific effect for the percipient.
Psychological trauma, in other words, leaves behind a physical record that can be experienced by others.
And by interfacing with it, you become part of the next, bloody chapter.
Especially inventive here is The Grudge’s complex narrative structure, which in a weird way moves backwards at the same time that it moves forward.
The Grudge begins at a late point of attack with the arrival at the “grudge”-infected Saeki house by a nurse named Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
It then moves, vector-by-vector back to the original source of the infection or trauma: the tragedy of the Saeki family.
At the same time, Karen’s story draws towards its frightening conclusion.
The only realm in which the American version of The Grudge really falters is in its baffling omission of the one character that actually unloosed the rage in the first place, Takeo Saeki, sort of the “patient zero” in the grudge/curse progression I diagrammed above.
Without his presence, the American version of the material feels somewhat incomplete, like we haven’t quite gotten to the core or meaning of this trauma that “never forgives, never forgets.”
Despite this flaw, The Grudge successfully raises hackles, and again asks viewers to contemplate a world in which you can become a victim…just because of the room you happen to walk into.
“It will never let you go.”
An American student named Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) interns as a care-worker in Tokyo and is assigned to take care of an old woman with dementia, Emma (Grace Zabriskie) following the disappearance of her previous care-worker, Yoko (Yoko Maki)
At Emma’s house, however, Karen discovers a strange child, Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), and a dark female spirit or presence.
After a stay in the hospital, Karen looks more deeply into the mystery of the house, and learns that Emma’s family -- who live there with her -- have all died. The corpses of her son, Matthew (William Mapother) and daughter-in-law Jennifer (Clea DuVall) are discovered in the attic. Also found is a severed jaw.
Karen soon learns from Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi) that three of his police detective friends who went inside the house have also died.
She traces the string of murders back to an American professor, Peter Kirk (Bill Pullman), and learns that one of his students, Kayako Saeki (Takao Fuji) had a romantic obsession with him, an obsession that infuriated her husband, Taeko.
And Taeko, Kayako, and Toshio all lived in Emma's house...
“The whole time I was in that house, I felt that something was wrong.”
At the heart of The Grudge is brutal violence in the family. A father and husband, Takeo, believes that his wife, Kayako has been unfaithful to him with an American professor, Peter Kirk. In a fit of rage, he murders her, and their little boy, Toshio.
In that moment of rage, a curse or “grudge” is born that has a life of its own, and like a disease, reaches out to touch anyone who enters the infection zone, in this case the Saeki house.
This is a relatively simple story, but The Grudge’s clever structure permits for it to take on more meaning and complexity than a linear telling might.
Similarly, the American version of The Grudge features an element the Japanese films necessarily do not.
Specifically, The Grudge trades in a kind of cultural “lost in translation” vibe. Karen and her boyfriend, Douglas (Jason Behr) are strangers in a strange land, and therefore unfamiliar with the city, the people, and the customs. We have seen this idea played out before in American movies, and I have called it Innocents Abroad, in honor of Mark Twain.
Films such as Daughters of Satan (1971), Beyond Evil (1980) and The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) are a few examples in which Americans overseas must cope with supernatural terror, as well as a lack of understanding of the culture they are visiting.
In The Grudge, we get several shots of Karen standing on a train, walking a busy street, and then walking through an alleyway near the Saeki house. Strangers look at her with inscrutable expressions, and there is a sense that they know more than she does.Or that they understand the world in a different way than she does.
This fact is pointed out early, when Karen and Douglas pass a shrine and observe a Buddhist ritual that helps the dead find peace. This is an important moment, but the Americans don't recognize it as one that has great significance in their own lives.
Karen's lack of understanding of Tokyo and its customs (spiritual and earthbound) is reflected in several shots that reveal her physically separated by barriers from fellow city-dwellers.
On the train, for example, Karen is framed inside a silver frame (really hold-bars). Before she enters the house, she is likewise positioned between two vertical bars, and so on. All these shots indicate Karen's "separate" nature not only from Tokyo, but from an understanding of her environs.
The same idea recurs later in the film with Jennifer. She goes shopping at a Japanese grocery store, and is at a loss about what items she should buy. She tells her husband, Matthew that she wants to return to America.
There’s a deep and unsettling feeling in The Grudge that arises not just from the “curse” but from the fact that Karen, Douglas and Jennifer are so far from home, and clearly don’t understand the “spirit” world in the same way that folks such as Detective Nakagawa might.
Again, this is not a small matter given the time period in which The Grudge was released.
America was locked in the War on Terror, attempting to bring democracy to foreign lands such as Afghanistan and Iraq. But in the case of Iraq, at least, there was the sense that America didn’t fully understand what it was getting into; that ancient and deep conflicts between sects had not been accounted for in our war plans. The Grudge connects with and capitalizes on this idea, of a Westerner confronting a world-view not, simply, of the West.
Perhaps more to the point, the terrible events of 9/11 itself seems reflected in the "evil" force working in The Grudge. The ghost reaches out and destroys American lives, even though Karen is innocent and knows nothing of the events that created "the grudge. After 9/11, America realized it wasn't separate from the world, or immune from danger and strife arising elsewhere in the world. In a way, this is very much Karen's lesson and journey as well.
What struck me as most intriguing upon my recent re-watch of The Grudge is the manner in which the film connects “the grudge” -- a spiritual force -- to technology.
On several occasions during the film, we hear Susan leave a message on an answering machine, for example.
And at one point, Detective Nagakawa watches video footage from a high-rise office building that features the ghost of Kayako.
When one couples these instances of characters replaying moments recorded on machines, a connection to the Saeki family (and the curse) becomes apparent.
The house or spirits, are also replaying moments from the past. Near film’s end, Karen wanders into one such replay, seeing Peter’s final visit to the Saeki home. We are thus asked to confront the idea that a ghost may be, simply, a replay of human rage, a strong emotion impressed on a place and that infects that place.
In the Japanese version of this tale, Ju On: The Grudge, the final scene alone revealed the source of the grudge, the force doing the actual killing. Little Toshio and Kayako had been seen throughout, but the climactic scene reveals Takeo, and intimates that as the final piece of the grudge “replay,” he is the one who kills the living.
Yet Takeo is missing, except in a brief black-and-white flashback, from the American version of The Grudge, and so some of the storytelling feels incomplete. Toshio and Kayako died in the grip of rage. They felt that rage, but it did not originate with them. It originated with Takeo and his jealousy. By removing him from this film, that last piece is missing, and it is not clear precisely why the female ghost and the child ghost are attacking people.
And yet, The Grudge succeeds as an experience, as we watch the spread of the “curse” and come to the conclusion that it is inescapable. The most effective scene in the film involves Susan, and her night-time, office-building experience with the ghosts. A perfectly contained set-piece and a textbook example of splendidly-wrought, mounting suspense, the scene reaches to a crescendo of horror with the revelation that the ghosts are inside her apartment, and indeed, under her bed covers with her.
On a very simple level, The Grudge is about how rage touches people -- even people unconnected to that rage -- and ruins their lives.
Just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time, people can suffer. This conceit seems like a perfect metaphor for the angry, violent culture we live in today, post-Aurora, post-Sandy Hook.
Rage can reach out and grab any of us, at any time, and there’s no antidote, no societal cure for it.
As The Grudge points out, guilty or innocent, we are all at risk of being "consumed by its fury."