THE GRUDE Buffy’s turning Japanese.

The Grudge
dir. Shimizu
Opens Fri Oct 22
Various Theaters

There are some things that American film, for all its financial and technical dominance, can't do as well as other countries. At the top of that list is horror, in which Japan is consistently growing more superior--largely thanks to films like Hideo Nakata's Ringu and Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On series.

And just as Ringu turned into The Ring, Ju-On has now morphed into The Grudge. While Shimizu helms this version as well, his attempts to combine the subtle, inexplicable aspects of Japanese horror with American characters and influences are only intermittently successful.

The Grudge centers around that most clichéd of horror settings--it is, ultimately, just about a haunted house. But this is a more potent and less straightforward haunting than most, with angry spirits looking to exact vengeance on all that are even tangentially connected to their territory.

Enter Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an American exchange student in Japan who volunteers with a social agency. Checking in on an old woman, Karen finds the woman nearly comatose, the rooms of her house filthy, and an all-encompassing sense of dread in the air. But that's just the warm up: when Karen follows hair-raising noises up the stairs, she discovers a terrifying little boy (Yuya Ozeki) trapped in a closet.

What spins from there is a narrative that loosely follows Ju-On's vague, creepy plot. While Stephen Susco's script plays to Shimizu's strengths, the film stumbles by shifting to a mostly American cast, and the original's pervasive sense of tension has been lost in translation.

Gellar--who anchored Buffy the Vampire Slayer but hasn't had many big screen opportunities, save cavorting around in Scooby Doo--is trusted with the weight of The Grudge's narrative, and she handles it with an understated believability. The rest of The Grudge's cast, however, is a washout--the supporting characters are stock and uninspired, with the biggest offender being Bill Pullman's largely extraneous role as Peter, a professor entangled in the house's history.

Even with those failures, Shimizu maintains some striking moments and genuinely scary sequences. While The Grudge might be viewed by Ju-On fans as an Americanized bastardization, it's more successful than not at what it aims to do--and still better than most American-made horror films. Don't be surprised if The Grudge proves fairly influential on other American horror films--and in the end, perhaps that's more than enough for a film that's just about a haunted house.