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"Grudge" Match

Japanese Horror Teams With "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Sarah Michelle Gellar to Take on American Fright Fans

It's after midnight when a phone rings. A young woman tentatively picks it up, nervously wondering who could be calling at such an hour. She puts the receiver to her ear, only to scream and slam down the phone at what she hears.

At the sound of the dialtone, Sarah Michelle Gellar is grinning wickedly, having successfully freaked out her friend.

It wasn't heavy breathing, a menacingly whispered "Are you in the house alone?" or a taunting "Do you like scary movies?" (how very last millennium) that incited telephonic terror. Gellar's friend had just seen an advance screening of the "Buffy" star's newest film, "The Grudge," and so the one-time Vampire Slayer thought she'd have some fun by imitating the film's signature sound effect that's going to thoroughly creep out America this Halloween. It's a preternatural, creaking, croaking noise that means death for anyone unlucky enough to hear it.

And that's only one facet of the fright-fest. "The Grudge" is based on "Ju-On," a Japanese horror/thriller that is ranked by aficionados as one of the scariest films in the genre's history, sharing a top spot with the similar-in-tone "Ringu" (remade Stateside as "The Ring"). "Ju-On" is "a curse born of a grudge held by someone who dies in the grip of powerful anger," according to the original film written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, who also helms Columbia's remake. The spell infects all who come in contact with it, perpetuating a chain of unspeakable horror involving blue-tinged soul-sucking ghouls and the aforementioned death-rattle.

Gellar was a "Ju-On" devotee long before signing on for the adaptation. "I've been a fan of Japanese films for such a long time," she gushes in her trademark perky, mile-a-minute modulations. "I had seen 'Ringu' before there was a 'Ring,' and of course I had seen 'Ju-On.' One of the things that I love about Japanese filmmaking is how it constantly keeps you on your toes. It doesn't follow any pattern; it's non-linear. With American movies, there's a beginning, middle and end; Japanese films are sort of from here to there. I've always believed what's left to the imagination is truly what's scariest or what makes you feel the most or what thrills you the most. And that to me is what Japanese filmmaking is about. It's about giving you just enough, and then letting your imagination take you to where it went."

"The Grudge," with its ancient mythologies, rifts in time and palpable realism, is like nothing Hollywood has ever made. "When we think of thrillers or horrors or anything of that genre, you think of the blonde girl with the large breasts who runs into the forest, and you're screaming, 'Don't go in there!' And that's not what this is about. It's about something that's so disturbing because it's real."



"Ju-On" centered on a social worker who is unwittingly caught up in the eponymous hex when she visits an elderly patient whose previous attendant has mysteriously disappeared. After encountering ghosts and worse in the old woman's house, she becomes inextricably entangled in the curse of the Grudge. Gellar takes on this role, playing Karen, an American working in Japan to escape her former life. "Basically, something happened in my past back in the States, and I wasn't dealing with it very well," explains Gellar of Karen's situation. "And my boyfriend and I had a fascination with the Asian culture. And he wanted to study architecture. So we decided it was best for me to leave the States for a little bit and try to forget stuff and we went to Japan. And I'm studying to be a social worker. So I work at a care center that helps specifically with American clients; they need English-speaking people. And the other Americans that are over there work for a big corporation based in Tokyo. And that's it, really, for the Americans, because everyone else is Japanese. So it's not just American actors. It's also Japanese actors. Including little Toshio [Yuya Ozeki], the same little boy who's now played it for five years." Gellar is referring to the child actor who portrayed the eerie wraith of a murdered boy in the original film and its sequels. His aging doesn't seem to be an issue: "Toshio just got a little older."

Even the technical aspects of Japanese filmmaking are very different from the process to which Hollywood actors are accustomed, resulting in much more visceral visuals. "The shots are so different and so exciting. It's just not the same. A lot of times you see films and you're like, 'Oh, I've seen that shot," or 'I saw that car chase shot in "Matrix"' -- that's not what this is about. They really are not afraid to use the camera. And Japanese crews are much smaller than American crews. So it's really everybody helping out to do a shot. It's not as simple as a techno-crane operated by a jib -- it's not about that. It's about everyone getting on their hands and knees and making these shots work. And there's no -- it was really funny. There's this scene where I had to drag this character, and for days I was dragging this rather good-sized man around. And, on 'Buffy,' when Buffy drags someone, I've got them on wires and rollers and whatever it is. And then I come to this film, and I get there the first day of this scene, and I'm like, 'Okay, well, where's the contraption?' They're like, 'What do you mean?' Now, mind you, this is all through a translator. And they're like, 'No, you just drag.' And I'm like, 'Well, what are you talking about?' So for three days I broke my back just trying to drag and drag -- and act and emote and hit my marks at the same time. I see the film, and I don't think once you ever hear this person's legs. The guy literally could have had someone carrying his legs the whole time. But that's not what making films is about in Japan. It's about actually doing."

Gellar was especially pleased with a friend's reaction upon seeing a rough cut. "[She said], 'You know what it was like? It was like watching a Japanese film with subtitles, only they were speaking English.' Meaning we were able to keep the true essence of what a Japanese film is about. And that was why I wanted to be part of it. I didn't want to be part of something that changed the tone or changed the original idea behind it."

The non-Americanization of this English-language version, which opens before Halloween, was achieved not only by tapping the original director ("You'll notice now that, right after we finished this, they announced that 'Ring 2' is going to be directed by ['Ringu' helmer] Hideo Nakata. So I feel like we broke that barrier," Gellar says proudly), but also by setting the film in Japan -- and by actually shooting in Japan, with a Japanese crew.

"Even just from the way it started -- from the very first day, we did a Japanese prayer ritual. We got everyone together; we brought in these Buddhist monks who came in and blessed the production and got rid of all evil spirits. And we had to give a gift to the spirits. It was amazing. It was such a great first day, to get everybody together to do this." Breaking from the zen-like reflectiveness of these recollections, Gellar reverts to Valley Girl inflections to add, "And, of course, any ritual where you get to bring sake -- I mean, how much better does it really get, seriously!"

Other Japanese customs were routinely observed on-set. "We actually built the house [where much of the action takes place] versus shooting in a real house and, even though it was a stage, we still had to take our shoes off every time we came in, because we had to pay respect to the house."

It was this non-traditional -- or, more accurately, ultra-traditional -- approach that dispelled any post-"Buffy" trepidations for supernatural stories. "Coming from a place where I did something in my mind that was groundbreaking -- being on 'Buffy,' being part of something that was new for so many reasons -- you kind of don't want to step back from that. So being a part of a filming of a new sort of turn in filmmaking is that exciting, on that same level."

Post-"Buffy," Gellar has explored a wide variety of genres, but most all her roles have had one thing in common: uncommon strength. "I think I've been really, really spoiled in the sense of I've always gotten to play these wonderfully heroic female characters," she muses. "And, although I believe women have made great strides in the filmmaking and television industry, we still have a ways to go, and I don't think I could ever be satisfied being the girlfriend or being the daughter or being the wife. And, for me, it's just about finding something that I can actively sink my teeth into. And because of that, I've never been scared of any specific genre. I just look for a film that I would want to go see, or a female character that I would be proud of being a part of. I just wait till I find something I would want to do, and go after it -- which was 'The Grudge.' I mean, I really went after it. I chased poor [producer] Sam Raimi. And hopefully in the next three to seven weeks the restraining order will be lifted so we can actually have a conversation," she jokes (one presumes).

"Sometimes people ask me why my stuff is usually a little bit darker, but usually that's just because that's where the greater female roles are."

"The Grudge." Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall, William Mapother, Bill Pullman, Takako Fuji and Yuya Ozeki. Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Written by Stephen Susco. Produced by Doug Davison, Taka Ichise, Roy Lee, Sam Raimi and Robert G. Tapert. A Columbia release. Horror/thriller. Opens October 29.

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