Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), an exchange student in Japan who is just beginning to do some social work, is sent to aid an elderly semi-catatonic woman, Emma (Grace Zabriskie), after her previous caretaker, Yoko (Yoko Maki), disappears. Karen soon learns that something is not right in Emma's home, and she attempts to "see how deep the rabbit hole goes".
Maybe it's a delayed influence from the success of M. Night Shyamalan's films, but slower-paced, understated horror films are a recent trend. In some cases, such as Hide and Seek (2005), the approach works remarkably well, and in others, such as White Noise (2005), the pacing tends to kill the film. I didn't like The Grudge quite as much as Hide and Seek, but this is still a very good film--it earns a 9 out of 10 from me.
The Grudge has a couple significant differences from other recent examples of that trend, however. One, it is well known that this is a remake based on the Japanese film series that began with Ju-On (2000) (in particular, it's extremely close to the first half of Ju-On: The Grudge, aka Ju-On 3, from 2003). Two, as with many Japanese horror films, the slower pacing here isn't so much in the realm of realist drama as with surrealism. As is also the case with a large percentage of European horror, The Grudge should be looked at more as a filmed nightmare.
Director Takashi Shimizu, also the director of the five Japanese entries in the Ju-On series to date (the fifth is currently in production), and writer Stephen Susco have largely dispensed with linearity and are not overly concerned with logic or plot holes when it comes to the horror behind the story. The idea instead is to present a dreamlike sequence of scenes, with dream logic, where the focus is atmosphere, creepiness, the uncanny, and for many viewers--scares. How well the film works for you will largely depend on how well you can adapt yourself to, or are used to, this different approach to film-making (although admittedly, some of the seeming gaps are filled in by previous entries in the Ju-On series). Traditionally, American audiences consider as flaws leaving plot threads hanging and abandoning "rules" for the "monster". A more poetic, metaphorical, surreal approach to film isn't yet accepted by the mainstream in the U.S.
However, even if you're not used to it, it's worth trying to suspend your normal preconceptions about films and give The Grudge a shot. This is a well written, well directed, well acted film, filled with unusual properties, such as the story interweaving a large number of "main characters" (which is done better here than the more episodic Ju-On 3), good cinematography, subtle production design touches (check out Gellar's clothes, which match the color and texture of the exterior of Emma's house, when Gellar first approaches), and beautifully effective horror material.
Even though it is more slowly paced that your average horror film of the past, the pacing usually enhances the eeriness, and there is no shortage of bizarre events to keep horror fans entertained. The supernatural premise of the film is absorbing, and based on interviews on the DVD with Shimizu, have prodded me to pay more attention to Japanese beliefs and folklore. Although the most interesting subtexts would probably arise with a more intimate knowledge of Japanese culture, it's interesting to ponder why so many Japanese horror films feature scary children and adults who look like scary children.
I subtracted one point for the film slightly veering into cliched mystery/thriller territory with a "here's what really happened" flashback, but even that was fairly well done, and otherwise, this would have been a 10 out of 10.
Now that I've said all of the above, let me finish with a mini-rant: It's not that I'm anti-remake, but it is ridiculous that U.S. distributors and studios feel that we need remakes of foreign films to make them appropriate for consumption. The original versions of these films should just be playing in U.S. theaters in wide release. There is no need to present an almost identical film but just substituting white American actors for non-white or foreign actors. Yes, The Grudge is a fine film, but ultimately, I'd rather see something original using this talent, and be treated to the latest foreign horror films--not just Japanese, but also Indian, Spanish, Chinese, etc.--at my multiplex. In the hope that someone with some pull at the studios reads this, it is also more cost-effective to do this, as (1) you can completely avoid production costs, and simply make domestic distribution deals from which you receive profit, and (2) you can make money off of fans like myself who otherwise pick up the foreign film DVDs in foreign manufactured or even bootleg versions.