Producer Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, the Evil Dead series) made the wise decision to hire director Takashi Shimizu, who directed the Japanese Ju-on in its theatrical version, as well as its Japanese sequel and video incarnations. Shimizu has had many takes at this story, and the Americanization of Ju-on retains many of the same scares that made the original so chilling.
Gellar plays Karen, an American nurse in Tokyo who is assigned to a house where a reclusive woman (Grace Zabriskie) is bedridden and horrified. In a story that pretty much gets right down to its scary business, it's revealed that the house is haunted by a little boy named Toshio (a scary kid named Yuya Ozeki, reprising his role from the original films) and his mom (the equally freaky Takako Fuji, also reprising her role).
Basically, anybody who has contact with these creepers is sure to meet their maker, whether inside the house or clamoring down the halls of their workplace. (These ghosts tend to follow people out of their abode and into the big city.) While most scary movie action takes place in the dark, Shimizu knows that the daylight can be very scary, and his ghosts have no qualms about appearing and attacking while the sun shines bright. I actually heard a patron yell "Oh come on ... it's broad daylight!" as if the director violated his right to observe comfortably during daytime action.
I will confess that a plot element involving Bill Pullman as a Tokyo professor seemed like a predictable attempt to make the remake less confusing and easier to describe than the original. The original also had some business involving some zombie schoolgirls that fails to make its way into the American take. (Too bad, because that's one of the original's greater moments.) Those looking for a completely faithful remake might find themselves a little agitated.
While these plot elements reek of Hollywood meddling, the director has managed to faithfully re-create many of the original's fright parts, sometimes even bettering the scares. One particular audio effect, a gruesome croaking sound that alerts one to the arrival of the mommy ghost, remains intact and ever-so-spooky. The ghosts themselves are enhanced a bit through CGI, and remain a mighty uncomfortable sight. One particular moment, when a character seeks solace under her bed sheets, is equally scary in both versions of the film.
I suppose the Americanized version's biggest fault is Gellar in the lead. As likable as she is, she's not exactly an acting powerhouse. She's serviceable in the part, but doesn't necessarily do anything to blow viewers away. William Mapother and Clea DuVall fare better as a couple who make a very poor real estate decision. They do a nice job in conveying the paralyzing capabilities of fear.
A super big box office opening has all but guaranteed a sequel. Handing this franchise over to anybody but Takashi Shimizu would be a terrible mistake. This guy knows how to scare you out of your epidermis better than anybody in the business. Purists can grumble about the story and plot changes all they want, but The Grudge is still pretty good, and scarier than most horror movies.