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FALSE ALARM <br> STILTED ACTING IN 'THE GRUDGE' TRUMPED BY TRUE HORROR

THE GRUDGE ***

STARRING: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Clea DuVall, Kadee Strickland and Bill Pullman

DIRECTOR: Takeshi Schimizu

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

RATING: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, disturbing images, terror, violence.

THE LOWDOWN: A remake of the Japanese horror film "Ju-On."

When the best actor in a horror film commits suicide in the opening scene, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the picture. When that actor is Bill Pullman, you wonder what kind of sick joke the director is trying to pull.

You keep wondering when you see Sarah Michelle Gellar trouncing around Tokyo in a white turtleneck, miserably failing to look and act like a college student studying abroad.

Gellar's exchanges are stilted and robotic -- even when she's having sex. Her attempts at serious contemplation are cringeworthy.

You hope she's the first victim.

But despite the early death of Pullman and Gellar's mercifully few lines, "The Grudge" succeeds in producing true terror, if not under ideal circumstances. In the face of third-rate acting and a second-rate plot, the film sustains itself with expert timing and simple, shocking audiovisual effects.

That executive producer Sam Raimi ("Evil Dead I, II," "Spider-Man I and II") had a guiding hand in "The Grudge" is evident in the film's well-timed scares and visceral shock value. Scenes that could easily appear phony and contrived in the hands of the wrong director are milked for exactly what they're worth -- not a drop more.

The plot, by any account, is a simplified (and improved) takeoff on the 2002 film "The Ring," itself based on Koji Suzuki's 1989 novel "Ringu." "The Grudge" is officially based on the 2003 Japanese film "Ju-On," and both films share director Takashi Shimizu -- a rarity for American remakes of foreign films.

Karen (Gellar) and boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr) live in a small apartment in Tokyo as they both attend college. He's a waiter at an American restaurant. She volunteers at a local social services center that provides care to the elderly and otherwise infirmed, one of whom happens to live in a seriously haunted house.

As is often the case with spooked-out property, some nasty stuff went down there years ago. Now, the current tenant and her dimwitted family are paying the blood-curdling price. Gellar's employer sends her there when the usual worker doesn't show up for work (she was eaten by a monster in the attic), and in the process she discovers the evil secrets surrounding the house and its gruesome history. People die terrible deaths.

Unlike traditional haunted house flicks, however, the freaky specters doing the haunting in Tokyo have the menacing ability to travel far and wide to wreak their lethal brand of terror on their chosen victims. This allows for some captivating visual techniques, including one in which a pale, bug-eyed zombie boy appears through the glass of a rising elevator on each floor of a Tokyo apartment complex. The woman in the elevator faces the opposite wall, unaware. She's dead meat.

The time line is mostly linear, with a few well-placed flashbacks to fill in the many holes in the plot, some of which are left intentionally open. We see Pullman again in a brief flashback. A noteworthy performance by Clea DuVall ("21 Grams," "13 Conversations About One Thing") as the old woman's daughter shines as a rare glimmer of good acting.

With payoffs bigger and better than "The Ring," a fine sense of timing and the suppression of Gellar's stellar rigidity, "The Grudge" is surprisingly frightening.

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