A little while ago we went deep on the start of the J-Horror phenom franchise The Grudge, from short film origins to blossoming into V-Cinema. This time we’ll be following the line further in, as the curse cemented itself as an icon and caught the eye of Hollywood. We’ll be chronicling the Japanese mainline films Ju-On: The Grudge 1 & 2, where the series really got a hold of the industry, and set itself up to burst forth worldwide.
The two Ju-On: The Grudge films were both popular and quality, bringing in a respectable box office as well as garnering the attention of the American film industry. With Japanese horror film remakes being the new hot thing, and with the success of The Ring causing the public to thirst for more, it was a perfect time to pull the trigger and bring The Grudge over to Hollywood. Luckily, they kept the very Japanese cultural sense of the films, even setting it in Japan and bringing Sarah Michelle Gellar over just to be the center. Takako Fuji puts in the performances of her life through Ju-On: The Grudge to The Grudge 2, the salad days of J-Horror in the West.
Through this piece I’ll be detailing the initial end of the original Ju-On continuity. We do return to the original Ju-On story later on, but that’s for another time. This piece takes us through the halcyon days where J-Horror hit a peak in Western awareness. Quickly following these films was the American remakes, which I’ll be covering in the next article, but in the meantime join me as I take you through the beginning of the Ju-On franchise’s most successful time, when The Curse Takes Hold.
Ju-On: The Grudge
Takashi Shimizu hit success in Japan with the two Curse films, and his vision for The Grudge extended well past that. Getting the funding for a higher budget resulted in a much more competent project that pushed the Saeki curse forth to new boundaries. Since The Ring was remade and released in America in 2002, the promising Ju-On: The Grudge from a blooming talent in Shimizu was picked up quickly by Screamfest Horror Festival in the US, where it debuted before releasing in Japan, showing that the American audience was already hungry for those ferocious J-Horror spirits. There’s a lot to unpack from this film, as it solidifies or sets up tropes, iconic scenes, and aspects of the Curse that are maintained even through the various remakes of the franchise.
Ju-On: The Grudge starts deep into the live Takeo’s brutal act. We see more detail here than ever before in the series, and threads between Kayako and Toshio’s deaths and their actions as spirits all come together. We get Takeo grabbing Mar (you may remember the family cat), Kayako’s body in a bag, and him leaning over the corpse with a boxcutter whilst Toshio hides in another room. Combined with what we’ve learned and seen from The Curse, what exactly went down that day is being slowly but steadily filled in.
Our main character is introduced shortly after this tone setter, a 23-year-old volunteer social worker named Rika Nishina. Bright, kind, and completely unaware of what she’s walking into, she picks up a job (unfortunately for her) caring for a catatonic elderly woman named Sachie Tokunaga over at the old Saeki residence. The Tokunaga family are the current owners (post-Kitada from The Curse 2), and have lived here not only long enough to put up a nameplate at the front gate, but also for some of that lingering evil to seep into Sachie. She seems aware of the presence of Kayako, but at the same time too foggy of mind to process it properly.
Rika cleans up the mess that seems to steadily return to the house over time, and vacuums up a photo of the Saeki family, back when they were happy, which is the first of the little artifacts we saw back in the Curse films. Then, in hearing something from above, she comes to the fateful closet, where unbeknownst to her Toshio had been locked in as his mother was murdered. There’s a thick layer of electrical tape around the closet doors, which is one of those J-horror things about keeping out (or trapping in) spirits. This is almost certainly a nod to Shimizu’s mentor Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s iconic film Kairo (Pulse). The tape side of things isn’t as direct as it is in Pulse, as later on we see layers of newspaper used in a similar way to try keep out the Curse spirits.
After a good bit of buildup, we finally see our favorite ghost lady, Kayako. She appears as a shadow of sorts, a ‘black ghost.’ It’s the first time we get to see the ‘shadow’ apparition side of things, so I should explain it for later reference. There’s never a real definitive explanation for the difference between the regular ‘white ghost’ side of things and the shadows, but generally the shadows don’t do any of the actual killing. Here, it’s almost like she’s feeding off the torment she’s putting onto Sachie, but in other instances the shadows cause paralyzing fear, stalk individuals, or lead them to their doom. They also do a little bit of possessing, but that’s to come way down the road. In short, shadows could be said to be a ‘soft haunting,’ despite them being very much terrifying too. But when the white ghost side comes out, things get real.
Kayako appears above Sachie and Rika, scares Sachie to death, and mentally scars Rika. So the first victim of the film literally succumbs to fear itself. We now begin the non-linear narrative weaving that Shimizu does so excellently, and move back in time to Katsuya Tokunaga, Sachie’s son. He sees his wife upstairs in a catatonic state from the frightening aura that the dream team of Toshio and Mar put forward, as the two of them accost her whilst she’s home alone with the barely present Sachie. An actual shadow is cast over Katsuya as he tries to get away from the pale little boy meowing at him, and we cut to Hitomi (his sister) arriving.
It’s not outright stated, but judging by his mumblings to his sister soon after, we can assume Katsuya was possessed by Takeo’s spirit. It might be strange to think at first that Kayako’s murderer is one of the powers behind the curse, but the way The Grudge works is that the overbearing evil originating from such a terrible scene created a curse, which acts as a sort of whirlpool of death and terror, and uses whoever it pulls in to strengthen and spread. It’s why previously the Saeki curse overshadowed and encompassed Manami’s in The Curse 2, and why we’ll see it often use the bodies of its victims.
As a bit of an aside from the Ju-On lore, the man playing Katsuya Tokunaga here is Kanji Tsuda. He’s a sort of bridge between worlds here, also starring in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, and is quite a prolific actor, having some really interesting credits to his name (Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl, Mutant Girls Squad, and even the Sion Sono film Guilty of Romance).
As Katsuya’s sister is leaving her office building, she starts to feel that lingering presence of Kayako stalking her. The security camera scene with the officer is one of those iconic moments that is crafted so well that is was put in almost one-to-one in the American remake, as is the scene immediately following it, where Toshio shows up on every floor as the elevator makes it’s way up. Continuing this stream of iconic shots redone time and time again throughout the series, we see a TV breaking up and slowly having the sound turn into the Kayako croak; it’s a small detail, but used so effectively. Finally, with the last of the many cinematic contributions Hitomi’s scenes have brought, we get Kayako pulling Hitomi under the covers and disappearing completely. The curse itself seems to have no limit on what it can do in regards to its victims; some are left terrified to death, some are physically maimed, some are attacked by those the curse possesses, and some simply just disappear.
A lot of people would have come into Ju-On: The Grudge with no prior knowledge of Ju-On: The Curse, but armed with that, the Saori scene has a whole new level of greatness to it. I said in my previous article that one of the shining aspects that makes me love these films so much is their inter-connectivity, and how they piece together the narrative and let it unveil in a gripping way. Here, with Saori and her friends breaking into the house on a dare, we flash back to the ending of The Curse 2, where the very same thing happens (albeit during the day).
Yuji Toyama walks right into a memory, an event that happened within the house. It’s surreal, uneasy, and builds up tension so strongly, with all involved eventually succumbing to the Curse. This is an ‘atemporal connection,’ when the curse causes victims to see themselves or each other, disregarding time and space (though mostly centered within the house itself). Sadly, this surrealist element never really made it to the American films, but it shows up every now and then for these two Ju-On films.
When we get to the denouement and Rika is well within the Saeki house, she does this strange thing where she splays her fingers across her face to cover her eyes, just as she saw a few others do throughout the film. This lets her see Kayako as she was when alive, with healthy skin and good looks. Being able to see Kayako like that connects with her somehow, allows her to understand her pain,and she dies, a tear even falls down her cheek.
In the end, the Curse doesn’t care for ‘understanding’ or ‘compassion,’ and Takeo walks down the stairs to finish the job himself. He inflicts upon Rika exactly what he did to Kayako, with her compassion leading to a very unwelcome walk in her shoes. And in a deleted scene, this mirroring is taken even further, with Takeo taking her corpse upstairs and cutting her just as he did before.
Some absolutely amazing shots end the film, with the streets are empty, victims gone now, and no one else around. It’s not a shot that carries into the future, but in a few ways mirrors the ending of both The Curse 2, and strangely 4444444444. These shots of empty streets and areas, with ominous aura about and a light wind streaming through, happened to a minor degree in 4444444444, whilst the ending of Curse 2 hit us with the many Kayakos strewn about the place. It’s an ending that embodied the feeling of the Curse spreading and being cyclical, but not one that carried over to the next film in such a momentous way. It feels exciting in those moments to breathe and take in what we saw, and it’s a perfect way to cap off the impactful beginning of The Grudge series.
Ju-On: The Grudge 2
Ju-On: The Grudge 2 marks the end of what I can only assume was Takashi Shimizu’s grand plan, as everything before and including this fits together so well, connecting as a cohesive, grand plot. The Saeki story of the curse born from great tragedy may not be neatly wrapped up at the end of this film, but it certainly feels complete. This film also released outside of Japan first, hitting the Hamburg Fantasy Film Fest in Germany on August 15, 2003, a full week before its Japanese debut.
There’s not much in the way of new aspects of the Curse brought into this one, but the spirits show just how far they can stretch their bounds, and to what extent the terror they spread can affect all those around. The beginning shows Toshio pulling the strings and making things happen, only for Kayako to be brought forth as things get crazier. Their goal as spirits is to replace horror movie actress Kyoko Harase’s child in her womb with themselves, and have the curse be born back into life. It’s not immediately clear why they would desire this, but it brings in pregnancy and motherhood to the layers of horror the Ju-On series covers.
To kick things off, we join a TV crew as they’re setting up to film in the cursed home. The director, named Keisuke Okuni, is disappointed at first with the Saeki house and the lack of activity. He “thought it would be scarier.” Almost immediately afterwards, we do get some strangeness, though in a way that’s just for the audience. In an interesting scene, we get to see the often-overlooked time when the Saeki household was a happy one. Behind Kyoko, (and unbeknownst to her) we see a fragment of the past, with Kayako and Toshio talking and moving about in the kitchen, fully non-Grudged in appearance.
This isn’t the first instance of a fragment of memory from before the murders being made visible through the Curse, but it’s certainly a rare occurance. The most interesting aspect of this is that past Toshio actually notices Kyoko spill her drink, and comes over. Despite us getting a peek into what daily life was like for the Saeki family before the incident, the Curse is still in full effect, and so the spirits are still aware and hostile beings.
Later on we get another vision of the past, though this one is quite a bit less pleasant. The hairstylist for the shoot, Megumi Obayashi, has some psychic ability, and whilst she’s being accosted by the Grudge, she sees the cause behind a deep stain in the carpet of the Saeki home. It’s Kayako, in the garbage bag Takeo put her body in, scratching at the ground as she bleeds profusely all over. Insane imagery aside, Takako Fuji, as always, absolutely nails the movements and absent expression as Kayako approaches for Megumi’s rough demise.
For their grand plan, the spirits spook actress Kyoko and her husband, Masashi, as they drive home, causing a serious crash. Masashi is put into a coma, but miraculously, Kyoko’s unborn baby is deemed unharmed. However, unbeknownst to everyone involved, Kayako has already put some part of her energy into Kyoko’s womb. It’s a bit of a superstition that filming things concerning evil and determined spirits often leads to tragedies overcoming many in the cast (like with The Exorcist over in the West), and we see everyone that went in to film at the Saeki house being picked off by the curse.
Shifting over to the next characters’ focus, we settle on Tomoka Miura, a television host for a horror show named Heart-Stopping Backgrounds (not the most creative or exciting show name). With what has fast become the highlight of style in The Grudge’s storytelling, we get another set of interconnected scenes, with a phone call Tomoka makes to her partner Noritaka. We heard this very same phone call earlier, albeit from the other side, before witnessing both their deaths. Whilst the jumps around in time aren’t always obvious, once things fall into place, it feels so satisfying to see the whole narrative unveil.
In regards to this, we see that the very beginning of the film, the accident that left Masashi in a coma, took place around the center of the narrative. It’s a piece that feels like it fits, but then when the timeline is laid out a bit in dialogue by the director midway through, it slides smoothly into its place. For a while, it does feel a bit like the curse is simply striking out at random, but here we find out that it was in fact all born from the group going to the Saeki home to film that TV special.
There are two major tools used for effective terror throughout the Grudge series. One is technology, channeling Pulse and Ringu with spirits using technology to reach and affect their victims. There was the security cam footage from Ju-On: The Grudge, as well as the film crew reviewing their footage and seeing the possessed Kyoko taking shape as Kayako. The other is hair, which is used as a VERY effective spooky element, as Kayako’s long black hair is incredibly iconic. This film is where it hits full sprint with the idea though, from the lattice of hair stitched across Tomoka and Noritaka’s ceiling which drapes down and hangs both of them, to the wig Megumi is taking care of coming to life as Kayako channels herself through it.
The director, when about to leave the house post shoot, comes across a familiar book seemingly presented to him before the exit. Kayako’s diary is a central element of the franchise, it being the catalyst for Takeo’s murders, and also the method most characters unravel Kayako’s unhinged obsession. This is the first film where the diary is forced upon those who entered quite so insistently, since the plot led up to finding out what went down in the house in the former films and thus it was found during a search. Here the director finds it simply sitting on the table by the door, and flicks through to find the disturbing collection of notes and drawings inside. Then later, Megumi (piloted by the curse at this point) brings the diary to him and Kyoko. It’s implied that Kayako wants her story to be known. Sure, all the people who read it end up dead, but it does add a bit of humanization to the ruthless Onryo.
Megumi’s spirit makes the rounds in this film, though hers is not the only extra one seen. Something not really brought up much in the Ju-On series is other spirits, those who have not been pulled into the curse. Kyoko, fast asleep, doesn’t notice Megumi now fully controlled by Kayako (judging by the iconic jerky movements) rising from her floor and approaching. However, she’s awakened by her mother’s hand shaking her, and her voice calling Kyoko’s name. It’s a touching moment, however brief, and shows that whilst The Grudge pulls in everything it can down into it’s murky depths, there are still spirits that can be forces of good and protection as well. This also does imply that whilst Toshio was visibly there for Kyoko’s mother’s death, her passing could have been natural, which would explain her not immediately becoming a part of the Curse as well.
As the final few of the film crew are feeling the pressure of the rapidly approaching scourge that is The Grudge, we transition away from Kyoko and over to teenager Chiharu. We’ve not really hit surreal like this at this point in the series, with Chiharu and her friend Hiromi in this looping nightmare, going from outside the house to in, pulling things from one side to the other. It’s an incredible section, with great writing and some mindbending scene fades, coupled with erratic yet on point acting from Yui Ichikawa as Chiharu.
After Chiharu meets her end through her mind being broken down, we get a Kayako segment to tie everything together and cap us off. And this one is probably the strangest of all, though also featuring some of the strongest imagery. Kayako is literally birthed from Kyoko, the only one not consumed by the encroaching darkness, crawling out of her womb and claiming the entire room of doctors, as well as Keisuke, who barges in to see if things are alright. When Kyoko finally wakes up, there are no bodies, only stains on the floor, just as Kayako had left as her corpse leaked blood up in the attic. On the floor, however, is a little bundle of joy, a crying child wrapped up.
Despite this obviously being a very very wrong thing, Kyoko can’t help but pick up and care for the baby, as after all it is a part of her too. Flash forward, and we get a delightful little scene of a tired looking Kyoko out for a walk with the adorable little kid Kayako. Despite getting back to the physical world and having a body once more, the evil that has grown inside of her is still ever-present. She pushes Kyoko down some stairs and walks off into the sunset, presumably to cause havoc someplace else now.
This brings us to the end of the original Saeki storyline, though not necessarily to the end of the original timeline. From here, we move on into remake territory, and all that we’ve learned doesn’t necessarily hold true. But with those two standalone films I mentioned before (White Ghost and Black Ghost), the original timeline is technically continued (albeit in a way that doesn’t relate in any real way to this original run of films).
Ju-On: Victim Timeline
Here you can find every victim of the curse through the main two Ju-On films, and what exactly caused their end, in chronological order. These films do a great job of melding timelines together and keeping things non-linear, but we’ll do our best here to present it all in the actual chronological order.
Kazumi & Katsuya Tokunaga – Katsuya, after finding his wife paralyzed in fear from Toshio’s presence, becomes possessed by Takeo. It’s not certain when he himself dies, though as we decided in The Beginning of the Curse, possession is effectively death anyway. With Takeo’s influence, Katsuya brings his wife into the room Kayako was ultimately murdered in, and presumably ends her life (though judging by her body found later, in no way as cruel an end as Kayako got). Two kills for Takeo, on a technicality, but it counts nonetheless.
Security guard & Hitomi Tokunaga – Through Kayako’s stalking of Hitomi, hunting down every member of the Tokunaga family currently residing in her house, an innocent security guard is led into a bathroom and never seen again. Hitomi makes it home, only to succumb to the infamous bed pulling scene, where Kayako appears under her blankets and pulls her down and out of existence.
Sachie – Scared to death, quite directly, by black ghost Kayako (one of the very few kills a shadow ever gets).
Hirohashi – The employer at the welfare center Rika works at meets his end in uncertain terms, but being found dead underneath the sink sounds like a potential Takeo murder.
Igarashi, Nakagawa, & Yuji Toyama – As we’ll see going through these two movies, where Toshio did his share of the consuming in the Curse films, it’s all Kayako and Takeo here. These three detectives working on the growing number of bodies surrounding the Saeki house meet their end to Kayako in the entrance way to the house. Well, Toyama made it out of the house at the least, but met his end soon after.
Mariko – Rika’s friend, dragged into the curse in an almost identical fashion to Shunsuke Kobayashi (both teachers, checking up on the constantly absent Toshio by heading to the house and thus dooming themselves). Whilst we can’t be entirely sure of who did the taking, it does seem like Toshio is the most likely culprit, so we’ll throw him a bone and chalk up another for him.
Rika – Our main protagonist finds herself relating to Kayako, and even seeing herself as Kayako in the mirror. Which is bad news, since Takeo grabs hold of her and enacts the same death sequence Kayako went through in life. It’s a nasty end.
Saori, Chiaki, & Ayano – We know these three school friends were taken by Kayako, with Yuji Toyama seeing strange visions of their experience whilst in the house himself, but specifics around it are a bit unclear. Another three for Kayako however.
Izumi Toyama – The detective Yuji Toyama’s daughter, she went in the house with her friends Saori and the rest, and their ghosts (along with her father’s) tormented her as Kayako brought her into the death realm as well.
Noritaka Yamashita & Tomoka Miura – Whilst there’s definitely overlapping storylines between Ju-On 1 and 2, thankfully for the timeline’s sake the events of the second all actually take place after the first. So here’s the first two from Grudge 2, two members of the film crew in different ways being hung in their apartment by Kayako’s ever powerful hair. The first deaths through hair in the series as well, which is something that the American films really focused in on.
Megumi Obayashi – One of the handful of ‘sensitive’ characters through the series, those in tune with the supernatural and able to detect things from the curse to more general things (in Megumi’s case, she could tell Kyoko was pregnant as well). Megumi gets hit by some hair tech as well, with a long black hair wig Megumi was tending to morphing into Kayako herself.
Aki Harase – Potentially the only on-screen character to, mercifully, fall to a natural death. It’s a bit up in the air, could absolutely be due to the lingering curse on Kyoko that spread to her mother, but the circumstances around her death and the relative peacefulness of it, plus the fact that she has the power to come back as a helpful spirit in the future, points to a natural death.
Watanabe & Sooma – Bit unclear here, and these two can’t really be chalked up for any of the spirits in particular, but cameraman Watanabe and sound technician Sooma disappear along with all the others who were there for filming that day. It’s around this time that their disappearance is noted, so it should fit in somewhere here.
Chiharu – Chiharu meets this incredible, surreal, and terrifying end culminating in being pulled away by Kayako. She skips around in time and space, drifting between reality and nightmares, it feels almost like Shimizu was making a different horror short, but it still managed to fit in perfectly with the rest of the film.
Doctors/Nurses, Masashi Ishikura, & Keisuke Okuni – The four doctors/nurses in the operating room along with Kyoko as she’s birthing a now physical Kayako fall to the curse, right before Keisuke bursts in and follows suit, after the adult Kayako is literally birthed by Kyoko. All at the same time Kyoko’s husband Masashi, up on the roof of the very same hospital, decides to take his own life by jumping off it. So 5 more for Kayako, and Masashi escapes the curse the unfortunate way.
Kyoko Harase – And finally, the last kill of the original Japanese Saeki timeline. After being reborn into the physical world, Baby Kayako gives Kyoko a shove at the top of a set of stairs, and that’s the end of our main protagonist. Baby Kayako wanders off into the street, prepared to carve a path of terror through the open world.
And now for the final body count, through the whole of the original Japanese timeline, from the short films all the way to Ju-On: The Grudge 2. 52 total deaths, with 48 total victims of the curse throughout that whole timeline, beginning with Kayako herself, and ending with Kyoko.
Kanna – 1
Toshio – 3
Takeo – 8
Kayako – 36
‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be
Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.
Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.
Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own.
As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).
“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”
Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story.
That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.
That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.
The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters.
This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.
That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.
Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.
And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.
Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit
The monster movie that breaks new ground.
Tremors, 30 Years Later
Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.
Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.
Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.
The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.
Val and Earl
At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.
In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.
The Gummer Family
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.
As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.
Director Ron Underwood
Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.
Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.
Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.
It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.
The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.
Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.
It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.
- Ricky D
The Career of Tony Scott and His Influence on the Film Industry
In the late 1970s and 1980s, composer Giorgio Moroder was often accused of trying to replace the orchestral movie soundtrack with high-energy, synthesizer-heavy disco-pop laid on with a trowel in movies like Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983), and Top Gun (1986). I remember a magazine story on Moroder which quoted one of his many critics as saying, “The day the music died, Giorgio Moroder was brought in for questioning.”
I think some people had the same opinion about movies and Tony Scott. Full disclosure: I’m one of them. But it would be greatly unfair to Scott, who died in 2012, not to admit that, for good or for ill, his 1980s feature work had an enormous impact on commercial filmmaking.
The younger brother of Ridley Scott by seven years, he was gifted – like his brother – with an outrageously good eye; a taste for the visual strong enough to earn him his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art (which he’d attended on scholarship no less). But painting didn’t pay well, so he joined with his brother in Ridley Scott Associates where, from the 1970s into the 1980s, he applied that eye to moving pictures, directing thousands of commercials, some of them still-talked-about all-time classics in the U.K.
His first feature was the visually sumptuous, dramatically wispy attempt at erotic vampirica, The Hunger (1983), and it was such a lambasted flop it’s a surprise Scott’s feature career didn’t end right there. But three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him to direct Top Gun and movies would never be the same.
It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities (along with Michael Bay, Scott would remain one of Bruckheimer’s go-to directors). Bruckheimer, whose youthful interest in photography had led him to his own career in commercials before turning to movies, had the same affinity for striking imagery as Scott.
The timing of the union was just right, too. MTV was only five years old, and the non-stop near-abstract visuals of music video were not only still hypnotically novel, but on their way to becoming the defining visual sensibility for a new movie-going generation. With Giorgio Moroder (another ideal wedding of sensibilities) supplying a Pop’s Top Ten-nish soundtrack, Scott put together montages that were, essentially, music videos woven into the narrative of the film (some critics carped that the whole movie was little more than an extended music video).
Striking visuals, a pulsing, toe-tapping score, and a super-patriotic story that made a hero of a young, cocky, mouthy, go-my-own-way fighter jock made for a flick which hit a big, fat sweet spot with MTV’s first generation of ticket-buyers: Top Gun scored a whopping $176.7 million domestic. I did the math: at today’s ticket prices, that would translate to almost $390 million. Love it or hate it, you have to respect that kind of box office muscle.
Top Gun set the template for Scott: high-octane visuals, rapid-fire editing (often at the hands of Chris Lebenzon), an MTV-friendly soundtrack, and a story simple enough to absorb without having to pay too much attention.
It also set the template for so many of the box office winners of the next few decades, movies that moved fast, piled on the action, featured characters who were often little more than catchphrases with biceps, offered music video fodder (at least back when MTV still played music videos), and where plausibility – even under Hollywood’s extremely elastic definition of the concept – was irrelevant. Think Lethal Weapon, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and anything by Michael Bay.
Though his brother Ridley often took the same rap of favoring looks over substance, their styles, though both highly visual, were strikingly different.
Ridley’s films — good and bad – play out like classical music: stately, elegant, unrushed, somber.
Tony’s movies are rock ‘n’ roll: fast, loud, exhausting, sometimes painfully bright.
It’s hard to imagine Tony doing something as subdued as Ridley’s Napoleonic-era The Duelists (1977), or even pulling off the brooding sci-fi Gothicism of Alien (1979). By the same token, Ridley would have seemed a poor fit for Top Gun or all the running back and forth in Crimson Tide (1995).
Despite being regularly slammed for his storytelling, Scott did care about plot and character. Explaining the failure of Days of Thunder (1990) – Top Gun cloned to the NASCAR circuit – Scott diagnosed the problem as having started production without a finished script. “(You) always have to get a story,” he said, “and you’ve got to get character first…”
But it wasn’t a sentiment that quite squared with his execution. In an Entertainment Weekly story about a trending flimsiness in big-screen storytelling, The Fan (1996) screenwriter Phoef Sutton told the story of shooting the movie’s climactic baseball game in a torrential downpour. Sutton and others tried to argue Scott out of it pointing out that baseball games are called on account of such weather. The rain stayed. Said Sutton: “…I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”
In his later years, he seemed to be trying to reach for the kind of substance his early films were often accused of lacking, but he remained better at taking a good picture than giving it meaning. Enemy of the State (1998) was entertaining enough, but it was like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with the poetry removed and replaced with explosions and chases; Spy Game (2001) was an anemic John LeCarre wannabe; The Taking of Pelham 123 replaced the local color which had made the original so memorable with a needlessly busy yet flavorless plot.
Like his brother, Tony also produced, and in those projects, one could sense an ambition to do something of substance. There were such laudable efforts as the HBO movie RKO 281 (1999) about Orson Welles’ fight to make Citizen Kane; The Gathering Storm (2002), another HBO feature, this about Churchill’s attempts to prep England for WW II; Gettysburg (2001), a cable documentary about one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War; and the lovely, elegiac (if sadly little-seen) Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Though Scott would continue to turn out some respectable earners in his later years (Déjà vu , The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable ), after the 1980s, he’d never hit Top Gun heights again, and, in fact, after Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) only ever crossed the $100 million domestic mark one more time with Enemy of the State (1998). Perhaps the problem was that Scott’s eye-tickling rat-a-tat-tat style had, by the 1990s, become so widely copied that his often dramatically weak films had little else to offer; the trendsetter had become just another member of the pack.
But give him this. Few filmmakers make a lasting impact. Most directors and most films come and go, cinematic mayflies fluttering around the box office for a few weeks before disappearing. The same can’t be said of Tony Scott. Love ‘im or hate ‘im, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets him.
– Bill Mesce
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