THE GRUDGE 2 (2006)
Director: Takashi Shimizu

I've made it no secret that I think the horror genre's strongest presence this century lies not in the United States, but overseas. Some of the most important, influential horror movies of the last several years have come from Eurasia, particularly Japan and Korea. Perhaps sensing the potential in bringing the J-Horror phenomenon to America, DreamWorks Pictures and director Gore Verbinski teamed up in 2002 to create The Ring, a remake of Hideo Nakata's amazing ghost story Ringu. The Ring was a big fat hit, grossing nearly 250 million dollars worldwide and inspiring other American film studios to start doing their own J-Horror remakes. One of the more unique of these remakes was The Grudge. Inspired by Takashi Shimizu's four Ju-on films, The Grudge stood out from the rest because of the lengths producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert were willing to go to keep it faithful to its source material. Shimizu was hired to direct, Takako Fuji was brought back to reprise her role as the film's villain, and the movie was shot with a mostly-Japanese crew in Tokyo. And while critical reaction was mixed, The Grudge scared up 187 million dollars worldwide and Columbia Pictures announced plans for a sequel only three days after its release. With Shimizu and Fuji once again returning to the Ju-on/Grudge franchise, The Grudge 2 hit American theaters on October 13, 2006. I liked the remake, but the sequel, I'm not as enthusiastic about.

THE GRUDGE 2 (2006)Like the other Ju-on/Grudge movies, the movie follows a nonlinear timeline, intertwining three different stories in three different points of the chronology. It gets kind of confusing at times, so bear with me as I try to make sense of them here, for the sake of a somewhat coherent plot synopsis. Okay? Alright.

Our first story occurs mere days after the events of the previous Grudge movie. Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is in a Tokyo hospital, and word of her "accident" has gotten back to her bedridden mother (Joanna Cassidy) in California. Too ill to travel, she commissions Karen's estranged sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) to see what's causing all the problems. Aubrey flies to Japan and arrives at the hospital, discovering that her sister is has been driven completely out of her gourd by what has happened to her. Karen begs Aubrey to get her out of the hospital, but ends up causing a scene and forcing orderlies to strap her to the bed as her sibling is pushed out of the room. But it's no time until Karen breaks free of her restraints and attempts an escape. She ends up on the roof, but that provides her no shelter from the malevolent spirits that haunt her. This lack of shelter proves fatal, as Karen plummets off the roof and lands on the pavement in front of Aubrey as she leaves the hospital. This tragedy prompts Aubrey to team with a journalist named Eason (Edison Chen) and dig deeper into the supernatural machinations behind Karen's demise. But the deeper they dig, the more they find themselves being stalked by the same ghosts.

Our second story revolves around Allison Fleming (Arielle Kebbel), the new kid at Tokyo's international high school. Her awkwardness makes her an easy target for the cool kids, which is inferred as Vanessa (Teresa Palmer) and Miyuki (Misako Uno) lead her to the charred remains of the house from the previous movie. The pair guide Allison upstairs to a closet door, and tell her that if she can sit in the closet and count to ten, she'll see the ghost of a woman that was murdered and stashed in the crawlspace above the closet. All the kids are doing the closet ten-count, Vanessa and Miyuki say, so since peer pressure is a bitch, Allison reluctantly climbs into the closet and gets to counting. But if Mean Girls has taught me anything, it's that teenage girls are the most evil people on the planet. I say that because as soon as Allison gets to five, Vanessa and Miyuki slam the closet door and trap their terrified classmate inside. Allison flips out, even more so once she sees the stringy-haired ghost crawling into the closet from the crawlspace above it. She manages to free herself from the closet, and all three girls bolt from the house. However, what was supposed to be a harmless prank evolves into something far worse, as the three girls soon learn that just because they're out of the house doesn't mean they're out of trouble.

And the third story is something a little different, taking us from Tokyo to the windy city of Chicago as a woman named Trish (Jennifer Beals) is moving in with her new husband Bill (Christopher Cousins) and his children. She has no problem getting along with Bill's daughter Lacey (Sarah Roemer) and her best friend Sally (Jenna Dewan), but his son Jake (Matthew Knight) isn't handling the changes all that well. Trish attempts to make nice with Jake, but far more disconcerting things are afoot in their apartment building. Everyone begins acting bizarrely, and the neighbors (Paul Jarrett and Gwenda Lorenzetti) are harboring a creepy stranger who lurks around the building at all hours of the night in a dirty hooded sweatshirt. And a few ghosts have been making appearances in the tenement's shadows too. All three stories come to a head in the film's climax, as we learn how they are all connected to one another, to the murderous spirits of Kayako Saeki (Takako Fuji) and her son Toshio (Oga Tanaka), and to a curse that can no longer be contained in the land of the rising sun.

Have you ever seen a movie that has all the potential in the world, but fails to capitalize upon it for one reason or another? That's what happened with The Grudge 2. There is some good to be found in the movie, particularly the direction, but it falls flat in quite a few categories. I wanted to like The Grudge 2, I really did, but it seems like the movie came down with a bad case of "sequelitis" and made promises it couldn't keep. Because instead of getting a terrifying horror movie on the level of the others in the Ju-on/Grudge franchise, we instead get a nonsensical exercise in mediocrity on the level of The Ring 2. And that's terrible.

Of all the things wrong with the movie, one of the few things that actually gets it right is Takashi Shimizu's direction. Shimizu must have figured that if the rest of the movie isn't going to be any good, he might as well make it LOOK good. This is the sixth time he's directed a Grudge or Ju-on movie, so you'd figure he'd either be really good at it, or bored out of his skull. I don't know about the latter, but I'm sure he's got the former down. He packs the movie with an amazing atmosphere and creepy, unsettling, and downright bizarre visuals (the girl with the half-gallon of milk, for example), and manages to insert Kayako and Toshio any way he can in order to facilitate a scare. Kayako and Toshio are like evil pissed-off ghost ninjas. They just pop up out of nowhere and spook and/or kill their prey, then vanish just as quickly as they appeared. You know what would have been awesome? If, as a wild plot twist, Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid had been the root of all the problems. I know Pat Morita's dead, but there's your angle! He's controlling all this from beyond the grave! But anyway, back to Shimizu's work and the scares, lots and lots of scares. Whether they're subtle, blatant, or cheap "boo!" scares, they might not be as strong as they could be, but a few of them are still effective. Shimizu and cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima pair up to create a number of wonderfully framed camera shots from different intriguing angles, and when combined with the great music score composed by Christopher Young, certain scares manage to sneak up on us and raise the fright factor.

However, where the movie starts going downhill is the screenplay penned by Stephen Susco. With three stories being told simultaneously, the movie can become confusing as we bounce back and forth between them. And the more confused we become, the more we begin to withdraw from the movie. If Susco had instead kept the stories separated as three different chapters (similar to the Ju-on movies or a Quentin Tarantino movie), I think the concept would have worked better. But by chopping them up and hopping around from one to another, it's harder to build a level of suspense that encompasses each individual story. It causes the movie to teeter on the brink of incoherence, really hurting any chances the movie had of being any good.

And I have to say that I thought the Aubrey storyline was thoroughly useless. The remake was the paragon of the phrase "less is more," and its simplicity was its strongest point. It merely let the concept — "everyone who enters a haunted house dies" — work up the scares. But by adding all these little details about Kayako's rough childhood, that simplicity is ruined by making things too complex. We don't need to know everything about Kayako's past, other than what caused her to be a ghost in the first place. Why isn't that good enough? Why muck it up with all this unnecessary fluff? And it doesn't help that they brought up some big twist regarding Kayako's mother, then cease to mention it any further once it becomes no longer relevant. If they're just going to drop it at a moment's notice, why even include it to begin with? Sigh... the movie would have been ten times better if this storyline had just been excised and the movie's focus shifted to balancing the other storylines.

I didn't have such a problem with the other two storylines. The schoolgirl storyline is straight out of the Ju-on flicks, and outside of the "mean girls pull a prank on an awkward classmate" cliché, I thought it worked. However, of the three, I was most interested in the Chicago story. The idea of Kayako and Toshio crossing the Pacific Ocean is an intriguing one, because it can open up the franchise to a plethora of new victims and setups that might not be readily available in a Japanese setting. (Though I will admit that Kayako appearing in a no-tell motel during the schoolgirl storyline was very neat.) The grudge calling an American apartment building home is definitely a concept I'd like to see reprised in a sequel or two.

And while we're here, let's talk about some things I didn't quite get about the movie. In their storyline, Aubrey and Eason visit an seventy-something exorcist who lives in the middle of nowhere and speaks English fluently. How? Does every senior citizen living in the Japanese countryside speak perfect English? I'm not saying that it's impossible for her to have such a masterful handle on the language, but it seems rather improbable. It's not just The Grudge 2, but it seems like so many movies set in foreign countries have characters that speak English with no problem despite the fact that they probably shouldn't be able to. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 might suck, but one thing they got right is having a reason why a 14th-century Japanese emperor could speak fluent English. And another thing I couldn't quite grasp is that it's established that the story of the three schoolgirls is set two years after the events that befell the Davis sisters, so you'd think that the Saeki house more than likely would have been demolished after Karen torched the place at the end of the first movie. Or at the very least, since its owners were dead, it would have been left to either the next of kin, or even defaulted back to the real estate company so they could do something with it. I know the house has to be there (and in surprisingly good structural shape, too!) for the sake of the plot, but you'd think that what's left of a building after it's burned down would be taken care of after a while. If it was, say, two weeks after the fire instead of two years, it would make more sense. But what do I know, I'm not a screenwriter.

Last but not least is the cast. Takako Fuji and Oga Tanaka aren't in roles that are super-challenging, but they and their characters are the most important parts of the movie, and I think they did a great job. Meanwhile, Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance alternates between placid or completely over-the-top insane, with no middle ground amid the two extremes. I guess Gellar figured that since she was only getting roughly five or six minutes of screen time, that she was going to at least do something that would stand out. And while I normally like Amber Tamblyn's work, I don't believe this will be noted as one of her best performances. She keeps a perpetual sourpuss look on her face, not really showing too big of a difference in happiness, sadness, fear, or confusion. If she'd had been working as hard as she did on Joan of Arcadia, I might not be complaining. Arielle Kebbel, Matthew Knight, and Edison Chen aren't all that bad, but I didn't believe that any of them really held the screen like they should have. None of the rest of the cast really contribute anything memorable, and I'm sad that Ryo Ishibashi's role in the movie is relegated to a short two-minute cameo. He was one of my favorite parts of the first Grudge, and I think he and his character could have easily been placed in Chen's spot without making too much of a difference.

Maybe I'm being too hard on The Grudge 2. There are some good parts to be found, so if you can enjoy the movie on that alone, it might not be as bad as I'm making it out to be. But I found that the movie's mediocre and bad points outnumber its good ones. As a whole, it isn't all that it could have been. It isn't completely awful, but it almost seems like just a quick way to capitalize on the previous movie's success. All the pieces are there to make a great movie, but it appears only a few of them were put into place. The movie is too long, too complex, and weaker than it should have been. And ultimately, the movie is just kinda there. It's entertaining to a particular degree, if one can get over the flaws that drag it down. So because of that, I'm going to give The Grudge 2 two and a half stars. What a wasted opportunity.

Final Rating: **½