Unraveling the relationships between eastern and western Grudge films at this point is kind of a mind-bending task. The Grudge 2 isn’t a remake of Ju-On: The Grudge 2, nor is Ju-On: The Grudge 2, as you might expect, the second Japanese Ju-On movie the way that The Grudge 2 is the second US Grudge movie. Ju-On: The Grudge 2 is actually the fourth Japanese film to bare the Ju-On moniker.
Director Takashi Shimizu made two direct-to-video releases entitled Ju-On: The Curse (1 and 2, respectively,) then made the two Ju-On: The Grudge films. The US Grudge films, both also directed by Takashi Shimizu, borrow some of their scenes, themes, and imagery from all four of the Japanese ones, though The Grudge 2 (US) follows, for the most part, a brand new storyline.
The Grudge 2 suffers from some of the same problems that the first US Grudge film did, and perhaps because of its attempt at fusing an explanatory storyline and American teen horror vibe with a fragmented style of filmmaking, has some of its own. For whatever reason, the visual shocks just don’t translate the way that they did in the first film, and the experimental take on narrative gives a disjointed feel to a film that, by the end, feels kind of like a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel with a Japanese twist and a lot less wisecracking on the part of the antagonist.
Like the original Grudge and its eastern antecedents, the story is told in a non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth between three separate narratives. A man bitches to his wife about his breakfast, and she in turn dumps hot grease on his head and brains him with the pan. Then we leap to the story of three uniform clad, highly sexualized girls attending International high School in Tokyo. Arielle Kebbel plays the timid Allison, who is inexplicably treated like a leprous nerd by her classmates, though she is cherubically gorgeous and has a smile so innocently entrancing that it could stop time. Allison’s two classmates, the somewhat sympathetic Miyuki (Misako Uno) and the balls-to-the-wall bitchy Vanessa (Teresa Palmer), are consummately mean popular chicks. They take Allison to an abandoned house, familiar to fans of the other Ju-On and Grudge films as the accursed Saeki residence, and the inescapable hauntings begin.
The first supernatural encounter, though, isn’t all you’d hope for. Allison’s friends lock her in the always-unlucky Saeki crawlspace. She notices the creepy diary of Kayako Saeki next to her, and is shortly thereafter scared shitless by a deathly blue otherworldly figure with requisite jet black hair and creaking limbs. Arielle Kebbel does a commendable job of exuding pants-shitting terror, but the scene just isn’t that scary. Rather than being introduced in a fury of decentralizing staccato cuts as in the first Grudge, this creature just kind of shows up.
In the Japanese Ju-On movies, especially the really gritty looking direct-to-video ones, Shimizu pulls off the “this ghost is scary just because it’s looking at you” trick so effectively that it stays embedded in your mind, but perhaps because of the Hollywood sheen, it just looks limp. Kayako and Toshio the nightmare-inducing specters become Kayako and Toshio; those irritating blue people who keep showing up and staring at everyone.
After Allison tears ass out of the Saeki residence, we make another unannounced leap in space and time to the picturesque ‘burbs of Pasadena, California. Aubrey Davis is berated by her perpetually coughing, ambiguously ill mother to bring back her sister Karen. Karen is none other than Sarah Michelle Gellar, who finished out the first film in a Japanese hospital, just having tried to burn down the Saeki residence.
Aubrey’s one-dimensional beast of a mother sets her on a trip to Japan during which time we are treated to a voiceover explaining Karen and Aubrey’s fairly inconsequential sibling rivalry. “That’s the difference between you and Karen,” says mom, “She knows how to face life. I don’t care that you girls aren’t speaking—she’s your sister. Believe me, I wish there was someone else, but there isn’t. Bring her back.” This is not the last time in The Grudge 2 that a plot point is explained in a few lines of dialogue with all the subtlety of that guy getting smacked in the head with a frying pan in the first scene.
Aubrey tracks down her sister, who escapes the clutches of the hospital staff shortly thereafter. Moments later, she is splattered on the pavement while Aubrey and her newfound journalist friend Eason (Edison Chen) stand around scratching their heads trying to figure out where she went, in another supposedly frightening scene that plays like a sight gag. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance in The Grudge 2 lasts for about the same duration as Charleton Heston’s infamously reluctant reprisal of his role as Taylor in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.
The third plot returns to the characters from the opening vignette, before the couples’ marital problems are resolved with a cartoonish frying pan solution. Bill (Christopher Cousins) moves his new wife, Trish (Jennifer Beals), into their Chicago brownstone with his two kids, Lacey (Sarah Roemer) and her younger brother Jake (Michael Knight). A strange neighbor shows up carrying the now migratory Saeki curse, and as she starts taping up her windows to prevent an assortment of creepy blue ghosts from peering in on her, Bill and Trish’s relationship degenerates into a jealous mess.
The movie continues to leap back and forth. Aubrey and Eason piece together the earlier story of Kayako from the part of her diary that no one thought to read in the first film. Turns out, Kayako’s mother used to use her daughter as storage for the demons she exorcized from the possessed, though it’s unclear whether that’s what made Kayako’s ghost so pervasively nasty, or if it’s just a coincidence. Eason also mentions that Karen’s attempt to burn down the Saeki house probably made the curse worse than it had been, which doesn’t make a single iota of sense, but explains why the curse will later hitchhike to Chicago.
By the end, The Grudge 2 feels like a supernatural body count film from the ‘80s, complete with half-coherent explanations of weird plot twists, that just happens to use distinctly Japanese imagery, and narrative structure to justify an increasingly weird if not campy array of killings. That isn’t, however, all bad.
That borderline extremeness and weird-imagery is exactly what The Grudge 2 has going for it in terms of potential cult appeal. Allison’s two high school antagonists turning into shambling blue Japanese ghosts is something straight out of campy American b-horror. When Vanessa, after standing in her underwear and smarmily dressing down Allison in a locker room, first meets up with Kayako’s ghost, she doesn’t just scream, she pisses herself wearing only a towel (there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that this made it into the theatrical cut).
Now, you can argue that a scene featuring hot female teenage micturation is there purely for verisimilitude. After all, people sometimes pee when they get scared, especially when they are scared by ghosts in foreign lands. But more likely, the urine trouble scene is intended to be that kind of tawdry b-horror boner material that’s so essential to a certain strain of extreme cinema.
Then there’s the scene that features Lacey’s friend, who goes from pretty and flirtatious in the beginning of the film to inexplicably guzzling a half quart of milk, vomiting it back into the jug, and drinking it again when Lacey knocks on her door. Lacey’s near blasé reaction to this outrageous weirdness is up there with some of the more egregious examples of unintentional comedy in horror movie history. Combine this with a previously unreleased epilogue, seen here as a DVD special feature, that carries over from the first film Shimizu’s preoccupation with human jaw removal, and you’ve got enough weirdness to keep horror dorks laughing, gagging, and rewinding.
The DVD special features include a variety of featurettes discussing the ups and downs of an American cast making a film with a director who doesn’t speak any English. One goes in-depth into the conflict between Shimizu and the American producers over the storyline. At one point it’s revealed that Shimizu’s initial vision for the film was for it to have no main character (you can almost hear a buttoned up studio executive screaming into his cell phone about how “even La Dolce Vita had a fucking main character!” at that suggestion). At one point, Shimizu says that The Grudge, without Takako Fuji as Saeki, is simply not a Grudge film, which makes the collection of three short films directed by Toby Wilkins entitled “Tales from the Grudge”, with nary a single appearance by Fuji to be found, an interesting addition.
None of the three “Tales” have much to offer outside of standard J-horror imagery applied in a different context: dark black hair is pulled out of various orifices, ghostly visages appear in cell phones, and hands appear from nowhere to yank people into the great beyond. Their presence, though, shows that just as American J-horror remakes have become their own distinct kind of hybrid, Shimizu’s piecemeal narrative style, jumping around in time and space, may very well lend itself to a particular kind of short horror film. It’s not clear whether this will play into the upcoming releases of either the Japanese or US versions of The Grudge 3, hell, it’s not clear whether the US or Japanese version of The Grudge 3 will even have much to do with each other outside of sharing a director. But the idea of 15-minute shorts strung together to continue a never-ending ghost story seems like it could be, if not Takashi Shimizu’s directorial legacy in the US, at least the impetus for a Sony Pictures sponsored promotional film contest.