I don’t understand it. But it’s creepy as hell.
–Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn)
When good girl Aubrey Davis (Amber Tamblyn) arrives at her mother’s (Joanna Cassidy) home, all she gets is grief. Even before she reaches her mother’s bedroom, Aubrey hears her wracking cough. In another movie, this would be a sure sign of mom’s imminent demise, but in The Grudge 2, it’s more an indication of her hatefulness and poor parenting skills. Miserable and mean, Mrs. Davis instantly berates her daughter for being late.
This reference to time as a linear phenomenon is deceiving. For Mrs. Davis, who will never rise from her bed, but only recur as an image of infirmity and baseless recrimination, time is meaningless, only a device with which to batter her daughter. For everyone else — most certainly viewers — time is broken and abstract. Such disturbance is thematic in Takashi Shimizu’s remake of his own second Japanese film (as of 2006, he has directed seven iterations of the Ju-on/Grudge series). The primary horror here is a function of repetition: the film is a seeming jumble of repetitions and echoes that only makes narrative sense in retrospect. Except that “sense” is not really the effect.
Rethinking the very concepts of remake, sequel, and translation, The Grudge 2 is not a regular horror movie, or even a regular J-horror movie. It’s ambitious, absurd, and aggravating in ways that most horror movies, designed to make money, can’t afford to be. Taking up the theme of vengeance that has shaped all the films in the Ju-on franchise, this one sends the implacable ghost to several locations, seemingly at once (again, the time scrambling makes the precise order of events irrelevant: vengeance, it seems, is eternal). Most basically, the film offers three storylines. In Chicago, Trish (Jennifer Beals) has moved in with her new guy, Bill (Christopher Cousins), who has two children, Lacey (Sarah Roemer) and Jake (Matthew Knight), from a previous relationship. Lacey welcomes her, happy to be able to borrow her clothes (a minor point that nonetheless underscores a cultural blurring of temporal boundaries, with the elision of generational sensibilities), but Jake resents her. “I won’t call you mom,” he grumps. Trish remains sunny, urging her not-exactly-stepson to think of her not as a replacement but as another sort of parent altogether.
This family arrangement will repeat but also refract the original Grudge family (here the jealous/angry/frenzied partner doesn’t quite climax, but instead faces the fury of his incensed and fearful victim). The Japanese family appears again as in grainy video images, signaling their pastness but also their perpetual loopness. The insanely jealous husband Takeo (Takashi Matsuyama), you’ll recall (and see again here), breaks his wife Kayako’s (Takako Fuji) neck and drowns his young, concave-chested son Toshio (Ohga Tanaka): the victims become the ghosts: white-faced, black-haired, screechy, and affiliated with the black cat that Takeo also kills/killed.
This particular act of brutality indicates the extent of Takeo’s depravity for Miyuki (Misako Uno): “He was so sick,” she reports to Vanessa (Teresa Palmer) and Allison (Arielle Kebbel), her classmates at the International High School in Tokyo, “He even killed the cat.” The girls, dressed in plaid school uniform skirts with white knee socks and black neckties, are at “one of the most haunted houses in Japan,” that is, Takeo’s house. Now burned black (following the effort by Karen [Sarah Michelle Gellar] in The Grudge to burn it down and kill off the curse), it grants bullies Vanessa and Miyuki an occasion to frighten and so initiate new girl Allison.
The ritual is predictable and also repetitive, reusing and reordering the first plot. They lock Allison in the scary closet, where she sees Kayako’s journal (the one with the eye visible through ripped pages) as well as Toshio’s mewling, black-eyed ghost. Terrified, she escapes the closet, after her companions, also terrified, have run off and abandoned her. The screaming girls go on to suffer repeat hauntings from the ghosts — scrawny-chalky Takio as well as his croaky, broken-necked mother. These abuses occur in the usual sorts of locations: Vanessa in the high school locker room/shower, Miyuki in the hotel room where she and her boyfriend expect to have sex (always a bad idea if you’re in high school in a horror movie), and just about anywhere for poor, increasingly haggard Allison, the innocent victim whose righteous rage — again — carries across time and place, eating her up inside even as it afflicts anyone she touches.
Such visceral transmission of anger and fear affects Aubrey, as her story intersects with Allison’s and Jake’s. Though she hasn’t spoken with her sister Karen in years, she does her mother’s bidding and flies to Tokyo with the intention to “bring hr back.” Karen’s in the hospital here, her face still veiny-blotched from her last encounter with the ghosts; it appears that this film begins pretty much at the moment the first remake ends, Karen accused of setting the fire that killed her boyfriend Doug (Jason Behr), and so, under close (but not close enough) watch by Tokyo police and doctors. No sooner do the sisters tearfully embrace at the hospital than the authorities swoop in to strap Karen to her bed, leaving her at the mercy of the ghosts she yet thinks she can vanquish (“I’m the only one who can stop her,” she squeaks to Aubrey, as she’s dragged away).
In mid-fret in the hospital waiting area, Aubrey is questioned by Eason (Edison Chen). A Hong Kong-born reporter and photographer who’s been “covering” the ghost story for a couple of years now, he’s also caught up in the vengeance loop, though he doesn’t know it yet. On his own, he watches video tape of the first remake’s tragic Detective Nakagawa (Ryo Ishibashi), describing an encounter even as he has one, which Eason rewinds more than once, until finally seeing Kakayo peering through a window at the back of the frame.
Like everyone else who’s warned not to do it, Eason goes to The House (worse, he brings Aubrey with him), where he not only checks out the daunting closet but also takes pictures. This bad idea leads to a striking encounter with the ghosts in his dark room (red-lit, of course), where photos of the ghost grant it yet another dimension through which to move: it begins to move on the flat surface, then ook through the developing fluid, turning it black and inky like the occasional tub’s water, rising from the pan to scare Eason into the usual wide-eyed paralysis. The dark room is transformed: every photo he has hanging to dry shows Kakayo’s black-hair-covered visage.
For all its jump scenes, grim shadows, and anguished victims, The Grudge 2 isn’t very scary. More abstract art than conventional horror cinema, it’s more interested in parsing the idea of repetition, the basis and method of revenge. Rejecting formula by reconsidering formula, it is, perversely, singular.