It?s getting so that you almost need a playbook to keep the entries of the seemingly endless Ju-On series straight. There?s enough information about them online that there?s no need to detail their progression from V-cinema to Japanese film to American remake here. Suffice to say that, whereas the first American Grudge ? directed, like all the entries, by Takashi Shimizu ? was more of a ?greatest hits? of shock sequences culled from previous entries in the series, with Sarah Michelle Gellar?s character awkwardly grafted onto the plot, last October?s production of The Grudge 2 (the sequel to the remake, but not, er, a remake of the original?s 2003 sequel) features a completely original plot. Unfortunately, that plot is a half-baked mix of three separate storylines that all take place in different time periods and locations. While this is something Shimizu had played with before ? most notably at the climax of the first theatrical Ju-On movie ? it doesn?t work at all here, primarily because the movie can?t decide whether it wants to be a non-linear collection of frightening mood-pieces, or an American-style narrative story with a beginning, middle and end.
TV actress Amber Tamblyn stars in one thread as Aubrey Davis, the younger sister of Sarah Michelle Gellar?s character from the first American Grudge. Aubrey comes to Tokyo after the events Grudge 1, and finds find her sister Karen (Gellar once more, back for a short cameo but still receiving top billing) in the hospital under police guard, suspected of causing the house fire that ended the previous film. After Karen checks out of the hospital, so to speak, Aubrey meets up with a Chinese journalist named Eason (Hong Kong megastar Edison Chen, trying his best here, but seriously under-used), who not only conveniently speaks both English and Japanese so that he can help Aubrey get around Tokyo, but also has been researching the cursed house and its murdered family for several years. Naturally, Aubrey and Eason join forces to try to put a stop to the curse that?s claimed so many lives. In the parallel stories, Allison (Arielle Kebbel), a young American girl in the international high school, is set up by her friends to receive a scare in the infamous house, but winds up spreading the curse farther than anyone had imagined; while back in Chicago, in yet another timeline of the story, a family (including Jennifer Beals, in a curious bit of casting) begins to fall apart when a strange neighbor moves in next door who carries an aura of death about her.
In the special features accompanying the feature film, Shimizu and several of the movie?s many producers (including J-horror pioneer Taka Ichise and Evil Dead creators Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert; there are an astonishing thirteen on record) continually speak about how they wanted to make The Grudge 2 (the sixth film in the series, and the longest at 108 minutes in its unrated cut) a departure from previous entries, and to move away from the nearly plotless form the earlier films took (although the theatrical Ju-on 2 definitely defies this description, and could be said to have the strongest plot of any of the films).
But significantly, Shimizu and Ichise say they argued against this move, preferring not to over-explain the details of the curse, to create motivations for each character?s relationship to the story, nor to quantify the reasons for their deaths. What resulted from this tension was something that satisfied neither imperative, and the viewer is left to untangle the sometimes-tantalizing, sometimes-silly character sketches and plot developments that are most likely the result of American screenwriter Stephen Susco (and who knows how many uncredited writing partners) and the producers over-clarifying nearly everything, but not enough to make the stories fully understandable.
For instance, Joanna Cassidy appears in two scenes in the film (in bed both times ? was she ill during the shoot?) as Karen and Aubrey?s mother, yet serves no narrative purpose in any of the plot threads. (It?s revealed in a couple of the deleted scenes that her part was at one time much bigger, and more crucial to the final revelations of the film.) And the Chicago-set thread seems nothing more than a lame attempt to move the story to an American location. But the most grievous injury to the strength of the earlier films comes when the screenplay actually attempts to make Kayako, the murdered housewife whose vengeful spirit started the whole cycle back in the first V-Cinema Ju-On, a sympathetic character simply by giving her an abusive mother and a background full of pathos. This didn?t work in Ring 0: Birthday and it certainly doesn?t work here ? Kayako?s an angry spirit, after all, and any exploration of her psychology comes across as forced and superfluous.
Only the parts of the film that Shimizu and his crew are solely responsible for manage to come off fairly well, such as the cinematography by Battle Royale veteran Katsumi Yanagishima, which is gorgeous, and Christopher Young?s music score, which creates an effective mood. And the director?s signature shock sequences still work most of the time ? the best being a darkroom-set scare that takes The Ring?s climax from the world of video to that of still photos ? and only a few of them have been recycled from earlier entries. Shimizu even manages to turn a few expected scares around, like an under-the-covers rendezvous with Kayako (cribbed from Ju-On) that never happens, only to have her pop out when least expected. But despite these scenes, the plot contrivances and misguided explanations continue to add up so much that, by the time the mostly-unintelligible climax rolls around, the screenplay has not only tied itself into knots, it?s also rewritten the rules of the original films and completely done away with the classic mythology of angry Kayako and her blue-skinned son! One can only hope that the eventual Ju-On 3 restores the original background, leaving the events of this entry as an aberrant glitch only seen by U.S. audiences.
Lionsgate?s unrated DVD boasts a gorgeous 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and lively Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, plus a good number of special features culled from interviews with various people involved in the production. An hour?s worth of featurettes are devoted to topics like the Kayako and Toshio characters (though sadly, Kayako?s Takako Fuji, the only actress to appear in all six films, doesn?t get to appear onscreen without her makeup); the differences between Asian and Western horror traditions; the different working methods of American and Japanese crews; a revealing look at the story development, where it?s clear early on that the differing conceptions of what the film should be will never be resolved (and indeed, they weren?t); and finally, Shimizu himself, who gets a back-patting portrait featuring flattering comments by the American producers, although it?s mentioned that they had to do some serious convincing in order to get him to return to the director?s chair for the sequel.
Five deleted scenes are evidence of heavy rewriting (the film started production without a finished script), yet none of them are any better than what?s already in the movie, even an alternate ending (again with Cassidy?s character, who gets to get out of bed this time). And finally, ?Tales from the Grudge? are three very short films directed by f/x guy Toby Wilkins, who also contributed to the short film ?Rings? from the American The Ring DVD. Divorced almost entirely from the Japanese context of the originals, the shorts are completely Americanized and feature pretty young college students in stock situations that parrot Shimizu?s ideas and visuals with none of their power or inventiveness. While professionally-done, they?re just the kind of bland and shallow entertainment American audiences seem to prefer to the somewhat more challenging, foreign-language originals. But given The Grudge 2?s impressive box office last fall, they?re probably an accurate glimpse at what the future holds for the series, once Shimizu, Ichise, Fuji and all decide that they?ve had enough of it.