What makes The Grudge 2 so bad? It goes without saying that it's a sequel, a remake and a remake of a sequel, which -- as far as Hollywood is concerned -- makes it a safe bet three times over. Probably less obvious is that the film continues an almost 30-year tradition of trying to re-create the success of John Carpenter's groundbreaking Halloween (1978), a pared-down scare flick in which the only thing that happens is a supernatural being hunting down and killing innocent characters.
But there's something else going on here. Horror movies are the ultimate in "body" cinema, or cinema that we experience physically, rather than mentally or spiritually. Because of this, nudity and sex have always gone hand-in-hand with the genre -- even before nudity could be shown. Look at Cat People (1942), in which the heroine turns into a murderous feline when sexually aroused, or the shower scene in Psycho (1960), the ultimate in vulnerability.
The Grudge 2 blows its two opportunities to revel in sex. Toward the beginning of the film, we drop in on three English-speaking co-eds studying in Japan. Blonde Vanessa (Teresa Palmer) and sexy Miyuki (Misako Uno) tease the more bookish Allison (Arielle Kebbel) and teach her to wear her schoolgirl skirt just a little higher. The movie never bothers to explain why the two popular, promiscuous girls would give the time of day to the nerd girl, but so be it. The trio heads for the spooky house of the previous films and, though Karen Davis (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tried to burn it down, the curse still holds: anyone who goes in there will have the stringy haired-girl and her creepy blue brother breathing down their necks.
My point is this: in any, more playful horror film, Vanessa and Miyuki would die in some compromised position, preferably naked. And The Grudge 2 sets it up for us: Vanessa takes a shower, the camera decapitating her from the shoulders up and from the knees down, and Miyuki meets her boyfriend in a hotel for a romp in the sack, only to meet the beastie before her sweater comes off. Presumably some earlier screenplay draft made more of these scenes before some nervous producer toned it down. Part of this thinking is to aim for a PG-13 and thereby draw in more of the expected age group for this type of film, but the main problem is that, by shutting down the film's libido, it becomes frigid and lifeless.
And thus the other plot threads proceed in the same, safe, sanitary way. Playing Karen's sister Aubrey, Amber Tamblyn is presumably the heroine of the film, but writer Stephen Susco and director Takashi Shimizu (the man responsible for all preceding Grudge movies so far) forgot to provide her with a personality. The best she gets is that her mother (Joanna Cassidy, from Blade Runner and Who Framed Roger Rabbit) loves her sister Karen more. Hearing the news that Karen started a fire and is now in the hospital, Aubrey is dispatched to Japan to find her. Gellar gets a glorified cameo, acting crazy and terrified and finally succumbing to the beastie with the stringy hair (once more played by Takako Fuji).
Incidentally, Amber's dad, Russ Tamblyn, was lucky enough to have one superior horror film on his resume, Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963).
Aubrey meets a so-called journalist, Eason (Edison Chen), who has supposedly been working on the Grudge case for "three years" and yet doesn't know any more than to go back inside the house, and to bring Aubrey with him. Chen's bizarre, wooden acting -- full of awkward pauses -- only emphasizes just how awful Susco's script really is. Characters continually respond and react in the oddest ways to the events around them. It made me wonder if the writer had ever spent any time among other human beings before sitting down to his keyboard.
In Chicago, a third group of characters undergoes similar terrors. Jennifer Beals (yes, the one from Flashdance) plays Trish, the new step-mom to a young boy (Matthew Knight) and a cute teenage cheerleader (Sarah Roemer). The movie treats us to a preview of coming attractions, showing us an incident involving Trish, her new (jealous) husband, a frying pan and some bacon grease. The apartment building this family occupies goes crazy when a mysterious figure in a gray, hooded sweatshirt comes to stay. (Or maybe it's not so mysterious if you're watching carefully enough.)
With their nonsensical stories, the Grudge movies have other Asian horrors over a barrel; too many of them save their "surprise" for the ending, a gambit that hardly ever works. The Grudge 2 isn't smart enough to save anything until the end, and so there's no real downturn or disappointment. In fact, I have to applaud the tidy, compact ending The Grudge 2 does come up with.
Moreover, director Shimizu knows how to piece together the occasional good jump-scare or creepy mood, even if his work is a pastiche of Craven and Carpenter. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing his 2004 film Marebito, a low-budget quickie reportedly shot in eight days and starring another Japanese director, Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo the Iron Man). A good portion of the action has one man, a filmmaker, descending into Tokyo's cavernous underground, looking for something scary. He finds it.The impulse behind Marebito shows that Shimizu has enough ambition to deserve a fascinating career. But first he needs to escape the curse of The Grudge.