When James Whales's
Frankenstein was released in theaters in 1931,
audiences were reportedly terrified by Boris Karloff's
depiction of Frankenstein's Monster. Seven sequels
later the monster was a welcome, completely non-frightening
presence in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Today, Frankenstein's Monster probably would only
elicit scares from the smallest of children. What
happened? One word: overexposure. For a horror film
to work, it has to tap into the audience's fear of
the unknown. But as sequel after sequel keeps getting
churned out, the monsters we were once frightened
of (Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees being more recent
examples) become little more than "old friends"
that have ceased to shock us.
Which brings us to Ju-on:
The Grudge 2. At the time of this writing, there
have been two direct-to-video movies, two feature
films, and an American remake. Not only that, but
director Takashi Shimizu is said to be prepping both
The Grudge 2 AND Ju-on: The Grudge 3.
Considering the fate of the monsters of old, can a
certifiable horror franchise continue to scare us?
In a word, yes. But the kinds
of shocks that Ju-on: The Grudge 2 achieves
are, for the most part, pretty cheap. The pasty little
ghost boy Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) was creepy in the first
film, and he elicits plenty of shocks when he pops
up unexpectedly or scurries along in the background.
But for those of us who've seen all or most of the
films in the series, we've come to know the Ju-on
legend intimately. Toshio is good for a quick scare,
but in all honesty, he's a tragic figure, a portent
of doom for sure, but he's not going to hurt anybody.
Toshio's vengeful mother Kayako (a returning Takako
Fuji) fares a little better in the chills department,
but she, too, suffers from the fear-killing disease
of familiarity. So how can a horror movie succeed
when its very premise seems to have run its course?
Simple: reinvent the formula. That's exactly what
Shimizu does in this sequel. As negative as this review
seems to be in the early going, the truth is I liked
Ju-on: The Grudge 2. How's that for a shock?
The premise is relatively
simple: actress Kyoko Harase (Noriko Sakai) has been
typecast in a slew of horror movies, becoming the
veritable Jamie Lee Curtis of J-Horror. To make matters
worse, an Unsolved Mysteries-type TV show has
invited the actress to appear on their program. The
film crew is going to spotlight a supposed haunted
house, which, of course, turns out to be the cursed
home of the previous Ju-on films. Kyoko reluctantly
agrees to do the program, which goes off without a
hitch despite a few weird incidents. Everything seems
fine until crew members start dropping like flies.
Kyoko also suffers the consequences of her trespass,
as she experiences a near-fatal car accident. Amazingly,
Kyoko survives, but her fiancé ends up in a
coma. Even worse, the beautiful actress suffers a
miscarriage. Or does she? A trip back to the doctor
reveals that Kyoko is indeed still pregnant, but with
what? And why hasn't she died like all the others?
The answer to that question
is part of the reason why Ju-on: The Grudge 2
works as a sequel. It retains enough of the premise
of the original to be familiar to Ju-on lovers,
but tweaks the formula just enough to make the narrative
compelling, both for fans and non-fans alike. The
concept for Ju-on is, in truth, better-suited
for a single movie. The rules are pretty restrictive.
Simply put, these ghosts just don't play fair. If
you go into the haunted house, you die. And you can't
do a damn thing about it. Wooden stakes and silver
bullets are useless: the "Grudge" is inescapable.
As such, there's really not much for a viewer to get
excited about when every character's death is a foregone
conclusion, and that's especially disconcerting when
there's a sequel involved because it quickly becomes
a case of "same old, same old."
Yet the pregnancy angle in
Ju-on: The Grudge 2 has a definite payoff,
which even appears to have dramatic consequences for
the third film, if and when it gets made. To put it
coyly, the film plays fair in its reinvention. Instead
of just throwing out all the rules, the film creates
an "out" that is organic to the plot, and
in doing so, let's the viewer know that all bets are
off in the future. The idea of the same director remaking
and sequelizing his own films ad nauseum seems like
a dubious proposition, but if Shimizu continues to
play with the formula, his decision to remain in the
Ju-on-making business will be a tad more legitimate.
That isn't to say the film
isn't without its faults. Certain plotlines go nowhere,
as evidenced by a bloodied diary that is made out
to be a crucial piece of the plot, but amounts to
little more than a creepy prop by story's end. (This
is especially interesting, considering the diary does
have a reason for existing in the American remake.)
Besides its sometimes clumsy balancing act of horror
and unintentional comedy (a scene in the wig department
is alternatively creepy and laugh-out loud funny),
the movie also is a bit too vague for its own good.
Ambiguity is preferable to over-explanation, but the
film would have benefited from a little more clarity,
especially when it comes to the motivation for Kayako.
Now I don't expect filmmakers to connect all the dots
for me, but some "whys" need to be answered
from time to time.
What the film does well,
however, is the inventive way in which it tells its
story. Like its predecessor, Ju-on: The Grudge
2 contains a fractured narrative that focuses
on a different character in each vignette. These separate
narrative threads are presented in a nonlinear fashion,
each playing with time and space, but ultimately they
interweave in surprising ways. Although most might
expect a generic rehash in order to cash in on the
Ju-on phenomenon, Takashi Shimuzu seizes the
opportunity to make this sequel an exercise in cinematic
creativity. And hey, you can't begrudge him for that.
(Calvin McMillin, 2005)