Over the last few years, Hollywood has shown a strong drive to remake Japanese psycho-thrillers–those weird ghost stories that have become a cottage industry in Tokyo. A couple of the English versions were successful, at least financially–most notably “The Ring” and “The Grudge.” But since then the tide has definitely turned. “The Ring 2” flopped badly, and this sequel to “The Grudge” is likely to suffer a similar fate; perhaps it will mark a close to this misguided boomlet. Because though a few of the early Japanese examples of the genre were effectively spooky (“Cure” remains the best of the lot), the later ones have grown increasingly silly and tedious (as the “Tartan Extreme” DVD series that includes many of them well demonstrates), and American duds like “Dark Water” and the recent “Pulse” show that refashioning them in a setting on this side of the Atlantic doesn’t improve a form already in steep decline.
All of which brings us to “The Grudge 2.” The movie’s 2004 predecessor centered on Karen (Sarah Michelle Geller), whose visit to a haunted house in Tokyo where the malevolent spirits of a family killed in a murder-suicide “infect” her (as well as anyone else who visits the place). In this sequel, fashioned by Stephen Susco, Karen’s sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn, who used to deal with more benign forces in television’s “Joan of Arcadia”) is sent by their mother (Joanna Cassidy) to look into her sibling’s indisposition and is menaced by the same forces. So is the local journalist (Edison Chen) who’s been investigating the case and befriends her.
But that’s not all. In a plot thread that starts first but turns to be occurring years later (part of the chronological fracturing the viewer is going to have to work out for himself if the movie’s going to make any sense whatever), Allison (Arielle Kebbel), a fish-out-of-water American student at a Tokyo school, is taken to the spook house by some nasty classmates–blonde bitch Vanessa (Teresa Palmer) and her submissive follower Miyuki (Misako Uno) and suffers the consequences too (as, in the obligatory bout of poetic justice, do they). Then there’s a third narrative thread, also introduced in terms of an early revelation of its denouement, that initially seems to come out of nowhere, involving a Chicago family–daddy Bill (Christopher Cousins), his newly moved-in girlfriend Trish (Jennifer Beals), teen daughter Lacey (Sarah Roemer) and younger brother Jake (Matthew Knight). Though this quartet has some trouble adjusting to their new situation together, their relationships really begin to fall apart after a strange hooded figure moves in down the hall from their apartment and spooky sounds start affecting them. Who that figure might be is withheld until the very end, but its identity will hardly come as a surprise.
This story-line is certainly replete with characters, and the fact that Susco and director Takashi Shimizu (the auteur responsible for the Japanese originals) obfuscate the through-line by switching among the threads and tinkering with time accentuates the complexity. But the essential premise is obvious: the notion that particularly powerful spirits can survive to attack those they come in contact with, and be “carried” by them to ever-more distant climes so that their curse will spread exponentially. The script also tosses in an “explanation” about why this one house, and its spirits, are especially powerful. But as complicated–and, it must be said, illogical and overly expansive in terms of genre rules–as the narrative might be, it’s really not the central point of the movie anyway. All “The Grudge 2” really cares about is a succession of spooky sequences in which one or another of the ghosts (there are three–the murderous father, his snap-crackle-and-pop wife–who creaks because he broke her neck–and their ghoulish son) appears suddenly from out of frame, accompanied by a loud audio blast, to grab some new victim. (What happens to those attacked varies, it seems, depending on the need of the scriptwriter at that point.) The first two or three of these “gotcha!” moments carry a mild charge, since Shimizu, cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima and effects chief Benjamin Liu are old hands at this sort of thing, but their repetitiveness eventually becomes numbing. In the first instance, you might feel a slight charge; by the tenth, you’ll probably feel boredom, however imaginatively it’s staged.
Acting is hardly of major import in a movie like this, but it’s notable that–perhaps because of contractual responsibilities–Geller allows herself to be saddled with Janet Leigh-like “Psycho” duties here (and she looks ridiculous padding around hospital corridors in big fluffy slippers). Tamblyn, Kebbel, Beals, Palmer, Uno, Roemer and Cassidy are all pretty terrible, but Chen and Cousins are even worse. It’s a sad commentary on the quality of the ensemble that the best performance comes from tyke Knight, who makes Jake the only emotionally credible character in sight.
Bottom-line, “The Grudge 2” is a needlessly complicated, totally redundant follow-up to a mediocre original. Despite some eerie moments and a few effective quick shocks, it’s more dull than scary.