Unlike Ringu, the Grudge franchise would appear to have the potential for infinite sequels... up to a point. That point would be the second film in the American wing of the franchise deciding to indulge in Hollywood moments, whereupon its ending falls down.
I do like this film. It would seem that a lot of people didn't, but personally I'd blame the ending. For the most part, this is business as usual and thus thoroughly enjoyable. Shimizu has his schtick down pat and he creates some great sequences, such as Sarah Michelle Gellar's hospital fun and the introductory sequence with the schoolgirls. The schoolgirls are from an international school in Tokyo. There are three of them: the blonde bitch, her Japanese sidekick who can't act and the shy hapless one whom the other two drag into the House of Death for laughs. Personally I found this sequence one of the most frightening in the whole franchise, not to mention evil as hell on the part of the bullies. Wow, are they hateful. The only good thing about this situation is that the bitches are also doomed, which is as satisfying as you'd expect when it finally arrives.
Most of this film is great. Not merely good, but up to the standard set by its predecessors. Most of my notes are throwaway comments such as "I see the boy grew up", "I forgot they burned the house" or "oooh, countryside". Japanese cities are dog-ugly (except Kyoto), as you'd expect of an earthquake culture, but there's some beautiful scenery if you get out into the mountains.
Gellar shows up again. Apparently the various script drafts went to and forth regarding her character from "barely a cameo" to "on every page". She doesn't get a big role here, but she's the only person you'll recognise. The acting is fine apart from that aforementioned terrible schoolgirl, but I have a grumble about the two main female characters. They look too much alike. They're of similar physical types and they have the same mousy wallflower personality. They even both have the same long black hair. If you're going to cast Westerners in a film set in the Far East, what's wrong with throwing in a few blondes? If even I was occasionally confused, then I bet the Japanese audiences were having real problems.
However. Hollywood moments. The first American Grudge was a remake of the first Ju-on, but this is an all-new sequel that has nothing to do with Ju-on 2. The schoolgirls are reminiscent of a Ju-on plotline, but that's a good thing. Screenwriter Stephen Susco is pretty good at the set-pieces, but unfortunately can't help inserting little nuggets of joy like:
1. "The fire changed something. I think it's getting worse." No, it's not, you stupid man. The ghosts killed EVERYONE. What do you want, 110%? The previous films all showed a nuclear spectral apocalypse and there's no room for anything at all to get worse in any way. Admittedly we hadn't yet seen them follow a victim to America, but the only reason they hadn't is because no one had got that far. If anything, the holocaust is lighter this time. There's a journalist who's been following the story for three years, yet he's still alive! (Not for long.) They throw in a line about "it's out of the house now" as if that's supposed to be significant, but they'd never been stay-at-home types in the first place.
2. A subplot about Kayako's mother which provides some creepy backstory but doesn't really tell us anything important. I didn't mind this since it gave our heroes something to investigate, but note the scene where Aubrey travels out into the mountains to track down Kayako's mother and talk to her. On her own. A character who doesn't speak a word of Japanese, going out into the mountains where a lot of people may never have even seen a foreigner, let alone be capable of talking to one. Clearly she's an idiot. No problem. However the movie thinks we are too, since Kayako's mother does indeed turn out to be a fluent English speaker! This scene could have been both stronger and funnier had Aubrey indeed smacked into the language barrier and had to improvise as best she could, although in fairness as it stands it's extremely amusing, albeit unintentionally.
3. Aubrey's entire character arc. The whole idea is in itself cripplingly Hollywood, since the Japanese Ju-on films had got along nicely without anything like that. Nevertheless this is a Story according to McKee and so Aubrey has to learn and explore her feelings, despite the fact that she's blatantly a victim from beginning to end and about as interesting as a sack of meat. Oh, and as previously discussed she's stupid. Admittedly a better actress could have done something with this material, but it was always going to be hard to sell her relationship with her sister (Gellar) when they have about thirty seconds of screen time together.
There's a speech which begins, "Last time I saw Karen we got in this huge fight." You can almost sing along, can't you? However my favourite is, "I love you so much, but you can't talk to me like this any more. This has to end." Naturally after saying those words, she walks into the House of Death. Getting in touch with your inner woman will get you murdered. Hmmm, positive message.
Never have I seen an ending fall apart like this one. Never. Anywhere. It's the staggering gulf between J-horror and Hollywood cheese that makes your synapses pop. I'd still recommend this film, but go in expecting to throw vegetables for the last five minutes. At the end of the day, this is still a strong franchise and more fun than Ringu. Shimizu knows what he's doing, even if Stephen Susco doesn't. There's no nudity, but there is a girls' locker room and shower over which Americans are probably still flagellating themselves because the girls are under 35 or something. Or if you swing the other way, there's a man showering later, although he's only visible from the waist up.
This film is a lot of fun. You'll need to be in a forgiving mood at the end, but it's not as if Japanese films can't go off the rails too. The Chicago scenes help spice things up just at the stage in the franchise when you might have thought it would get samey. Apparently the film scored badly with audiences who'd expected more plot, but that's not why you watch a Grudge film. It's creepy!