'Grudge 2': Doubly Baffling

"Grudge" rematch: Amber Tamblyn, above, faces the curse that afflicted her sister (Sarah Michelle Gellar, who reprises her role from the first film). (By David Appleby -- Sony Pictures Classics Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006

Even my pathological love of Japan and its beauties, glories and eccentricities is sorely tested by "The Grudge 2," from Takashi Shimizu, a movie so bewildering and impenetrable that I believe it siphoned off a good 40 IQ points.

Shimizu obviously reiterates the central mechanism of the ultra-spooky "The Grudge." It follows from a folk superstition that anyone who dies in a fit of rage leaves a curse in the location of his or her death, and that curse contaminates and ultimately destroys all who come into contact with it. The meaning of the curse is resonant, which perhaps explains the global impact of the series (this is the second American version, after four Japanese variants; a fifth Japanese film is on drawing boards). It suggests the lingering effects of domestic violence, and the process by which a murderous episode sends ripples across time and space, affecting everybody in range.

The first two Japanese films were videos, as the straight-to-vid production is more highly thought of in Tokyo than here; so Shimizu was working on a low budget, and his genius lay in coaxing some really frightening imagery out of some extremely low-tech effects. Now "The Grudge" has gone international and is fronted by a big American company. But Shimizu has shrewdly stayed low-tech. He knows that what's scary isn't a giant monster or skeletons in flames or the Golden Gate bending into a pretzel, but small, seedy images of white ghosts emerging into blurry view in a dark corner, accompanied by a soundtrack that seems like the banshees of Hell playing Charlie Daniels's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" backward and really, really loud. The noise itself made me confess to crimes only a much more interesting person could have committed.

There's also -- hmm, how to say this delicately and keep the job? -- a certain fetish element involved. Eros, never confronted directly, is everywhere in the film, which traffics primarily in images that are both horrible and beautiful at once, that repel as they attract. Shimizu is fascinated by hair, and the kohl-ringed eyes of his ghosts are always framed in licks of raven protein descending in a combination of erotic allure and tendrilly distress. At a certain point, a beautiful blond American teenager is lethally consumed in black tresses from above. Then there are greedy, grasping, ghost-white hands that pop from nowhere and pull the unwary into darkness, where our imaginations boggle at what we believe is going on. (This might also be read as a metaphor for the "Asianization" of horror as a genre: The black tresses are clearly meant to suggest long Japanese hair, and they're deployed against the iconic symbol of American horror victimhood: the dim, mean blond high-schooler.)

Too bad the film makes no sense at all. Maybe it's not supposed to make sense. On the other hand, one of the failed initiatives of this movie is to advance a certain explanation that holds the conceit together while rationalizing its spread to another continent. I think. Or, I guess.

Anyhow, the movie tracks between two parallel stories, one still in Tokyo and the other in Chicago. And just to make it all the more difficult to comprehend, Shimizu casts two actresses who look amazingly alike in two different roles, so you're always baffled. Again, he may be tweaking Americans who famously can't read Asian faces; he's making it impossible to read American faces!

The story that remains in Tokyo follows the arrival of Aubrey Davis (Amber Tamblyn) to visit her sister in the hospital. Her sister Karen, of course, is Sarah Michelle Gellar, the star of the first American "Grudge," who was last seen burning down the house that was the source of the evil that haunted that movie. Alas, poor Karen doesn't hang around for long, and soon enough the Japanese portion of the movie tracks Aubrey's investigation of events with the simultaneous adventures of three private-school girls, also fascinated and ultimately destroyed by the house. The central girl is played by Arielle Kebbel, who looks enough like Tamblyn to turn the movie's coherence to shambles.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a happy country family moves to the city and begins to disintegrate, for some reason. In fact, the movie begins out of sequence with the climax of its troubles, when Ma (Jennifer Beals) brains Pa with a skillet. The whole family and the family next door are ultimately destroyed over the following 96 minutes. The connection between the two events is easy to predict and lacks much in the way of dramatic force; nevertheless, it's the "big secret" toward which Shimizu drives his film.

I will say that the last few minutes -- when both stories crescendo and both sets of characters tumble into some intense self-destruction -- is powerful, not as a function of story but as a function of spectacle. It's creepy, and Charlie Daniels backward is something no man should be made to endure.

The Grudge 2 (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for psychological intensity but not much gore or sex.

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