DVD Review: The Grudge 3 (2009)

Arriving on DVD 5/12

Get Caught Up in The Grudge
& The Japanese Originals

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As a rule, horror franchises seldom improve with sequels. The reason for this essentially because most-- if not all-- of the main characters have been killed off, the villain has been defeated (at least temporarily) so we know it can be done again, and usually the filmmakers go above and beyond in doubling the body count and gore to try and top the previous movie.

However, as a largely lifeless English remake of the superior supernatural Japanese film Ju-On-- despite bringing in the previous work’s original director to helm the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar hit and it’s absolutely dreadful follow-up—I knew going into The Grudge 3 that the bar had been set low enough that the franchise couldn't get any worse than Grudge 2. For, much like another remake’s sequel-- The Ring 2-- Grudge 2 that rolled out the same tired tricks from the first one that wore out their welcome in the 2004’s movie by the half hour mark damn near put me to sleep.

Yet surprisingly, by moving (almost) all of its action to Chicago and picking up right where the second movie ended, we get a strong sense-- following the eerie beginning that finds the young sole survivor of Grudge 2 murdered in a psychiatric hospital-- after the movie’s new cast of characters are introduced, that at last we have a halfway decent plot.

English speaking filmmaker Toby Wilkins steps in for the previous director and Ju-On/Grudge creator Takashi Shimizu who maintains the rank of executive producer (yet minus the involvement of former Grudge cheerleader and exec Sam Raimi).

And although Wilkins notes in a DVD extra that he wanted to stay true to the overall style of the franchise complete with slow camera movements to help build the suspense, he wanted to ratchet up the speed of the action accordingly with the evolution of the works which he acknowledged were getting faster and more aggressive from film to film.

Not only the first movie in the series to be slapped with a well-deserved “R” rating for its excessive finale of gore, The Grudge 3 is also the first film to go straight to DVD (coinciding with the Blu-ray release of the first movie).

While this was possibly a logical decision made by studio executives in taking a cue from the lackluster box office returns of recent Asian horror remakes in the states such as The Uninvited, One Missed Call, The Eye and others—why Sony wouldn’t have at least tried to make a bigger push for the newest installment of the whopping $258 million dollar franchise by either risking a small theatrical run or trying to package the trilogy as a bundled set on DVD and Blu-ray is beyond me.

And this is doubly head-scratching because honestly and despite some of the clich├ęd horror movie characterizations like a lusty bimbo sister and a traditional slasher movie styled showdown for the conclusion, it’s the first Grudge film that held my attention all the way through.

Admittedly, Wilkins did employ the same sense of fated doom and gloom that pervaded the previous movies. And true to the genre, he uses a last shot “cheat” ending that unfortunately makes you think there could be even more installments down the line for a franchise that needs to—much like Kayako and Toshio—just give up already. However, he and his screenwriter Brad Keene must be commended for successfully building a good source of dramatic conflict with the revelation that the “curse” of Kayako could have a solution once and for all.

Granted, as the director concedes—it’s an American storytelling convention that every work must offer a set conclusion or provide closure --and while we’re never fooled into believing that it’s going to seriously damage the franchise’s ability to make money down the line if someone comes up with a new twist, it’s still an entirely welcome new plot device.

The possible solution arrives in the form of Naoko (Emi Ikehata), a Japanese woman with a link to Kayako who feels guilt for the senseless murders taking place in the windy city and decides to face the problem head on, building off of the slight arc of the tale introduced in the previous film which explained a bit more about Kayako and Toshio.

Moving into the quickly emptying apartment building which was the site of the previous film’s gruesome showdown of carnage, Naoko meets the soon-to-be-fired landlord Max (the handsome Gil McKinney) whose futile attempts to keep residents from leaving are making the building’s owner decide it’s time to bring in a management firm.

As if dealing with the aftermath of the previous violence and trying to spin the building into a nice place to live weren’t problem enough--Max also serves as the caretaker of his two sisters comprised of the adult but hopelessly immature and self-involved Lisa (Johanna E. Braddy) who spends most of her time screwing her boyfriend (Beau Mirchoff) in various vacant apartments and his youngest sister Rose (Jadie Hobson).

Asthmatic, weak, and increasingly ill—the sweet Rose is the first one to spot Toshio for whom she leaves out a Mr. Potato Head toy in the hall as a friendly act of charity while the—par for the course—Lisa neglects babysitting duty to think about herself.

While Max continues to struggle to try and rent out apartments, keep his job, and pay for the escalating medical costs encountered when dealing with a chronically ill child in America (making this Grudge somehow more grounded and relatable than the others), Naoko works hard convincing Lisa that something is definitely rotten in not in Shakespeare's Hamlet setting of Denmark but rather Chicago.

Several deaths later-- or more precisely in the third act-- Lisa finally manages to get what must be the fiftieth ticket to the clue bus, come around and turn into a fierce protector of Rose after Kayoko (Aiko Horiuchi) and Toshio (Shimba Tsuchiya) start picking off various residents with even the faintest involvement to the locale. The deaths move from mysterious to grisly in increasingly horrific fashion until everything comes to a head in a truly pulse-pounding yet far too blood-and-guts spattered ending.

Although it’s not a perfect film by any means—it’s the first one to fully reboot the franchise for American audiences by still retaining but reshaping the great origin story of the Japanese supernatural idea of a Ju-on or curse that remains after someone dies in a rage. Likewise, it makes me think that’s perhaps what should have been done all along to make better quality American versions that stand alone as worthwhile rather than simply ripping off Shimizu’s stylistically inventive original.

Likewise, aside from the obligatory bimbo who must strip down to her bra in her introductory scene, the filmmakers have to pat themselves on the back for managing—for the most part—to create characters we actually empathize with right down to the supporting cast-mates such as Saw actress Shawnee Smith (shown above) as a compassionate psychiatrist who treats Jake (Matthew Knight) at the beginning and Max’s kind neighbor Gretchen (Marina Sirtis) who looks after Rose, despite a painful case of arthritis that prevents her from painting as often as she’d like.

It’s little individual touches like these and a few others that help differentiate those who populate the film that invite us into the story rather than keep us at an arm’s length as was the problem with the second work in which we felt completely helpless to just watch the same old wrath of Kayoko unfold.

And additionally, writers can’t help but admire the way that Keene manages to repeat some thematic and tonal issues that were introduced earlier on as in the second film, the idea of sisterhood proved strong as the instigator to send one relative of Gellar's Karen to Japan and in this one, we have the same theme of sisters and powerful family bonds that work again in far more effective ways.

While again, it’s the first film that’s made from a director who speaks the same language as a majority of the actors—translators are still never far away from this franchise as—due to its humble budget, it was filmed in Bulgaria which fills in for both Japan and Chicago.

Although the director jokes that it’s halfway between the two locations and in one of the DVD extras it’s interesting to discover the various challenges in making everything work and match closely enough, for those like me, who’d just witnessed the second film (in preparation for this review). In fact, it’s so impressive, I wouldn’t have guessed that the set had been changed.

However, on the other hand-- maybe there was a "grudge" on the other one that caused the sequel to be so unspeakably bad that it was only right to change countries completely... just in case Kayoko and Toshio aren't big fans of Bulgaria.