SAN DIEGO — If there's one thing Takashi Shimizu prides himself on, it's his ability to creep you out. As he puts the finishing touches on October's sequel to "The Grudge," the director is aiming to dig deeper into your psyche than ever before.
The 34-year-old horror-meister is establishing himself as a rare talent whose dread knows no cultural boundaries. Handpicked by "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi to reinterpret his Japanese "Ju-on" series for American audiences (Raimi produced the U.S. version), Shimizu-san (as his actors call him) turned his original work into a 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar blockbuster. Now he's returning to make the hairs on your neck stand on end all over again — with help from Gellar, and newcomers Amber Tamblyn and Arielle Kebbel. He's gone so deep into the creep end, in fact, that the movie might get an R rating.
"The curse is bigger, and it spreads," Shimizu said recently, offering a preview of the sequel that will, like the original, sidestep blood and brutality and instead aspire to slice into your brain. "Violence is not my focus in this movie. Even when I have a small cut and see my own blood, I almost faint. I want to hide the pain, but I want [the audience] to feel the pain. That's the direction I'm going for."
Audiences responded in a major way to the original "Grudge": The $10 million film opened to nearly $40 million and eventually grossed more than 10 times its original cost. When those terrified audiences last saw Gellar's creeped-out caretaker Karen Davis, she had uncovered the mystery of the Tokyo spooks stalking the building where they had died. It seemed as though all was well, but then the dead rose once again.
" 'Grudge 2' is going to have the same kind of wonderful thrills that we loved about the first one," said Tamblyn, whose character kicks off the sequel two years later with suspicions that her sister (Gellar) might be possessed by a supernatural force. "There's a lot more character development in this film. There's a lot more understanding of where the characters came from and where the ghosts came from — who they were, who they are and why their presence is so imminent and terrifying."
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When a so-called "accident" results in Karen's death, Tamblyn's Aubrey books a flight to Tokyo to investigate the devilish dwelling that damns any visitor. While Aubrey becomes accustomed to the strange ways of the Japanese capital, she meets a fellow American who, for better or worse, becomes her friend until the end.
"I play Allison Fleming, a wallflower who's not quite secure with herself, who doesn't have many friends — the girl you see in the background of pictures," said Kebbel, the "John Tucker Must Die" head-turner who covered up her blond locks and got ugly for the role. "I have long black hair and black bushy eyebrows. They're not quite Eugene Levy, but they're definitely not feminine. I got a great opportunity to work on this Japanese horror film, [but] every day, the most fun part for me was showing up to work and transforming into this girl with no self-esteem."
In "Grudge 2," the manifestations of the curse are revealed as considerably more powerful than in the first film — even appearing in places like beneath Kebbel's character's desk. During such horrifying moments, Kebbel and Tamblyn reached deep inside to find the proper shrieks.
"It's a lot scarier — it's packed with terrifying things," Tamblyn said of Shimizu's work in the second film. "They've been going back and forth about how they were going to edit it, because it might have to be rated R. There's all kinds of crazy stuff in it, so I think it's going to be nice and scary."
An R rating would be a daring proposition, since the first "Grudge" was among a group of successful PG-13 horror films that included "Darkness Falls," "The Others" and "The Ring." If the sequel does indeed receive the restrictive R, it would be a clear response to the recent success of hard-core horror films like "Saw" and "Hostel."
"I'm all for R," said Tamblyn, an unabashed horror fan. "I don't really understand the whole rating situation. I think [the rating] should depend on whatever Shimizu-san deems important to be a part of the story. But regardless, he will deliver incredibly."
As far as the young actresses who star in "Grudge 2" are concerned, Shimizu already delivered such terror — every day on the Tokyo set. "I have a scene where I get locked in a closet, and that was the hardest scene for me," Kebbel revealed of one key sequence. "I was locked in a closet for seven days straight!"
The terrifying working conditions paid off, however, and the actress unveiled a scream that she claims will someday rank alongside such greats as Naomi Watts and Jamie Lee Curtis. "I have a scream in this, and I'm not saying I beat [Watts in 'The Ring'], but I will say that when I did it on the set, it echoed! People were talking about it. I don't know what that means for the future, but I'm proud of my scream, and I hope it gets some recognition.
"I definitely lost my voice," she added. "Coming from Florida, I think it had a lot to do with my theme-park training — all that screaming while going on roller coasters."
Tamblyn, meanwhile, got her own scares from Takako Fuji, the pretzel-like Japanese actress known for walking backward on all fours in the "Grudge" flicks. "I [got freaked out] a couple of times working with the actress who plays Kayako," she said. "She's a contortionist in real life, and the way she's able to move her body is incredible."
Even freakier, however, was the unlikely movie that had the two women bonding on set. "She was a huge 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' fan," Tamblyn said, referring to her 2005 teenage chick flick. "She would come to me with these magazines to point out that the movie was playing, while wearing her long wig and terrifying makeup and her black eyes. I was just like, 'Um, this is odd and creepy!' It was very strange."
On October 13, Fuji will live out the dream of flaunting her own traveling pants — moving backward, sideways and in any other direction that allows Shimizu-san to once again creep us out.
Check out everything we've got on "The Grudge 2."
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