I had an hour-and-a-half to kill before New Year’s Day 2021 officially came to a close. That was just enough time to watch “The Grudge 3,” a movie I once described as the worst in the American version of “The Grudge” series, and see if my initial impression was wrong.
It wasn’t. That said, watching “The Grudge 3” helped me appreciate the value of comparing bad movies with good ones. Watched on its own, “The Grudge 3” is a disappointment; viewed after a better horror film — such as “Saw VI,” also released in 2009 — and it teaches valuable lessons.
Picking up where its predecessor left off, “The Grudge 3” shows the fallout after the sole survivor of “The Grudge 2,” Jake Kimble (Matthew Knight), is exposed to a character who moves to Chicago from Tokyo and brings the titular curse with her. This leads to a series of by-the-book horror movie deaths caused by the franchise’s iconic baddies Kayako Saeki (Aiko Horiuchi) and her son Toshio (Shimba Tsuchiya). Because we’re used to their shtick and they do nothing new here, none of the kills are scary or memorable. Making matters worse, their victims are all flat and uninteresting characters, even though some are played by talented actors like Shawnee Smith. (Smith, coincidentally, also has a bit part in “Saw VI.”) This denies us the ability to feel invested on any kind of visceral, psychological or emotional level.
Even worse, “The Grudge 3” completely misunderstands why the first two movies worked so well. In the lore of “The Grudge” series, a horrifying murderous rampage from years ago caused so much pain that the trauma literally takes the form of ghosts, who spread their suffering to anyone directly or indirectly associated with the haunted house where the terrible crime took place. The specters, though designed to be sufficiently ghastly, are not scary simply because they’re murderous ghouls. They represent the ripple effects that result when our most malevolent emotions go unchecked. The non-linear storytelling of the first two movies helps illustrate this, as do the parallels between the franchise’s core mythology and the individual experiences of the various characters who encounter Kayako and Toshio.
By adding unnecessary new layers to Kayako’s backstory, “The Grudge 3” muddles those themes, and because the story is told this time with a linear structure, the final product feels like an ordinary ghost story with “The Grudge” label slapped on it rather than a rightful follow up to the first two movies. Indeed, “The Grudge 3” is totally uninterested in doing anything new with its underlying ideas, save for one exception: In the third act it tries to channel Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 classic “The Shining.” By that point, unfortunately, the film is too far out of its depth for that effort to be even remotely effective.
Contrast this with “Saw VI.” Like “The Grudge 3,” “Saw VI” is a horror franchise sequel released in 2009; unlike “The Grudge 3,” though, “Saw VI” does everything right.
Gorehounds go to horror movies first and foremost for great kill scenes, and since “Saw” movies are known for their traps (or “games”), the first point in favor of “Saw VI” is that it has some of the most gruesome and unsettling deaths in the entire series. Unlike “The Grudge 3,” “Saw VI” also has a distinct visual style to it, continuing that franchise’s grand guignol aesthetic. (“The Grudge 3,” by contrast, abandons the subtler, moodier, creepier approach characteristic of its own franchise.) Because the characters in that film are all interesting — whether they are new ones created just for the one installment (mainly health insurance executive William Easton, played by Peter Outerbridge) or franchise perennials like Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) — we actually care about their fates.
More important, though, is the fact that “Saw VI” remains faithful to the core aspects of its own lore, even as it builds upon its deeper themes in an interesting way. While the movie does tinker a little bit with the backstories of main villains Jigsaw and Hoffman, those changes are extremely minor. We’re still left with a series in which the driving concept is putting people in horrifying predicaments so they can demonstrate whether they are worthy of the lives they are lucky enough to have been given. Both subplots take that theme in new directions — in one case, by forcing corrupt and powerful corporations to accept moral accountability for how they hurt people, and in the other by following a character’s panicked psyche as he feels the walls figuratively closing in over his own misdeeds.
The comparison between “The Grudge 3” and “Saw VI” is not perfect. “The Grudge 3,” though gorier than its predecessors, is still restrained when compared to “Saw VI,” focusing more on jump scares than blood and guts. (Despite this, it was the first American “Grudge” film to be rated R.) “The Grudge 3” also has a more self-contained story, perhaps because the filmmakers didn’t care as much about connecting it to the rest of the series.
Yet I still think fans of horror movies would benefit from watching “The Grudge 3” and “Saw VI” in a double feature. Because they were both released in 2009 (albeit directly to DVD in the former’s case), they serve as an excellent study in contrasts regarding how two blockbuster horror franchises approached their material at a specific point in time. “The Grudge 3” is an example of how to completely miss the mark, while “Saw VI” demonstrates how you can surpass expectations.