tl;dr Better than the first, but really if you didn't like the first then you aren't going to like this either.
And we're back again with everyone's favourite haunted house/passer-by trap. They must be cooking something delicious in there, because everyone and their dog feels the need to sniff around it's black grilled wooden columns. This weeks victims are a trio of school girls, the conformist Asian girl, the bitchy blone one and the awkward brunette whom is meant to be the one that we sympathise with. Of course, they see the house and feel the need to explore it. I can sympathise, as I too am drawn to charred remains - wouldn't be able to stomach my own cooking otherwise.
Actually, I commiting a mistake common to modern audiences: we know it's a horror, why don't the characters. But of course they don't and when the dark haired girl gets locked in the cupboard hijinks ensue, and we get one of the creepiest moments in the franchise as a whole. It's probably the only point during the Hollywood remake that has really stayed with me.
Two paragraphs in, and it should probably be noted that whilst I've seen Ju-on: The Grudge, I've not seen Ju-on: The Grudge 2, upon which I presume this movie is based. So consider my fundamentally different perspective - I'm comparing it with the first American Grudge as opposed to the source material - and adjust for bias as you see it.
Back with Sarah Michelle Gellar, and we get to see her sister. They've got a freyed relationship, but their mum is worried about Gellar's character and sends the sister to go find her. Immediately I found myself caring about her far more than I cared about Gellar's character in the first one. Her reasons for getting caught up in all this nonsense feel far less contrived and far more personal. Aided by the Japanese bloke that pulled Gellar's character from the fire, she sets about making sense of the situation.
The third line of narrative takes place with a family of four. The first scene the story gives us involves a man shouting abusively at his wife, before his wife smashes his head in with a frying pan. This is the parallel to the suicide story in the first film, and yet again I prefer it. The set pieces seem more interesting and fresher, and whilst the twist isn't as clever, the fact that it takes place in a different setting and the characters are far better fleshed out means, once again, I prefer this to the former film's.
This is what it comes down to - this ensemble is far better developed and feels a bit fresher than last time, but also that they have more depth. The first film seemed to assume that we'd care about the vapid array of characters, whilst this one works to make us care about the cast of two of the plot lines. The one involving the three girls works because the story never relies on us being invested on them, serving them up more as a piece of the puzzle and a place to get in the creepiness and jump scares.
Otherwise, there's not much difference between the two films. Both have similar construction, one story with a person being chased by the ghosts and a second one that won't fit in until the end. The setpieces are visceral if a tad predictable and the atmosphere is thick., and the plot twists are bit a better and look to build up the Grudge mythos. Thematically, it's as weak as the first American Grudge, but the greater investment you have in the characters helps balance that nicely.
I cannot help but feel that the first movie did not have any reason to exist. Get rid of the suicide subplot, and have SMG's character killed the first time she meets the ghost woman. The result would be a far stronger franchise. In many ways this is more of the same, really, only better.