January is an infamous month for movies. Amidst the winter chill, studios dump the films they want to wash their hands of quietly. More often than not, they’re low-effort horror pictures. But there was hope for The Grudge.
Finding its lineage as a re-imagining/sequel (it’s confusing) to the respectable American remake of the iconic Japanese Ju-On franchise, The Grudge enlists acclaimed writer-director Nicholas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) for a “twisted new vision”. On top of that, genre favorite Sam Raimi is producing with a stacked cast in tow. So all the elements seemed to be there for an ample revival. Something must have gone horribly, horribly wrong, because The Grudge is a dismal start to 2020.
The 2004 version of this story started with the text: “When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage… a curse is born. The curse gathers in that place of death. Those who encounter it will be consumed by its fury.” This new version of The Grudge retains this concept in the most superficial of ways. Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) was a nurse at the haunted Tokyo Manor of the 2004 film, which positions this film as a sequel of sorts. That’s about the strongest link between this film and the franchise as a whole, as Fiona moves to America and a whole new curse arises in her home.
It’s unclear why the studio released this film under The Grudge banner at all. Aside from a brief cameo, franchise ghost Kayako Saeki is completely absent, and it lacks the Japanese influence. What remains is the worst part of the Ju-On/The Grudge films: a confounding reliance on a non-linear narrative. Here, it’s worse than it’s ever been.
In 2006, Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) investigates a murder at the home Fiona had moved into 2 years prior. This leads her to uncovering a series of mysterious incidents that happened at the home in those two years involving Landers, real-estate power couple Peter (John Cho) and Nina Spencer (Betty Gilpin), and disturbed, sick woman Faith Matheson (Lin Shaye). The further she gets into her investigation, the closer the curse gets to getting a hold on her.
Structure is The Grudge‘s number one problem. Pesce constantly shifts the story from one narrative to the next, without any regard as to what our main focus should be. Because of that, it’s a near guarantee that the film wouldn’t work even if we had something resembling a central storyline. All the actors are doing their best, as nearly all of them are great in prior works. But even talents like Riseborough and Cho cannot hide how bare-bones the storytelling is.
Where The Grudge – and most horror films, for that matter – should come alive is in its bread-and-butter: atmosphere and scares. But once again, Pesce and co. drop the ball tremendously. A bleak tone bordering on parody frames a constant march of cheap jump scares that couldn’t elicit a slight flinch. While it has gruesome horror make-up, cinematographer Zachary Galler sadly obstructs it thanks to its ungodly grimy aesthetic. As a result, the film frequently mistakes hiding things as a way to create tension.
Flat-out, we’ve seen it all before, told much better by other filmmakers. Mashing the story together into an incomprehensible mess can’t hide that, and The Grudge license can’t hide that. Say what you will about the J-horror remakes in the mid-2000s. At least they tried to honor the spirit of the originals.
The Grudge has none of this. The Grudge is a lifeless mess of a movie that hits an early sour note for 2020. The only real positive I can say about this movie is that it makes me appreciate the current era of horror we’re living in, where movies like this are left in the past, where they belong. –James Preston Poole
The Grudge is now in theaters.
The film stars Tara Westwood, Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, and Lin Shaye.