The Grudge 2020 (Movie Review)

My earliest memory of big-screen terror goes back to 2004, when a doe-eyed, 12-year-old me gathered with friends and other pre-teens to watch the first remake of the Japanese horror film JU-ON: THE GRUDGE – simply titled THE GRUDGE. Watched behind shielding hands and averted gazes, it for a time had a place on my Scariest Movies Ever list, making me fearful of shampooing my hair and feeling undead fingers protruding from the back of my skull. Now with the latest revamp of the series – again titled THE GRUDGE – I believe that even my 12-year-old self would leave the theater with few reasons to leave the lights on at night, and rather with more to disregard the subgenre of horror for the foreseeable future.

While the 2004 movie was a smash hit, raking in over $100 million at the domestic box office, its notoriety has waned over the years – as fears of undead Japanese girls with a terrifying amount of long black hair seeming a bit old fashioned. So, in terms of plotting and setting it would make sense to start fresh with a new story, but alas, writer/director Nicolas Pesce (EYES OF MY MOTHER, PIERCING) plops us back in 2004, around the same time the events of the original remake occurred. Unless audiences are completely familiar with the events of that film (which plenty of new audiences might not be, given the film’s absence from virtually all streaming sites, as of this writing), the opening will go right over their heads – and thanks to an equally questionable jump scare included at this moment – will get them started in a state of confusion that never justifies itself as mystery. 

From there the movie bounces between 2004-2006, a period of time with no discernible style except for flip phones and the abundance of cable TV. Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) has moved to a new town with her son after the death of her husband, and soon with Detective Goodman (Demian Bichir), she discovers a twisted, charred corpse that sends her on an investigation that leads to a curse-ridden house, and the terrors within. A non-linear structure, the story bounces back and forth as two groups – one including couple Peter and Nina (John Cho, Betty Gilpin) and one including Faith, Lorna, and William (Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, and Frankie Faison) – are affected by the curse brought to the house not long before. Aside from a quick description flashing on the screen giving a blunt explanation at the beginning, the reality is this movie was clearly made with the confidence that people going in will know the mechanics of the haunting and exactly how it works. What I both remember from the 2004 version (somehow) and gather here, characters go into this haunted house, the curse latches on, and then zombie-fied spirits pop up and scare the bejeezus out of them.

Figuring things out here isn’t rocket science, but rather suffering through it is the tough part. Stepping away from the PG-13 supernatural jump-scares of the original movies, Pesce attempts to take things down a more vicious, R-rated and dramatic route – as if looking at the material and deciding to make it like an A24 release. While there are numerous plot strands being bounced between everything looks and everyone sounds the same, driven by languid pacing masquerading as grounded, and filled with stock characters and wooden dialogue. The cast, struggling to make the best of it, drudge through ham-fisted sentimentality convinced they're in a more intellectual horror movie than the one they're actually in. I expected this movie could be many things when I went in, but pretentious was not one of them. Riseborough tires the hardest in the cast, doing what she can to give Muldoon some emotional complexity. And yet, Muldoon’s entire persona evokes glumness, with the death of her husband mentioned more than once as a means to explain why, but none of that past giving depth or motivation to anything she does. The only thing driving her is the mystery of what happened to these other characters, the answer to which even inexperienced horror movie watchers can see coming halfway through the first act.

Other characters have little to do except exist in these tired, uninspired scenarios, and you can see in the plot that Pesce is trying to tell a tale about how death (and I guess demonic curses) can link people together, but the only links are the curses themselves. In trying to explore the characters before their expected demises, Pesce fails horrendously at creating palpable drama, his actors trudging through his stale, empty dialogue that goes nowhere and reveals nothing about their characters. It’s an absolute mess of execution how we have to spend time with these characters and suffer through their dilemmas, only for this curse to come barging in to lead to them being slaughtered, their arcs ending with no emotional resolution or sense of tragedy. Pesce’s style is so bleak and malicious without being stylish that every kill or burst of blood comes off as nothing but tasteless and cruel. It's a vindictive, soulless film masquerading as gritty — and one that doesn't even have the decency to be scary


Oh no, dear reader, not even through the dreck of painful character work does the movie manage to at least be haunting. Any evidence of the long-haired Japanese villains that gave previous movies some terrifying iconography is gone here, replaced with garish visuals of the now-dead family that kickstarted the curse on this side of the world. Pesce, while indeed demonstrating a strong eye and sense of framing for horror in the third act and getting some unsettling, simple visuals, wastes most of the scares on random, aimless jump frights that come out of nowhere, with no attention paid to escalating tension. The makeup is grotesque and shoved down our throats, despite these kinds of villains seen in any sort of movie where the undead come back to torture the living. Except for the guttural, drawn-out groans fans may recognize, there’s nothing in the supernatural scares that fans of the subgenre will be happy (and terrified) to see. The aim was clearly to offer something different, the hope that the simple sight of a maggot-infested face will be enough to get some scares. Maybe that will work once or twice, but the gimmick and impact will wear off all too soon for more seasoned viewers, and perhaps immediately for others. These moments are also unbearably few and far between, with a long slog of cringe-worthy character development waded through before anything happens. And when things do happen, they just sort of…happen. There’s no time given to dig into the mythology of how all the horror began, or how each group is affected uniquely. Terror simply comes and goes, with little rhyme or flow in execution. I was actually surprised when, during one scene of decent chills, that there was actually some silence being built open, as Muldoon investigates a blacked-out evidence room.  But then it ends as all the scares of this movie end, and the hairs on my arm went back to being lifeless. 

Had it not been for the incredible cast attached, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t have gone straight to DVD. Riseborough is especially too good for this movie, but Cho, Gilpin, and Bichir have nowhere to take their characters, while Shaye and Weaver go more for B-movie strangeness that may get some unintentional laughs while clashing with Pesce’s serious approach. They’re all way too good for this movie, and hopefully in this era of amazing horror and genre flicks they get future opportunities to sink their teeth into something worth their time.

In the third act, when a lot of horror movies can fall apart, GRUDGE is just beginning to have a pulse, with Pesce delivering on some effective jump scares and interesting style. Unfortunately, even more so considering the talent involved, the movie is ultimately a cavalcade of failures. In trying to pay homage to Japanese horror and carve out something different, this new entry fails embarrassingly at both. In fact, the movie fails at virtually everything it tries: Mystery, romance, pathos, basic banter, casual conversation and, sadly, solid chills crash with a mind-numbing thud. There is nothing to offer here except for the most passionate and perhaps undemanding of horror fans, for whom a hefty amount of blood and emphasis on disgust can go a long way. But even still, your patience will be tested as you suffer through everything else on display, and you may be left dreaming of a time when an evil spirit, bulging eyes piercing through a wet mop of jet black hair, was enough to terrify. Here there are only flies and bloody noses.  

Source: Arrow in the Head

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