With the release of Sony’s The Grudge, it looks like horror fans have something to rage about in the early goings of 2020, but not in the way we might’ve hoped…
…Written/directed by Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) and based on Takashi Shimizu’s original film, Ju-On: The Grudge, this new iteration is a sort of continuation of the 2004 remake, beginning in the same year, when a woman named Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) is first seen leaving the iconic house of rage from the other films. Haunted by a ghostly presence, she returns home to the states, only to murder her family and create a new curse, one which destroys anyone who enters the house.
One thing which immediately stands out about The Grudge is not just its star-studded cast, but how much more depth is given to these characters when compared to the other films. We first meet Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), a widowed detective who has transferred to a new town after losing her husband to cancer. It’s pretty clear she has some seriously shit luck, because just moments after arriving at her desk, she and new partner, Goodman (Demian Bichir) are sent out on a case where they discover a long-dead body—one that, in Pesce fashion, is utterly grotesque—a body which eventually leads to the Landers’ house.
As is accustomed to The Grudge franchise, we’re forced to jump back and forth through time as Muldoon begins researching past cases associated with the house. Through this chaotic and frustrating method, we’re introduced to Peter (John Cho) and his wife, Nina (Betty Gilpin), a couple struggling with the fact that they’ve been told their baby will be born with a rare disease. And then there’s William (Frankie Faison), who has hired Lorna (Jacki Weaver) to assist his mentally incapacitated wife of 50 years, Faith (Lin Shaye) in suicide, and finally, Detective Wilson (William Sadler), Goodman’s ex-partner who made the mistake of entering the house and has been obsessed with it ever since.
Pesce gives us a reason to care deeply about every single one of these people, and each performer nails their role, in particular, Riseborough, who practically sweats desperation throughout the film, and Shaye, who, in what little time she appears on-screen, is downright terrifying. The problem is, that’s about all the film does well with when compared to its predecessors.
All of the characters in The Grudge may have compelling personal stories that make us pray they’ll avoid the clutches of some nasty ghosts (though we know they won’t), but unlike Shimizu’s films, there is nothing driving the main story. Whereas Shimizu’s originals contained the mystery of how the curse started, we know from the very beginning that Fiona slaughtered her family. Even viewers completely unfamiliar with The Grudge franchise will find themselves three steps ahead of Muldoon and the rest as we wait impatiently for them to meet their brutal, inevitable conclusions.
And therein lies the major problem with Pesce’s take on The Grudge: this is a film without intrigue. The Grudge is a boring film. When the main mystery behind your spooky ghost film revolving around an investigative storyline is that we just don’t know exactly how Fiona murdered her family, there’s a problem.
Plot and pacing aren’t even the worst issues with The Grudge. That honor goes to the head-scratching decision to leave the franchise’s most iconic character, Kayako, almost completely out of the narrative, and instead focus on an assortment of ghostly victims that have been claimed by the curse. And for anyone hoping for the return of those terrifyingly white faces, Pesce’s ghosts look like just about every other American ghost with digitized mouths that stretch too far and never fail to look sillier than they do “scary”.
I get it. Pesce wants to do something different and establish America’s own “icon” in Fiona as opposed to Japan’s Kayako, but The Grudge fails to establish her as any sort of presence by constantly flip-flopping between various spirits who all frankly look too similar to even recognize who’s who most of the time. It also doesn’t help that, unlike Kayako, Fiona has no concrete reason to be some pissed off spirit that died in a rage. She’s just another victim of Kayako. Shout out though to young Zoe Fish, who plays Fiona’s daughter, Melinda, and stands in quite well for the original’s Toshio as a young, creepy child that acts as a bad omen of things to come.
But it’s not all bad, Grudge fans. Despite a weak script, Pesce is still a great director, and his visual sense adds a layer of unease to The Grudge that gives it a closer feeling to the original than the 2004 remake. Pesce has a knack for making the viewer cringe, starting with the sickly orange and yellow lighting of the film, which makes every scene feel like a plague that might infect you if you get too close. Each frame is positioned in a way that will have you searching every corner and shadow for the glimpse of something frightening, and if you’re patient, The Grudge rewards on that level again and again. Viewers may not ultimately care about where The Grudge is taking them, but Pesce still works to squeeze every last bit of tension he can from the premise.
As for that R-rating, well, gore hounds who despise a PG-13 rating will appreciate the unnecessarily violent nature of The Grudge. Pesce’s film is a far-cry from the rather vanilla 2004 remake. The Grudge bleeds often and aplenty, including one moment that will have you asking, are people just balloons filled with blood? But it always comes across as if Pesce is doing his damndest to earn that R-rating, to a degree where it’s just plain mean-spirited to build up these innocent characters with very personal dramas, only to brutalize them as harshly as possible for nothing other than shock value.
By the time the credits rolled, leaving myself and the rest of the audience in a quiet silence of dissatisfaction, I found myself wondering who The Grudge is even for. Fans of the franchise will be frustrated with the lack of Kayako and a snooze fest of a plot they’re all too familiar with, and the R-rating limits newcomers to The Grudge from seeing it in the first place. Maybe it’s no surprise, but 2020 is off to a mediocre start. Let’s just hope it doesn’t create a rage curse.
The Grudge is now haunting theaters.
By Matt Konopka