We’re only single-digit days into 2020 and horror’s already seen the year’s first remake. Nicolas Pesce’s The Grudge is a “fresh” adaptation of Japan’s Ju-On, sidestepping the Sarah Michelle Gellar-led 2004 Americanization. As an impressed fan of Pesce’s previous works – black-and-white The Eyes Of My Mother and modern giallo Piercing – I’m not surprised by the filmmaker’s command over atmospheric hauntedness. Shadowplay is on par with James Wan in choice glimpses, it’s just a shame Pesce’s narrative is a sloppy, scattershot tangle of split hairs that minces tones between overlapped subplots. Scary in bursts blasted from an antique musket, waiting ages to manually reload another ghastly attack.
Andrea Riseborough stars as Detective Muldoon, the newest resident of a rural country town. Recently widowed after her husband’s losing battle with cancer, the ambitious investigator dives into the first case across her desk. Muldoon and her partner Goodman (Demián Bichir) find a body, decaying within an abandoned car, that connects to a cursed address. Goodman pleads with Muldoon not to snoop around, but snoop she does. The house’s history withholds multiple tragedies, including an entire family’s murder, as some believe anyone who steps foot inside becomes infected by a “grudged” spirit. Unfortunately for Muldoon, this also puts her only son Burke (John J. Hansen) at risk if an entity truly attaches itself in a fit of paranormal anger.
Scenes may be lit dimmer than the moon’s backside, but when visible, Pesce conjures some terrifying jolts. Nothing horror fans won’t expect, but his usage of “generic” jump scares sometimes succeeds past “cheap.” Furthermore, aesthetic homages trace from operatic Italian productions to foggy The Exorcist architectural shots.
A child morphs into something more sinister when the camera loses sight for a quick second, calling back to similar “run at the screen” transformations of genre lore past. One minute Pesce evokes J-Horror villains who lurk and then lunge, the next he theatrically exposes a woman’s gruesome suicide Argento-style against sun-bright-yellow stained glass. In moments, judged purely on abilities to terrorize, The Grudge (2020) will have audiences cowering. Accentuated by Pesce’s choice to colorize 90% of the film in deep yellows alluded to above, which is said to enhance feelings of “isolation and fear, insecurity.”
Alas, the reboot’s looming problem is how long it takes for Pesce to unleash his festering demons.
As an artist who’s tackled three distinctly different styles of cinema in three unique brands of horror, this is Pesce doing his “best” Mike Flanagan impression. Shades of The Haunting Of Hill House attempt to tether vengeful spirits to mortal grief through multiple timelines. The Landers family may be the conduit for this “Grudging” in America, but there’s also real estate agent Peter (John Cho) and his wife Nina (Betty Gilpin) who’re expecting but know their child is at high risk of being born ill. Then there’s ailing Faith (Lin Shaye at her top battiness) and her husband William (Frankie Faison), the latter who tries to find afterlife solace while seeing the Landers now as “Grudged” souls.
This is where The Grudge gets distractingly complicated, as you throw in Muldoon’s single mother, or Goodman’s “cop who’s seen ghosts” hardnoser, or an “exit specialist” (Lorna Moody, played by Jacki Weaver) who Frankie summons with the chance she’ll see the figures latched to his “delusional” wife. Each character’s corresponding storylines duel back-and-forth throughout the 2000s, jumping from Muldoon’s investigation to Faith playing with a dead child then over to Peter trying to sell a malevolent house after the Landers’ violent demise – back and forth and forward and backward. It’s never enough time to properly explore the richness of character drama between every subject, and ineffectively walls off predictable mainstream screams cued by background-set stalking.
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What we’re left with is a franchise remake attempting to blend the narratives of previous Ju-On/The Grudge entries that mutes one of today’s most provocative genre voices. A handful of nightmare fuel and bleakness, punctuated by gruesome bodily mutilation that earns Pesce his “R” rating (this film is *mean*, be warned). Granted, the pic never really feels like a nasty piece of “R” rated horror given how most other sequences favor theater-curated safety. Once again proving that ratings have *nothing* to do with cinematic quality. Excitement around Pesce’s work stems from ingenuity, unparalleled vision, and genre-heavy helpings of dynamite stylistic horror – none of which breaks past Bichir’s mumbled dialogue or the studio’s devotion to serving existing properties.
If you’re walking into The Grudge hoping for a Friday night of horror fan squeals, there’s a chance you leave pleased. Tormented performances from Andrea Riseborough to John Cho combat undead rage with urgency and sleep-deprived suffering, which consumes all who step foot into a doomed residence. Nicolas Pesce’s vision for yet another Hollywood J-Horror remake – which has already been remade – tries something new, but given Pesce’s pedigree, his product disappointingly projects the essence of a hellbeast with clipped wings. Even given his “R” rating. I jumped multiple times, no foolin’, but earning a physical reaction to horror is the easy part. Pesce’s never able to purify the rust-murky bathtub water that hides all the film’s dark secrets, making for a convoluted and clouded watch that emerges every so often to strike fear but lacks sustained dreadfulness throughout.
The Grudge feels like "just another remake," which is a shame with such a previously style-forward director at the helm.