Written by: Nicolas Pesce (story, screenplay), Jeff Buhler (story), Takashi Shimizu (original screenplay)
Directed by: Nicolas Pesce
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, and John Cho
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It'll never let you go.
If any title were destined to resurface, it’d be The Grudge, the long-running franchise centered on an unrelenting death curse that simply won’t let go. Try as you might, you just can’t rid yourself of it—not that Hollywood would be willing to do so anyway, if this is any indication. We know that studios, too, refuse to let go of anything that was once remotely profitable, which explains why we’re now on the fourth iteration of The Grudge on American shores. Like the first two attempts (it’s okay if you’ve forgotten The Grudge 3), it comes under the guidance of producer Sam Raimi, who has tapped promising up-and-comer Nicolas Pesce to direct an outstanding cast for the latest “reimagining,” which is a misnomer in more ways than one. Not only is this take actually a sequel, but it’s also not exactly out to break the franchise’s mold, either. This is not to say it utterly lacks imagination—it’s just that, for better or worse, this is very much a Grudge movie in nearly every respect. Our calendars may have recently rolled over into 2020, but the spirit of 2004 is alive and well here.
That’s literally our starting point, as the film opens on the familiar Saeki house in Japan, where live-in nurse Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) finds herself so disturbed that she flees the scene to return home to America (but not before making a phone call to Yoko, her ill-fated replacement whose disappearance kicks off the ’04 film). She unwittingly brings the haunted house’s death curse with her stateside, touching off a chain of events that will culminate a couple of years later when deputies Muldoon and Goodman (Andrea Riseborough & Demián Bichir) discover a decomposing body in an abandoned car. Their investigation quickly brings them straight to the Landers house, now remembered as a grisly murder-suicide site that snares anyone caught in its orbit. Muldoon is especially fixated on cracking the case, and her investigation untangles a horrific web of madness, murder, and obsession spread across a two-year period.
This take on The Grudge keeps the franchise’s signature non-linear structure intact, as the story weaves through a quartet of plots to account for everyone who encountered the house after Landers’s return: the poor couple who moved in afterwards (Frankie Faison & Lin Shaye), the husband-and-wife realtor team who sold the home (John Cho & Betty Gilpin), and the detective who just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with the place (William Sadler). While the script constantly roves through each time period, this movie has more of an anthology feel than its predecessors, mostly because there’s little to no mystery to these proceedings. Where the previous Grudge films are almost disorienting in their anachronistic storytelling, this one takes on a more fatalistic bent because you know just about everyone involved has been caught in the clutches of the house’s curse.
That, too, is somewhat in keeping with franchise tradition. The Grudge is nothing if not a somberly-pitched, quietly haunting series that prioritizes a subtle, slow-burn approach over rollicking funhouse scares. Pesce does introduce some gory, gross effects to punch up the formula a bit, but, for the most part, he’s content to deliver The Grudge greatest hits package: long, patient shots of characters creeping about in eerie spaces; spooky entities lurking in the background of the frame; that weird, croaking death rattle as the spirits approach; plenty of wet-haired ghost girls skulking about. You even get a reprise of that bit where a set of fingers emerges from someone’s hair as they shower, only this time it’s a man. I bet J.J. Abrams would appreciate that shit.
Anyway, all of this is completely fine, if not pretty engaging for most of the runtime. Helming a mainstream franchise obviously sands off some of the sharp, idiosyncratic edges Pesce showed in his previous outings, but his direction remains assured even when he’s ambling through some familiar motions. A thick air of ominous menace suffocates his take on The Grudge, particularly when he leans into the Newton Brothers’ atmospheric score and his grotesque visuals. In terms of pure aesthetics, the film is fairly gripping because Pesce infuses nearly every frame with a that perceptible dread that’s also come to define this series.
The story itself is slightly less gripping, and I have to wonder if any of it would really register if not for the unreal cast Sony wrangled together for this movie. Considering this is basically The Grudge 4, it sports an embarrassment of riches in this respect, as Riseborough and Bechir bring some natural gravitas to their de facto lead roles. The script provides some dramatic shortcuts—she’s still mourning the death of her husband and is struggling as a widowed mother, he’s still reeling from losing his partner to madness—but this duo rises above some fairly stock characters to find some nice moments between the horror.
Likewise, the rest of the cast finds moments to shine: I’m always happy to see John Cho show up in anything, and he’s wonderful here as a father-to-be who receives a troubling diagnosis regarding his unborn child. Speaking of dramatic shortcuts, the subplot involving Shaye and Faison is likewise loaded down with more sad stuff since she’s suffering from dementia and he’s hired an assisted-suicide nurse (Jacki Weaver) to ease her suffering. Obviously, The Grudge is not a barrel of laughs—and this is before William Sadler strolls in as a disfigured obsessive who’d rather gouge his eyes out instead of see the ghosts that have haunted him for years. It’s fair to say that all of this is inherently compelling because of this cast and that I’m gravitating more towards the performers than their actual characters, but that’s better than not gravitating towards anything.
Of course, exceptional talent has been a part of The Grudge formula since its inception, what with the likes of Raimi, Takashi Shimizu, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bill Pullman, Clea Duvall, Amber Tamblyn, and others being involved at various points. But just as all of that talent could never quite help those films leave an impression, the talent involved here can’t quite make this resurrection of The Grudge feel vital. Instead, it’s a perfectly respectable attempt that sputters to an inevitable conclusion that only compounds the feeling of déjà vu throughout. The nonlinear structure here is no longer quite as unconventional as it once was, nor is it as intriguing without any mystery attached, creating the impression that we’re watching characters trudge to the same death march that grew tired about fifteen years ago. While it perhaps does make some sense to revive The Grudge in the specter of stuff like Insidious and The Conjuring, this particular effort doesn’t make a hugely compelling case that the American take on this franchise has immortalized itself among the all-time greats. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of it, though. If we're throwing it back to 2004, we might as well borrow its parlance: I'm sure Hollywood will keep trying to make The Grudge happen no matter what.
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