By KEN MICHAELS
Starring Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir and Lin Shaye
Written and directed by Nicolas Pesce
Last year, the underwhelming SADAKO proved that you couldn’t go home again, even if you were RINGU director Hideo Nakata revisiting the territory of your most enduring film. Now, the latest English-language take on THE GRUDGE demonstrates that even a rising directorial talent—THE EYES OF MY MOTHER’s Nicolas Pesce—can’t overcome the limitations of this played-out material.
The JU-ON franchise created by Takashi Shimizu encompassed a pair of shot-on-video features and a half-dozen theatrical films, starting strong but eventually wearing out the premise, to the point where one hoped 2015’s JU-ON: THE FINAL CURSE would be true to its title. (It wasn’t: SADAKO VS. KAYAKO, which merged the ghost-girl franchises, followed the next year.) Shimizu also helmed the pair of U.S. big-screen GRUDGE movies, followed by Toby Wilkins’ direct-to-DVD THE GRUDGE 3, the latter two bringing the supernatural action from Japan to the States. If you’re thinking it sounds like all those predecessors would make it hard to come up with a fresh variation on the theme, you’d be right, despite Pesce’s best efforts.
THE GRUDGE 2020 would probably work best on young audiences unfamiliar with all those other flicks—which makes it a bit paradoxical that this one, as opposed to Shimizu’s PG-13 outings, is a fairly hard R. As in previous pictures in this series, Pesce opens with a title explaining that a person dying in the grip of extreme anger will precipitate an infectious curse, before we watch Fiona (Tara Westwood) cut short a Tokyo trip that has brought her into contact with the begrudged house. (The malignance even infests the trash bags sitting outside, a visual motif that continues later in the movie but isn’t really developed or paid off.) After Fiona returns to her hometown of Cross River, PA, THE GRUDGE hopscotches between assorted characters in 2004 and 2006, presumably as a tie to the U.S. Shimizu movies, which were released in those years.
Fiona and her family are the first to fall victim to the rage whammy, which moves on to a series of folks already dealing with family trauma. Faith Matheson (Lin Shaye) is descending into dementia, and her husband William (Frankie Faison) has called in a caregiver (Jacki Weaver) who specializes in assisted suicide. Peter and Nina Spencer (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) are expecting their first child, but have been advised it might be born with a debilitating disease. Detective Muldoon (MANDY’s Andrea Riseborough) and her young son are grieving the death of their husband/father, even as she investigates the mysterious and frightening goings-on—against the wishes of Detective Goodman (Demian Bichir), whose former partner (William Sadler) was driven mad by his obsession with the case.
Pesce does an easily followable job jumping amidst the various time strands, and sustains a consistently bleak atmosphere abetted by cinematographer Zachary Galler’s shadowy lighting and sickly color scheme. It’s clear what he’s getting at dramatically: These folks have already been “cursed” in their lives, and the grudge represents a supernatural exacerbation of their plights. There are affecting moments here and there, particularly one character’s explanation for staying put in a clearly haunted house, and THE GRUDGE is well-cast down the line. As opposed to the youth-oriented predecessors, the ensemble here is adult and that brings a little extra gravity to the table, with Riseborough, Faison and Shaye especially hitting the emotional marks.
Yet the JU-ON/GRUDGE form requires an anthology approach, and the intercutting interrupts the dramatic flow, with none of the individual stories having the impact they might if given more time to breathe. Pesce might have more profitably pared down the focus to Muldoon and the Mathesons, and gotten deeper into the latter’s relationship, before and after the grudge takes hold. But most crucially, the horror component by this point is an empty bag of tricks. The movie gets a bit of chill on with glimpses of spooky figures hovering in the background, but just as often goes for shock-cut jump scares with loud music blasts that are too rote to be scary, and overly familiar sights like gnarled figures rising from grotty bathtub water. The spectral figures make that same weird stutter-croaking sound as their Japanese counterparts, and that is now more likely to elicit chuckles of recognition than shivers from viewers familiar with the franchise.
Even for newcomers, there simply isn’t that much suspense to be had, since the premise is laid out in that opening title and developed in ways that feel like foregone conclusions. The impression this GRUDGE leaves you with is that Pesce might have been, in theory, the right filmmaker for the job, but that this franchise should have been left to rest in peace.