Why 'The Grudge' Is More Than a Traditional Horror Reboot

The Grudge Still 1 - Sony Pictures Entertainment - Publicity-h 2019
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment
Though the project is getting dismal reviews, its indie-film quality makes it an interesting entry in the Asian horror remake subgenre.

[This story contains spoilers for The Grudge.]

Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) kneels down next to her car, vomiting. She’s stepped in where she shouldn’t have, and played the part of witness. Moments ago she encountered a woman gnawing on the bloody stumps of her fingers, her blood-stained chin showing the remnants of her latest meal. Before exiting the house of horror on 44 Reyburn Dr., Muldoon stumbled upon the flyblown corpse of a man, face covered in maggots and no longer recognizable. She attempts to expel whatever evil she’s just encountered from her body, but nothing will purge it. She’s stained by what she’s seen and carries it with her now. A house. A curse. A death that echoes through time. A Grudge. The elements are familiar to those who have seen The Grudge series through its ups and downs. But director Nicolas Pesce arranges these core ideas of the franchise with stylish, director-driven precision, and a consideration of this storied death curse as something cancerous.

Sony’s reboot of The Grudge from producer Sam Raimi comes at a time when Hollywood has largely moved away from the remakes of Japanese and Korean horror films, alternatively known as J-horror and K-horror. Outside of Gore Verbinski’s remake of Ringu (1998), The Ring (2002), which kicked the whole fad off, most of these remakes felt like poor imitations lacking substance and style. Films like Pulse (2006), One Missed Call (2008), Shutter (2008) and The Eye (2008) ran the trend into the ground before the first decade of the 21st century had even concluded. And despite fond movie memories and subsequent parodies featuring the series’ famous “monster,” Kayoko, The Grudge (2004) and its sequel The Grudge 2 (2006) only contributed to this trend falling out of favor.

The origins of Takashi Shimizu’s Grudge franchise stem from two short films in 1998, Katasumi and 4444444444, which later spawned two direct-to-video movies in 2000, Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2. It wasn’t until 2002 when the first theatrical feature debuted under the title Ju-On: The Grudge. It was this film that saw the series take off and gain interest in Hollywood. A rarity for the trend of Asian horror remakes, Shimizu was hired to direct the American remake of the film. While The Grudge (2004), starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, and also produced by Sony, has its fans, particularly those who experienced it at a young age, it pales in comparison to the Japanese film. There’s a workmanlike calculation in its efforts to fit in the elements that made the Japanese film such a standout, but it has little to offer, and the result feels like a dull imitation. The sequel The Grudge 2 (2006), which also saw Shimizu return as director, fares better and feels a little more creative. But both of those American films feel largely in the service of trying to appeal to American audiences through popular UPN actors of the time and attempt to replicate cultural elements that didn’t translate well. These became standards for the J and K-horror remake trends of the 2000s.

Perhaps because we’ve moved beyond the fad, the idea of what these movies should be and how they should look is why Pesce’s film is so interesting. Shimizu’s influence is felt, but Pesce doesn’t feel beholden to translation. And this latest Grudge doesn’t try to top what came before by going bigger, something that didn’t work out for Rings (2017) despite an interesting concept. What’s impressive about The Grudge (2020) is how much it bucks the trend of current studio horror reboots. There is an indie-film quality to it, not only in terms of the film’s casting but its execution. The cast of The Grudge lacks marquee names, but is stacked with a diverse cast of powerful performers and character actors, many of whom have a history with the genre. Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison and William Sadler all add their talents to the film, creating characters that feel like real people, with lives that have worn them down in some way or another, leaving them tired, bleary-eyed and susceptible. Part of the flaw of Hollywood’s original output of Asian horror remakes following The Ring is that they took that film’s success with a PG-13 rating as a means to cater those films strictly to teenagers. Pesce aims for something adult-orientated, not simply due to its R-rating, but because the struggles of the central characters in this film are painfully adult.

Using the nonlinear structure that has defined The Grudge franchise, and a patient sense of pacing, Pesce, along with screenwriter Jeff Buhler, introduces us to five interweaving storylines set between 2004 and 2006 and centralized in a single house. The first is a mother, Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) who returns from Tokyo, and a house familiar to those who have been following the franchise, to her husband and young daughter in the U.S. The second is Det. Muldoon who has recently moved to a small town with her son, after her husband’s death from cancer three months earlier. The third is centered on a married realtor couple Peter (Cho) and Nina Spencer (Gilpin), who are trying to decide what to do about their baby who they’ve just learned will be born with ALD. The fourth is an elderly man, William Matheson (Faison), who invites an assisted suicide representative Lorna (Weaver) to see about his dying and disturbed wife, Faith (Shaye). And the fifth and final is Det. Muldoon’s processor, Detective Wilson (Sadler), whose interest in the house on 44 Reyburn has driven him to madness and a botched suicide attempt.

Pesce, whose previous indie horror films The Eyes of My Mother (2016) and Piercing (2018) garnered critical acclaim, has shown a fascination with the disruption and subversion of domestic life. The rising filmmaker continues to tug on this thread in The Grudge. Each of these five stories delivers the kind of bleakness unexpected for studio franchise horror, though perhaps not entirely given that film’s co-writer Jeff Buhler penned The Midnight Meat Train (2008), The Prodigy (2019), and Pet Sematary (2019), each exercises in proving just how miserable the supernatural can make things, and necessary tonal shifts from the emotionally rewarding optimism of The Conjuring Universe and its kin.

What’s interesting about The Grudge’s approach is how little it makes use of familiar vengeful spirit, Kayako (Junko Bailey), done in a way so that the film doesn’t blame American fears on Asian culture or representation. Much like The Ring’s depiction of Samara, it’s a reminder that it’s the horror concepts of these films that are scary, and not the Asian identity of the actors associated with the original texts, something I think that was lost on audiences in the first American iteration of The Grudge. Some of the imagery associated with Kayoko is still present, and Pesce doesn’t shy away from delivering his take on some Shimizu’s signature scenes, including the shower hand, but there’s something more at stake hiding in plain sight behind what seems to be familiar.

We’re given an uncomfortably intimate look into the lives of the people in this story, and as a result the grudge feels less like something connected to a story in Tokyo than it is to the subconscious. There’s something deeply unsettling about who the film’s victims are and how the curses seem to be playing on the deepest and darkest subconscious desires, unspeakable things given form in reality. The grudge in this case plays less like an external force and more like an internal sickness. More than once Jack Torrance’s internal monologue from Stephen King’s novel The Shining came to mind, the voice behind what he vocalized that found his life choices, his family as his great burden.

The idea of the grudge being a sickness is given a visual motif through cigarettes in the film. Det. Muldoon’s husband died of cancer and she’s an ex-smoker. Her partner, Detective Goodman (Bichir) tells her about his mother who died of cancer, and admits that it’s a hard way to go while taking a drag. And Muldoon, once she becomes caught up in the house on Reyburn returns to smoking. There’s this constant awareness of sickness and cancer that permeates the film, and yet many of the characters can’t resist behavior that leads them closer to it. They invite cancer. It’s the same with the grudge and the house, a sickness that these characters can’t resist and invite into their lives.

Yellow, a color long associated with sickness and unease, becomes a visual motif in the film, with cinematographer Zack Galler playing with tones of the color as the story goes on, until by the end, the film is drenched in it, permeated by this sense of sickness. On a technical level, The Grudge is operating beyond anything we’ve ever seen from the franchise, and while some of the jump scares may be familiar, the atmosphere and shot construction, a reverence for decaying bodies, and artful blood splatter across floors and stained glass windows, feels in the vein of Italian horror greats like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, who both influenced Pesce’s film Piercing. Yet unlike that film, notable for its use of giallo soundtracks, The Grudge is a film that’s not afraid of silence, or to allow scenes breathing room. When the score by The Newton Brothers does kick in, it’s electric and pulse pounding, largely because so much of the film is atmospheric sounds, or music that sounds so much like atmosphere that they become hard to distinguish.

The Grudge is an American film by an American filmmaker that feels uniquely foreign in its influences, not unlike Pesce’s previous two films. It doesn’t feel like strictly J-horror, even when Pesce is utilizing Shimizu as an influence, but it does feel like a horror film that has looked beyond singular sources or countries of origins, bringing indie film commitment and vision to a studio reboot. The Grudge feels modern, and of a piece with the current output of studio horror paired with independent filmmakers who have brought their unique vision to familiar IP. It’s the best J-horror remake since The Ring, which may not be saying much, but The Grudge is worth considering even after you’ve left the theater, and contrary to popular opinion, is worth carrying home with you.