'The Grudge': Film Review

The house may never forget, but viewers probably will.
1/3/2020

Nicholas Pesce starts from the beginning in a new American take on Japan's long-running 'Ju-On' horror series.

A ponderous attempt to breathe new life into a money-minting franchise that has already been milked for three American features — in addition to innumerable films, comics, novels and games in its native Japan — Nicholas Pesce's The Grudge is so distant from its source material (the first seed of which appeared in 1998) that it might cause viewers to ask what was so special about the modern J-Horror phenomenon in the first place. Nearly devoid of scares for the casual horror consumer, it will likely elicit a respectful dismissal from genre connoisseurs: "We get what you're trying to do," they might gently say to the filmmakers. "It didn't work."

Extremely studious about its setting, the film throws giant timestamps onscreen until it's confident we'll keep up with a narrative that hops back and forth across two years, watching as a deathless evil links the fates of strangers at different points in time. These markers are helpful. But elsewhere, constant reminders of a cursed house's address look like desperate attempts to make 44 Reyburn Drive as iconic as room 237 at the Overlook Hotel or 221B Baker Street.

This Pennsylvania home was first haunted in 2004, when a woman named Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) returned home early from a job in Tokyo. She was mightily creeped out by her time there, and, as we watch the trash bag that quietly begins to breathe as she stands beside it, so are we. Treasure that scare, viewer, because it's the pic's most novel image by far. Fiona comes home to her loving husband and their daughter Melinda (Zoe Fish). Something terrible is about to happen there, but the movie wants to introduce a slew of other characters before telling us exactly what.

Two years later, a police detective named Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) is starting a new job shortly after watching the father of her son Burke (John Hansen) die of cancer. Her new partner, Det. Goodman (Demian Bichir), is similarly haunted, and not just by his mother's recent death: Goodman and Muldoon soon find a grisly murder scene that links back to a traumatic case he worked on Reyburn Drive. Strangely, we learn that Goodman investigated the whole murder-suicide affair without ever entering the house.

Don't get comfortable yet. Two other couples are tied to this grudge-bearing house, whose dead inhabitants keep returning to haunt future visitors, and the film spends a long time seeming to believe we'll be equally invested in the whole gang. One couple (Frankie Faison and horror star Lin Shaye) bought the house after the aforementioned massacre; another (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) were simply part of the real estate transaction.

Gilpin's character is also pregnant, and has learned her unborn child probably has a terrible disease. If this is starting to sound like a lot of fraught backstory for a 93-minute haunted-house movie (and there's more to come), it is. Stepping back, it's easy to acknowledge the ambition in Pesce's script, which wants to establish deep emotional bonds within each of a handful of families, then put them all through the same supernaturally connected horrors while the dedicated Detective Muldoon struggles to understand the mystery. But in practice, it's all too much. Just as we begin to care about, say, Faison and Shaye's characters, who are struggling with painful end-of-life choices, we hop several months into the future and are reminded that, oh yeah, these are the main characters moving the action forward.

It helps slightly that so many fine actors are committed to this material — Riseborough, especially, manages to be a credible human character while balancing the roles of cop, mother, widow and sudden-curse victim — but Pesce's direction doesn't live up to their contributions. It's hard to remember a recent movie in which so many jump-scares have failed so completely; in one or two spots, characters linger, staring so long at something that's about to go "boo," that viewers have time to chuckle, then resent the long wait.

Only at the very end do a couple of plot elements really click together as they're supposed to. But while these make a climactic scene work reasonably well, they don't come anywhere near making a viewer want the sequel the film's producers clearly have in mind. At the turn of the century, movies like Ju-On and Ringu felt simultaneously timely and ancient. Now, each new invocation of their names feels cheaper than the last.

Production companies: Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films, Ghost House Pictures
Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bishir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, William Sadler, Frankie Faison, Zoe Fish, Tara Westwood, Dave Brown, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver
Director-screenwriter: Nicholas Pesce
Producers: Sam Raimi, Taka Ichise, Rob Tapert
Director of photography: Zachary Galler
Production designer: Jean-Andre Carriere
Costume designer: Patricia J. Henderson
Editors: Gardner Gould, Ken Blackwell
Composers: The Newton Brothers
Casting director: Stephanie Holbrook

Rated R, 93 minutes