WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A woman brings an ancient curse back home to America after visiting Japan, which takes root in her home after it drives her to kill her family and herself. When a police detective investigates the house, will she be the latest victim of the Ju-on curse or will she finally find a way to stop it?
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
I am probably becoming something of a broken record comparing every single new horror release to Mike Flanagan’s Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House but, aside for the fact that I do absolutely believe it to have set a new standard in horror, the comparison is particularly easy to make here. Even if, admittedly, it’s not one that does this, the latest in the never-ending Ju-on/ Grudge series any favours.
And I do mean never-ending. English-language horror fans only had to sit through three previous Grudge movies but Grudge-creator, Takashi Shimizu, has made something of a cottage industry of these films in his native Japan (while also directing the original remake, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar in a role that was the first definite sign that she may, sadly, have trouble converting her TV success into movie stardom). At this point, there may well be as many Grudge movies as there are films and TV shows directly inspired by Shirley Jackson’s original The Haunting of Hill House novel.
Here’s the difference, though: while Mike Flanagan’s take on the seminal haunted house novel was a fresh and original adaptation that used only a few character names and, broadly, the same house to create a powerful and scary look at how a dysfunctional family’s present and future are directly impacted by their shared past coming back to haunt them, I’m not entirely sure why the 2020 version of The Grudge exists.
The 2004 film may not have been much good, but it came out as part of a wave of English-language remakes of Japanese horror films starring pale, lank-haired girls as the villain, so its arrival was both timely and, critical response aside, very successful. I can’t imagine that anyone was clamouring for a new Grudge movie in 2020, though. Especially not this one.
And this is where the Haunting of Hill House comparison really kicks into gear. It’s entirely possible that the Grudge began production long before HoHH first streamed but it’s hard to believe that writer/director Nicolas Pesce didn’t see what Mike Flanagan was doing and said: “I’ll have a whole lot of that, thanks.” This latest take on the Grudge is slow-burning, shifts between different character perspectives, is told in a non-linear fashion and clearly tries to be about more than just jump-scares and cheap thrills. It’s a horror movie, yes, but it’s a horror movie about grief and the way families exist together. And it’s all straight out of the Flanagan playbook.
If only Pesce was able to capture even a fraction of Flanagan’s vision, his storytelling bravado, his vivid characterization or his dexterity with mounting horror. The problem with The Grudge isn’t really that it’s the fifty-eighth Grudge movie or that’s its derivative even by those standards but that it is one of the dullest horror films to come along since the whole found-footage gimmick was still a thing. It’s also one of the laziest.
The film’s decision to split its time between different characters mainly just leaves all of them fairly under-developed, while wasting a very strong cast that includes Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, Betty Gilpin and John Cho. Lin Shaye does bring some vitality to the proceedings, but she’s just doing the usual creepy old lady schtick that she has done in seemingly every second horror film released this century.
It’s impossible to care about anyone or anything on screen, but that’s not even the worst thing about The Grudge. No, the worst thing about it is that for all that it spends time trying to present itself as something more than just a g-grade horror flick, it falls back on every cheap and blindingly obvious horror trick in the book.
The overbearing score by the Newton Brothers is especially egregious as it signposts each and every scare in a way that so utterly undermines any potential scares that it seriously has me considering whether what Pesce is really trying to do here is make the ultimate non-horror horror movie. And it is clearly a directorial choice because, among other acclaimed work, take a guess just which Netflix horror series the Newton Brothers also scored and on which they did an absolutely brilliant job...
The worst part of all this is that the film was made for so little money that its meagre box office take is still clearly more than enough for us to reasonably expect yet another Grudge movie in a couple of years. Unless you’re in Japan, of course, in which case three new movies have probably already been commissioned even as I write this review. Lucky them.