I’m not overly precious when it comes to horror. If the concept is strong enough, I welcome all manner of variations on it. Remake it! Reboot it! Revive it in whatever manner — I don’t care! Sure, some will be more successful than others, but I won’t begrudge (heh) anyone the right to make an attempt because there’s always the possibility that there will be fresh fears to be mined from familiar grounds. This is why I was looking forward to Sony’s latest twist on Takashi Shimizu’s famous J-Horror franchise. The central concept, that people who are killed in a rage can produce a curse that infects the space where they died and spreads to anyone who interacts with that space, is a simple yet sticky mix of haunted house/vengeful ghost tropes that has already sustained the original Ju-On series of films as well as three American remakes, the last of which was released in 2009. Now, over a decade later, we’re getting a fourth installment from writer/director Nicholas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing).
Though if I’m being honest, all of that context wasn’t enough to get me pumped for this iteration. No, I volunteered to review The Grudge for one reason and one reason alone: THE CAST. John Cho! Andrea Riseborough! Lin Shaye, Demián Bichir, William Sadler, Betty Gilpin, Frankie Faison, JACKI EFFING WEAVER! I mean, really? All those people, in January-dump horror movie? I could only assume that the script was rock solid, or Sony had a closet full of blackmail on the actors, and either way I was intrigued. Now that I’ve seen the movie, however… I’m leaning toward the blackmail theory.
This film wedges itself into the franchise by positing that in 2004 there was another caretaker who worked at the central cursed house in Tokyo. This woman, Fiona Landers, was an American who cut her contract short because… well, the grudge obviously. Unfortunately, she is possessed by the curse before she leaves, and carries the haunting with her to her home at 44 Reyburn Drive in Cross Rivers, Pennsylvania. When the inevitable occurs and she kills her husband, her daughter, and then herself, she turns that house into the new epicenter of the The Grudge. Over the course of the next two years realtors sell the house, a new couple moves in, more deaths occur, and the police who investigate the goings-on get pulled into the curse as well. If you’re familiar with the franchise, you’ll recognize the pattern — as well as the film’s non-chronological presentation of events. Which is why it’s so odd that the worst part of The Grudge ultimately is the fact that it’s a Grudge movie at all.
The film aspires to be something more elevated than just another reboot, coming at the subject matter almost like a Robert Altman knock-off, and for a while that indie spirit gave me hope. These actors were hired because the film didn’t need canon fodder — it needed characters. Characters who converge across time in this one place, only to have their disparate lives suffer a shared fate. Unfortunately, that lofty approach suffers in execution. All the time spent on these characters and their personal struggles — John Cho and Betty Gilpin as realtors struggling to decide what to do with their pregnancy, Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye as a couple contemplating assisted suicide as a way to escape dementia, Andrea Riseborough as a widowed detective with a young son — is seemingly wasted. It never succeeds in investing the audience with any reason to root for them, and instead makes the film’s hour and a half runtime drag. Maybe it’s because all those complications have nothing to do with why they become targeted by the curse. Maybe it’s because, thanks to the convoluted, non-linear storytelling, we know their fates before we meet them, and the film never pulls us out of that futility. Or maybe it’s just because none of their stories manage to reveal any actual personalities amongst the characters. Riseborough, our de facto heroine, is defined almost entirely by her character’s under-shaved hairdo (not that I’m complaining, mind you — I spent every second of her screentime considering whether I could pull off the same cut). Of course, by contrast the Landers — the family at the center of the horror — are practically blank slates. Forget not having personalities, they barely have a story at all! Why was Fiona in Tokyo in the first place, instead of with her family? Why wasn’t her family with her? Couldn’t tell you.
As I mentioned, The Grudge is a mix of haunted house and vengeful spirit tropes, and where this film stumbles is in how it establishes the rules of this curse… in that it doesn’t? I’m still struggling to understand the implications of what happened, and why it happened. Fiona picked up the grudge in Tokyo — but if Kayoko and Toshio (the two central spirits of the franchise) are the ones behind her killing spree, that’s apparently all they do. The Landers family tragedy becomes the center of a new curse, and they are the spirits behind the events we witness as their curse spreads to the people who enter their house. Only not all of the people who enter the house die there. Some take the grudge with them the way Fiona brought it home with her, and by the end I’m pretty sure there should be at least two other fresh grudges running concurrent to the Landers’ if the logic holds — which it either doesn’t, or the film is intentionally leaving those loopholes in place for sequels.
On top of the squishy logic, the film never quite lands on an approach to the horror elements either. It’s intermittently gross, with splashes of black oil blood and a few gruesome tableaus, but very little violence is shown on screen. Instead there are the sort of jump-scares the franchise is famous for, only they barely register because they are projected so far in advance there’s nothing surprising about them at all. Now, maybe I’m an unreliable judge of what’s scary because I’m not easily grossed out, but the most unsettling shot of the whole movie was an atmospheric insert of flies crawling across some half-expired meat at a supermarket butcher counter — a shot entirely unrelated to any of the actual hauntings, and only unsettling because it’s such a clear health code violation.
I can’t help but wonder if perhaps The Grudge would have been more successful if it was establishing its own mythology and rules, rather than trying to uneasily exist within this franchise’s framework — if it had really just followed its “Altman but make it horror!” instincts to their fullest instead of being The Grudge at all. As it is, it’s a frustrated sigh of a movie, coming so close to having something new to add — and instead only leaving us with the memory of how incredibly hot John Cho looks in glasses.
Which, for the record, is very hot indeed.