Synopsis: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a single mother and detective tries to investigate and solve the case. She discovers the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost that dooms those who enter it with a violent death.
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Demián Bichir, Betty Gilpin, John Cho, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: I’ve always liked to look at the start of a new year as a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. What a perfect time to forget about old annoyances, unmet goals, and the resolutions from the previous year that you didn’t stick to. For this critic embarking on his ninth year of being a one-man reviewing band on this site, it’s also a fine time to hope that the next year of movie-going will be a smooth ride, where every film is a winner and each expectation I have going in is met. Though 2019 shaped up to be a rather strong year for film in those final few months there were some bumps along the way…with some real rough patches especially in the horror genre remake/reboot realm. If you read my end of the year review you’ll know I put the trash update of Child’s Play as my #1 worst movie in 2019 and unfortunately we are only two days into the new year and I already have a likely candidate to be (dis)honorably mentioned 12 months from now.
Always wanting to support my beloved horror films I was silly enough to take myself to see Sony’s restage of The Grudge thinking that it would be the scary new vision of 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge it made itself out to be. Instead, writer/director Nicolas Pesce squanders a talented cast and decent production values in a film that is schizophrenic at best, incoherent at worst. The films in this series have always suffered from issues with structure and there is barely a framework in place before Pesce starts to tear it all apart. Coming off of two well received movies, 2018’s Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother from 2016, Pesce was an intriguing choice to take on this reboot but brings none of the style he showed in those smaller movies with his first foray into franchise territory. This is Horror Movie 101, with lame-o jump scares favored over any kind of build up of suspense or furthering of the narrative action.
After the death of her husband, Detective Muldoon (no first name given ever) packs up and moves with their son to Cross Creek, PA, where they have a chance at finding a new normal. Her first day on the job she’s partnered with Detective Goodman (another character not given the benefit of a first name) and they are sent to the woods where a decomposed body has been found in a locked car. Tracing the body back to a house with a bloody past, Goodman wants to turn the investigation over to the federal authorities and forget about it but Muldoon can’t resist doing some work on her own. Once Muldoon enters the infamous house she starts to experience strange events that can all be tied back to a family that had been murdered two years prior…and whatever caused all that trouble before is now after her.
If you’ve never seen it, the original Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge is quite an effective entry in J-Horror. I remember catching it at a small theater in my town when it received a limited release and receiving good chills for my effort. When I heard the original director was coming to the US to remake the film in partnership with Sam Raimi (Oz: The Great and Powerful), I was curious to see how Hollywood would handle it. The 2004 version of The Grudge followed it’s foreign predecessor pretty closely and was a decent if completely unnecessary effort; setting much of it Japan with a largely American cast had its own problems, though and it’s non-linear format didn’t flow as easily overseas. A quick sequel was pushed into production and the 2006 result was a steep nosedive in quality and logic. I never got around to seeing the third film, released in 2009, but skimming reviews for it online it appears I didn’t miss much. Stepping back from the 2020 version a bit and squinting, you can see where a new twist on The Grudge may have sounded appealing to the studio heads at Sony.
I have to believe that something happened between Pesce’s pitch and the film being released that changed what was originally intended. Made for a small-ish $10 million dollars, there was a real opportunity to make a suspenseful film that took the haunting elements from the original movies and placed them in a new story. Instead, the movie is stuck in the same old narrative rut that proved so problematic in the past. Set between the years 2004 and 2006 (why?), Pesce has really made four mini-episodes showing how the cursed house has taken deadly action over the years and then thrown it all into a wood-chipper before piecing it back together. It never allows the action to find a rhythm because there’s no impetus to when or how the storylines diverge from one another.
One moment you’re in 2006 where Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) and Goodman (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) are investigating the body in the car, the next you’re back in the past watching married real estate agents (John Cho, Searching and Betty Gilpin, Isn’t it Romantic?) dealing with their own tragedy who make the mistake of taking on the spooky dwelling. Aside from the original family who meet a gruesome fate, the other noteworthy arc involves a man (Frankie Faison, The Silence of the Lambs) who has called upon a euthanasia supporter (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) to help his ailing wife (Lin Shaye, Insidious: The Last Key) transition. Of all the plots Pesce juggles this is the one that I wanted to know more about, thanks to the performances of all three actors…especially Weaver. The way Weaver reacts to the horror she sees made me wish she had better material to work with…but she gives it her all anyway.
Actually, all the actors deserve some pat on the back for imbibing what sensibility was possible into their roles. Riseborough is such a fascinating actress but struggles with a character that becomes more hyperbolic as the film goes on. Pesce makes a concerted effort to pause the action while Riseborough works through her emotions but since we have no real sense of who she is these slow sections become annoying, making the film feel longer (much much much longer) than its 94 minutes. I’m not sure if Bichir ever spoke above a throaty whisper but I’m definitely sure Cho and Gilpin didn’t know they were in a horror movie until after the movie was finished. Both look bewildered instead of scared. You can always count on Shaye to bring us back on track and her few scenes as a woman that has become unhinged due to the house consistently find the right tone. I also found William Sadler’s (Freeheld) brief appearance to be approaching the right ballpark of where Pesce should have taken things.
A clumsy film to kick off 2020, hopefully audiences won’t take the bait with this new version of The Grudge and allow this series to just disappear. The only thing good about seeing this is that everything else you watch this year is bound to be better…but maybe that’s me being too hopeful again.