Movie Review ~ The Grudge (2020)

The Facts:

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

Rated: R

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.

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed

Directors: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes of originals that were just fine to begin with. Stephen King’s 1989 adaption of his own novel Pet Sematary was a solid horror film that has held up quite well over the past thirty years. Sure, it’s low tech and some of the performances delve into out-of-place hysterics at times but it was largely a successful effort and often spoken of highly as one of the better King adaptations that have made it to the big screen.

Yet I wasn’t that mad at the fact that the source material was going to get another treatment…and I actually thought it was long overdue. After a lackluster sequel that failed to move the series forward in any compelling way, the property just sort of sat there on the shelf for the ensuing years. I’ve always considered the book and its concept to be one that would lend itself well to multiple sequels and creative approaches yet no one had bothered to take another crack at it. As the original film approached it’s 30th anniversary, Paramount decided to dig up their former horror hit and handed it over to three guys that have been making a name for themselves in the scare business.

The new film has a screenplay written by Jeff Buhler who already had The Prodigy in 2019 and will pen upcoming remakes of Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, and was directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer who gave us the underrated horror gem Starry Eyes. Having these three give King’s tale of a city family that moves to the country and experiences the dangerous power of a nearby burial ground seemed like an on the money choice and with stars like Jason Clarke (The Aftermath) and John Lithgow (Pitch Perfect 3) on board this remake was elevated up a few notches from being just a shameless cash-in.

The Creed family has uprooted their life and moved to a small town in Maine so Louis (Clarke) can be a big fish in a small pond as the doctor at a local university. Like the first film, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next) doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own outside of taking care of their two young children so while Louis goes to work Rachel begins the process of setting her family up in their new house. Friendly neighbor Jud (Lithgow) catches young Ellie (Jeté Laurence) exploring in the woods and shows her the pet sematary on their property where children come to bury their pets. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is driven to make an unholy choice involving the pet sematary that has deadly repercussions for everyone.

While the film largely falls into the remake category, with names and situations that echo what we’ve read/seen before, certain elements of the plot have been reimagined and not all of them work as well as they should. If you’ve seen the previews you’re likely aware of the one big change from the book/original film and that choice is, in hindsight, a smart one considering what it allows the filmmakers to do with the final 1/3 of the movie. What I didn’t care for, actually, was that last act when it became less of a slow-burn horror movie and more of a cheap scare machine which undercut some of the strong structure that was built up early on.

Another strange thing about this film is that Buhler’s script is overly talky. In most cases, having some extra character development in a movie designed to provide maximum scare time would be welcome but there seemed to be an endless series of scenes with Louis and Rachel talking in their bedroom. Feeling like low-grade Cassavetes, their marital squabbles and differences of opinion in how much they share with their children about death starts to feel intrusive to the frights. After a while, you begin to wish the bad thing that is coming will just happen so they’ll have something else to talk about.

Clarke, as usual, makes for a reliable leading man and the conflict Louis experiences sits well with him. No one plays tragically at odds with oneself quite like Clarke can. Like the movie, he starts to veer off course near the end but he holds on longer than the film does. I’ve not seen Seimetz in a lot of things but she brought a nice layer to Rachel that wasn’t present in the previous film. The subplot concerning her guilt over an incident from her childhood involving her dying sister isn’t as scary as the 1989 version because its less subtle but she navigates some jarring pseudo-scares quite well. The Jud character was always the most memorable in these films and while Lithgow is no Fred Gwynne, his wind-beaten face and growly voice convinced me right off the bat he was the right guy for the role. The trickiest part in the film is taken on by Laurence as the Creed’s daughter who has to play a whole range of emotions – for a young performer tasked with the film’s most important material she is a strong presence.

As they demonstrated in Starry Eyes, Kölsch & Widmyer know how to slowly turn up the heat on their movie pot and allow it to boil over at just the right time. Here, though, the pot stays on the fire just a hair too long, that is the difference between a remake that sticks its landing, and one that bites off more than it can chew. (I’m trying to jam pack this with metaphors today, clearly). The ending of the film doesn’t measure up and just gets too bizarre to the point where the audience laughs in all the right places but more than a few unintentional passages as well.

I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of these remakes of popular films over the next few years and if they turn out like Pet Sematary I won’t be totally disappointed. There’s some thought that went into this one and more than few examples of creativity on display that are worth noting from directors that are continuing to hone their craft. Showing a bit more appreciation for narrative follow-through and arriving at an ending that satisfies is what was missing.

Movie Review ~ The Prodigy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother concerned about her young son’s disturbing behavior thinks something supernatural may be affecting him

Stars: Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Jackson Robert Scott, Colm Feore, Peter Mooney, Paul Fauteux, Oluniké Adeliyi

Director: Nicholas McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: At this point early in the new year, audiences are easy targets for cheap, mindless entertainment that goes in one ear and out the other before you are back to your car and warming your hands. Most often, the easy targets are horror fans looking for a decent scare they can’t get from firing up their streaming service. They have to be inspired to get all gussied up (for me that’s basically putting on pants), head to the theater, pay an exorbitant ticket price, and then hope for the best. I don’t really blame Hollywood for preying on viewers in this fertile hunting ground but you do wish that once in a while they would get it right and make it worth our effort.

The latest wilted offering is The Prodigy, a fleetingly scary but most languid “evil child” story being released from the recently resuscitated Orion Pictures. I don’t know about you but every time I see that Orion logo there are two movies that come to mind. The first is 1989’s black comedy She-Devil starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr and the other one is 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Each time I see the starry sky that forms the Orion title card I get a chill up my spine and I think the producers of The Prodigy are counting on that. They even go so far as to mimic some font titles emblematic from The Silence of the Lambs that show the location where the prologue takes place.

Eight years ago, a woman (Brittany Allen, Jigsaw) escaped from a serial killer (Paul Fauteux) who had a thing for women’s hands. The police track him down to his home where he is taken down in a flurry of bullets. On the same night, a young couple (Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One and Peter Mooney) are rushing to the hospital for the birth of their son, Miles. When Miles is born, the blood on his body mimics the bullet wounds of our dying killer. It’s the first of several interesting visual cues director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) has for us and they become the smartest things about the film.

As the boy grows older, he demonstrates early signs of genius. He speaks before he’s one year old, he can solve difficult IQ tests, and he shows some disturbing social tendencies his parents and teachers shrug off as just going with the territory of children with advanced gifts. Miles is more than just socially awkward though, as we come to see he has killer instincts…and not just in solving algebra equations. When the ties to the killer become known, it’s up to Miles’ mom to put a stop to a madman that has taken over her son’s persona or risk losing him forever to a psychopath’s deadly revenge plot.

Bringing in some supernatural elements, the script from Jeff Bluher (who is also scripting 2019’s remake of Pet Sematary) is big into psychobabble mumbo jumbo (delivered with dead seriousness by Colm Feore, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) but light on logic. Main characters disappear for long stretches only to show up when the movie needs to enact some gruesome violence and the connection between how the killer winds up within Miles isn’t explained more than a passing reference to historical possession cases.

That leaves the success to rise and fall on the performances and Schlling’s sleepy acting doesn’t serve the film well. She always speaks as if she’s phonetically sounding out her sentences and isn’t able to flip from one emotion to another without physically making some adjustment. It’s a strange performance to anchor the film, which makes her scenes with Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, IT) all the more awkward because he seems like he’s come with exactly the right attention to what his job is while Schilling struggles right up to the end with metering her performance.

Even though it comes up short as a whole, I’d be lying in saying that McCarthy’s doesn’t pull off several shocking scares and a few eyebrow raising bits of dialogue that must have been recorded by a double for Miles. There’s just no way some of the things the boy says could have come from the young actor. I jumped several times and not because the music suddenly gave me a jolt, McCarthy clearly has a way with constructing a creepy visual.  Though much of the cinematography is fuzzy to suggest shooting on film stock and favors shadows, McCarthy finds ways to make what comes out of that darkness quite ghoulish.

This one could easily have gone straight to streaming and might have been regarded as a decent thriller for a gloomy day. Releasing it in theaters brings it to a higher scrutiny, though, and you have to evaluate the movie on those merits. It doesn’t meet the standard we’d expect from a wide-released horror film so I’d advise you to hold off on The Prodigy until you can give it a spin at home without much regret…and you don’t even have to put your pants on.

31 Days to Scare ~ Pet Sematary (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Behind a young family’s home in Maine is a terrible secret that holds the power of life after death. When tragedy strikes, the threat of that power soon becomes undeniable.

Release Date:  April 19, 2019

Thoughts: Remakes are a tricky thing and often I feel like to remake an already established film isn’t really worth the time or money.  Why go back and revisit something that still holds up?  Sure, movies like Oceans 11 and even last year’s re-do of Stephen King’s IT improved upon their originals but what about the Carrie remake or any of the sanitized updates to horror films like Prom Night or When a Stranger Calls?  Tough stuff.

So here we are now looking down the barrel of a Pet Sematary remake and I’m conflicted.  The original 1989 film retains much of the same scares and thrills as it did when first released but this look at the 2019 version has arrived and I’m not inclined to claw at the walls in frustration.  I really enjoyed directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer previous film Starry Eyes and star Jason Clarke (All I See Is You) seems a good choice for the lead.  I just hope they can exercise some restraint and give us a spooky tale and not go into excess.  Don’t want audiences leaving the theater thinking that sometimes un-remade is better.

Make sure to check out my review of Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, the documentary on the making of the first film.