Following the huge success of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring in 2002, The J-horror franchise Ju-on was remade in the United States as The Grudge in 2004. It was also a success. In the first weekend of 2020, another remake of Ju-on appeared in theaters to little fanfare. To Sony, it seemed like a good idea. The time gap is big enough. The January market is (while a notorious dumping ground) not a moneyless area for horror.
And the premise of Ju-on, like any good myth, is worth retelling. The concept of a house whose primary tenant is a spiritual curse is (while by no means wholly original) intriguing. The story moves from different home owners and different authorities who enter the premises to investigate murders in a way that almost resembles an anthology film.
For an act or two, The Grudge (2020) sustains this intriguing anthology narrative, bouncing back and forth between characters worth watching—it should be noted that it is more than likely the impressive cast, as opposed to the writing, which creates this worthiness. The climactic final push, however, rapidly disposes of these narratives in apathetic, ugly displays of hard R-rated violence and lazy sight gags.
The Grudge populates its narrative with the most sympathetic characters possible: a sweet elderly couple (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison), an expecting husband and wife real estate team (John Cho and Betty Gilpin), a police detective (Andrea Riseborough) and her son (John J. Hansen). It then places them in harm’s way with little remorse. This is the space of horror, of course. We fear for these characters because we like them. This is much better than the horror film whose diegesis is populated with characters so unlikable that one almost roots for them to be killed. But The Grudge seems gleeful in its violent displays, ramping up from the PG-13 aesthetic of the 2004 remake by showering the film in sludgy black blood.
The narratives of these characters end in tragedy, but their arcs are not completed in a way that justifies the means-to-an-end way by which they are mercilessly dispatched. Director Nicolas Pesce, whose first film The Eyes of My Mother is an indie horror gem of sorts, gins up plenty of nauseating energy with the vile imagery and gory set pieces, but these grotesque flourishes just don’t seem like fitting ends for these characters. It makes the film feel too nihilistic for its own good, wiping away any potential for narrative resolution which may be satisfying to watch.
This is not to say that Pesce’s take on what was previously a teen scream box office play lacks boldness or vision. There is an effectiveness to some of his directorial choices, particularly early on in the film. And the go-for-broke hard-R mentality is not something you often see in the January horror film, which is often looking to make back its budget in its opening weekend before disappearing into obscurity. It is the way the violence is utilized that leaves me cold. Investing time in these characters’ lives only to see them stripped away with an almost comical lack of empathy is not satisfying. Pesce’s script undercuts whatever intrigue exists in the narrative constructs cribbed from Takashi Shimizu’s films.
The Grudge: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)