Review: The Grudge (2020)

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Frankie Faison

Life and movies are filled with mysteries. One of the most puzzling movie mysteries of the 21st century is quite how Takashi Shimizu went from making such a thoroughly chilling entry in the prolific Japanese Grudge series (2002’s Ju-On) only to find his brand of horror thoroughly lost in translation when he made not one but two tepid American remakes.

Ordinarily, the arrival of yet another Americanised rehash of a J-horror favourite would elicit an automatic eye-roll response (one worthy of Sadako), but given Shimizu’s stumbles in this regard, fresh eyes on the material isn’t wholly unwarranted. Consider also that Sony have drafted in Nicolas Pesce, who’s arthouse horror The Eyes Of My Mother went against mainstream horror tropes by quite a stretch and whose last picture, Piercing, was an adaptation of a novella by Ryu Murakami; the author behind Audition. Pesce has the chops to do something at least a little interesting here.

Quite a few others seem to believe in him, too. His Grudge reboot is feathered with some excellent names from the current crop of character actors. In keeping with the tradition of Shimizu’s effective original, Pesce’s film layers multiple groups of people around one cursed location. This episodic variety of storytelling asks for a range of engaging performers, and on that score his film truly does deliver.

Ignoring the Sarah Michelle Gellar movies and opting instead to act as a loose sequel to the Japanese hit, Pesce’s film sees a woman named Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) ‘infected’ with the ghostly curse in Japan circa 2004. She brings it back to 44 Reyburn Drive in a leafy American suburb where, over the course of three years, it lays waste not only to her family, but to several others as well. In 2006, Angela Riseborough’s grieving Detective Muldoon starts linking these unsolved cases together, even as her gruff colleague Goodman (Demián Bichir) urges her not to. She unwittingly breaks the cardinal rule almost immediately; she sets foot inside the house. For the growing hoard of ghosties, this makes her and her timid son fair game…

As Muldoon connects the dots, Pesce dances us back and and forth through the timeline, inviting us into the storied lives of past visitors to 44 Reyburn Drive. So there’s not just Muldoon and Goodman, but also the Landers clan who brought this dreaded curse to American shores, then there’s amiable realtor Peter Spencer (a good turn from John Cho) and his pregnant wife Nina (Betty Gilpin), and then there’s poor William Matheson (Frankie Faison), who has invited euthanasia assistant Lorna Moody (Jackie Weaver) into the house in the hopes of sending his ill wife Faith (genre mainstay Lin Shaye) off into the afterlife.

It’s a similar technique to the one deployed by Shimizu way-back-when, but by stacking his stories in this manner and hopping between timelines, Pesce avoids the nagging sense of constant reset. Indeed, even when he makes us wrench with a cheap or even effective jump scare, the tension isn’t wholly lost because we get a sense that each of these stories still has to climax. It’s a good choice. This iteration is engaging throughout, as the jigsaw chronology slowly falls into place.

In terms of form, Pesce tilts hard back toward the grimness of The Eyes Of My Mother, though instead of monochrome there’s a bronzed, almost burned hue to the film; something that prefigures the import of fire in its final act. It is therefore all the more frustrating to report that the film is inundated with the kind of gimmicky scares and false-starts that dominate much of mainstream horror today. These token gestures feel like awkward concessions to mass-market movie-making, and one wonders to what degree Pesce compromised his vision to please others in this regard. But who am I to say? Maybe he wanted it this way all along…

Even so, it takes some guts to rework a series’ signature ghosties from the ground up. While some of his spectres still favour the gravel-throated moan that comes from waking up with a severe head cold, virtually all of the visual keys that typified this series in previous excursions have been diminished. There’s a token wet-haired little girl, of course, but what sticks is Pesce’s eagerness to break free of the franchise’ iconography. His preference is for the gory and the rotten. Flies are a constant source of discomfort.

Ultimately, in all its forms, The Grudge is a creeping lament on the tangibility of evil. The idea that we are deeply, maybe even irrevocably changed by what we are exposed to in the world. That we carry traumas like wounds that, if not treated or acknowledged, can fester and change us. This idea of a curse, of being literally infected by the past, is deeply insidious, and Pesce’s film, while hampered by a number of blunt ‘boo’ moments, carries off this idea as effectively as his predecessor ever did.

And not for nothing, but it ends on one of the most low-key eerie credit sequences of recent times.

 

6 of 10

 

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