You’ve seen this story before.
No, I’m not talking about 2004’s The Grudge. Nor am I talking about its 2006 sequel, or the Japanese original Ju-On for that matter, or any of the other 10 films in this oddly enduring franchise. The story I’m referring to is the one where a young horror filmmaker, rife with potential, is plucked from the indie scene and handed the greatest gift of all — the keys to a franchise nobody remembers or hasn’t done anything great with in years. The results are typically underwhelming. Remember when the French duo behind the astonishing slasher Inside directed a Texas Chainsaw Massacre prequel a couple years ago? How about when the Soska Sisters followed up the wonderful American Mary, with, uh, See No Evil 2?
Nicolas Pesce’s 2016 debut, The Eyes of My Mother, was among the best horror to come out during the last decade, and last year’s follow-up, Piercing, was an admirable misfire. However, with a January release date and zero press screenings, it seemed like Sony Pictures hoped to sweep Pesce’s Grudge reboot / sidequel under the rug. Maybe, one might hope, that’s because his take on the material was so nasty or transgressive that the studio feared it wouldn’t jive with general audiences. Oh reader, how I wish that were the case. The provocative vision as shown in Pesce’s previous work is all but absent in Grudge 2020, an oppressively dull assemblage of lame jump scares and predictable haunted-house shenanigans.
Pesce at least deserves credit for the surprisingly ambitious story structure here, weaving multiple characters and timelines to illustrate the origins of a house linked to the series of gruesome deaths being investigated by Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), a recent widow looking for a fresh start. Things get off to a rocky start with a cringeworthy exchange between Muldoon and her son.“This move will be good for us,” she tells her son as he solemnly works on a LEGO set he started with his late father. Every character is given enough painful dialogue to fill in their generic backstory.
Soon, the movie settles into its awkward rhythm, shifting between the present investigation and two different families who once lived in the spooky house causing all the trouble. The cast is rounded out by some strong performers including John Cho (always nice to see) and Lin Shaye (who’s beginning to get typecast as “creepy elderly person”). Considering that when we meet Shaye’s character, her fingers have been cut off and her husband’s body is decomposing in their living room, we can assume things don’t end well for her; nonetheless, these flashback sequences tediously explain what happened to each of the house’s previous inhabitants. It’s a mystery that isn’t nearly as compelling as the film believes it to be.
That sense of tedium pervades The Grudge. The amount of cheap jump scares Pesce deploys grows tired about 20 minutes in, but they only grow more frequent as the runtime lurches forward. Instead of the white-faced, black-haired spectres from the original series, we get a lot — and I mean a lot — of rotting corpses rendered by unconvincing CGI, who quickly pop up in front of a character and then vanish.
Of course, in reality (or just a better movie), if an undead ghoul sprung up out of a bloody bathtub or flashed in front of me when I flipped off a light switch, I’d promptly check myself into a psychiatric hospital. These characters, however, usually let out a startled gasp, look perturbed for a minute, and then shrug it off. This process is repeated roughly 12 times.
It’s hard to gauge, even as the sole credited screenwriter, how much creative control Pesce had over his first major-studio stint. Everything about this pointless series revival is indistinguishable from any of its low-rent peers. Sure, the cinematography has a strange, yellow digital look that’s a tad distinct, but it only makes this boring mess feel dreary. The whole affair feels about 10 years too late. Maybe next time, the studio can hand Pesce a more timely gig.