If the defining cultural ethos of the last four years has been The Bush Years, But Dumber, it makes a great deal of sense that American remakes of Japanese horror properties would make a return to the multiplex. Popularized by Gore Verbinkski’s Americanized take on Ringu back in 2002, well before “whitewashing” had become as prominent a cause for concern in Hollywood, these movies were popular for a few key reasons: They were often cheap-to-make, were relatively novel to an American audience, and had a great deal of mass appeal, as their content wasn’t typically stark enough to garner an R-rating. In a few interesting – and very, very rare cases – the Japanese filmmakers themselves could direct the localized remakes of their properties, and such was the case with The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu’s retelling of his own Ju-on from 2002. Shimizu kept his film set in Japan and endowed it with a greater sense of culture than many of its contemporaries possessed. Even if the result wasn’t the best, it was still striking in an era of bland PG-13 horror.
Now, some 15 years later and under the helm of the reasonably popular indie horror director Nicolas Pesce, The Grudge has returned to cinemas everywhere to try and succeed where rebootquels like 2017’s Rings failed. Sporting a fancy R-rating and a bad attitude, Pesce’s take on this somewhat benignly scary property has less in common with Shimizu’s original than what a filmmaker like Takashi Miike would have done with the property. It’s got a new-extremity sensibility — Gore! Decomposition! Swears! — to match its new take on the old folktale of the Ju-on, which describes a curse that occurs after someone dies in a furious rage or deep sadness, which then possesses a place or a person and ruins their fucking lives. One can wonder whether this was the right approach to this material, but regardless, this is the film we’ve been left with, and it’s not a total flop.
It’s 2006, and Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, who is still expressive and fantastic even though she has nothing to do here), having just transferred to a precinct in the middle of nowhere, is summoned to a crash scene alongside her partner Goodman (Demian Bichir). What they find is a long-standing wreck on a seasonal road, with a thoroughly-rotted corpse in the driver’s seat, and Muldoon is sent out to what appears to have been the person’s last-known address: A two-story house that Goodman has a long-standing history with. When she arrives, she discovers another rotting corpse and an elderly woman (Lin Shaye) with advanced stages of dementia and several missing fingers, demanding to be fed. Muldoon has no clue what to make of this, but Goodman knows the house’s history, and things seem to be perfectly in-line with what he’s come to expect from that residence.
You see, back in 2004, a young woman named Fiona Landers returned home from a trip to Japan with something strange. It’s not your typical case of food poisoning or used underwear purchased from a vending machine, it’s a fucking curse, and said curse caused her to drown her young daughter, murder her husband and then stab herself to death. From then on, this curse afflicted everyone even tangentially related to the house: Goodman’s partner (William Sadler), who is driven to insanity by the case; a real-estate dealer (John Cho) whose pregnant wife (Betty Gilpin) discovers first-hand what this curse does to someone; to the aforementioned dementia-suffering old woman, whose husband (Frankie Faison) hires an exit guide (Jacki Weaver) to help his wife finally die in peace and be free of the cursed house that they unwitting moved into. All of this draws Muldoon in until she’s finally forced to confront that the curse might be coming after her next.
You’d think from how intense all of this sounds that the cheap jump scares that defined the first iteration of The Grudge series would be absent, but the new director has no intention of upsetting that formula, which is a real bummer. Pesce is at least able to make things interesting visually, despite the generic nature of his recycled plot(s). The color that defined his swell giallo tribute Piercing (itself an adaptation of a famous Japanese horror work) is totally absent, replaced here by a generic sepia-tone grafted atop the grimy goings-on like a thick layer of tar atop a paperback book’s pages in a smoker’s bedroom. It is an ugly, grim film in practice, and only the occasional joke or moment of levity can slip through (though there is an extended riff of the Richard Jefferies scene from Fire Walk With Me that might provide some metatexual amusement for Twin Peaks fans). There’s something vaguely compelling about that, though, despite how genuinely unpleasant it is to look at, and it breeds a kind of discomfort that The Grudge’s story or its pacing can’t equal. Pair that with some genuinely fantastic practical gore effects — Pesce really loves his maggot-filled corpses in advanced stages of decomposition here — and you have a film that’s at its most compelling when it abandons the fatalistic pathos it so desperately wants and gets gross.
The overwhelming issue with The Grudge is its structure, which is disjointed, achronological, and genuinely kneecaps Pesce and co-storyteller Jeff Buhler’s attempts to make their characters meaningful. At times, it makes events and characters and their place in the film’s timeline unnecessarily difficult to keep track of, and occasionally it ruins the effect that some of the more shocking moments have, stepping on the gory climaxes of each segment. Perhaps Pesce believed that tying all of the major action together at the end of the film would lead to a sustained tension throughout the entire movie, but it doesn’t really work in practice: It’s like repeatedly inflating a balloon right to the point where it’s about to burst, and then gradually letting the air out instead of letting it pop. Given that there are at least three distinct stories occurring within the Riseborough-centric framing device, each given roughly the same amount of time, it wouldn’t surprise me if I found out that, at one point, this was once an anthology film, and the pacing of these individual plot elements seem to suggest that possibility.
Yet, there’s still enough about The Grudge to recommend it to curious horror fans, even if it really does feel like Pesce is chafing against the studio’s requirements governing his approach to the property. What results is a final product that feels like a game of studio whack-a-filmmaker: Fine, Pesce seems to say, you won’t let me have color in my visuals? Well, here’s some intense, almost ridiculous-in-practice gore to add some paint to these walls. You want a sequel and re-imagining of this property? Well, here’s four. You want jump scares? Here’s 40. And that behind the scenes push-and-pull often makes for more compelling filmmaking than we’re willing to admit.
Is The Grudge a good movie? No, not really. But it is a perfect January flick, and like a glass of Fernet Braca, it’s more than willing to burn the taste of holiday joy right from your taste buds.