For a time in the mid-2000s the J-horror genre was extremely hot, and Hollywood brought a couple of them over from Japan to, of course, turn into successful franchises. There was Ringu, which became The Ring; and because American moviegoers couldn’t get enough of creepy, pale ghost children, Ju-On was brought over here as The Grudge. The fad quickly died out, but a decade the paranormal beef is back on with The Grudge, a lifeless snoozer as bland and unimaginative as the reboot’s title.
The central conceit of The Grudge is pretty easy to follow and ready-made for sequels, which is why there have been a dozen of these movies already. Basically, when someone is murdered in a particularly strong fit of rage, it leaves behind a vengeful ghost that haunts a home forever. A grudge. And this grudge is with anybody living who enters that home. Real estate agents seem to have no problem finding buyers for these homes where scores of families have repeatedly been murdered, but whatever.
This version of The Grudge doesn’t do much to prove the franchise is worth reviving. Andrea Riseborough leads an incredibly talented, but ultimately useless cast as Detective Muldoon. She’s moved to a small Pennsylvania town with her young son (He’s super inconsequential to the plot) for a fresh start after the recent death of her husband. Too bad for her, the first case she gets with her new partner Detective Goodman (Demian Bichir), is the gruesome discovery of a body hidden deep in the woods. The death seems to be connected to a certain home with a long history of murder lingering over it, one that Goodman would very much like to forget. While he tries to warn Muldoon away, she can’t help herself and goes to investigate the home. She gets herself grudged in the process, becoming infected by the demonic curse that drives you nuts before driving you to kill.
Fans of the Ju-On and Grudge films will quickly recognize the cheap jump-scare patterns and even the loopy narrative construction. The timeline leaps between 2004, 2005, and 2006, as writer/director Nicolas Pesce weaves together a mythology of murder, connecting multiple victims of the grudge. John Cho and Betty Gilpin play a couple contemplating the birth of their child who is likely to be born with severe defects; Frankie Faison plays a husband struggling to ease his seemingly mentally ill wife (horror queen Lin Shaye, right at home) with the help of a caregiver (Jacki Weaver); and then there’s Goodman’s old partner (William Sadler) who is obsessed with the home.
Pesce’s ambitions play out in grueling, dull fashion, made worse by the Grudge gimmick itself which was repetitive years ago and remains so. Regardless of the time period, we see characters get freaked out by the same creepy visions of dead people, falling for the same tired jump-scares, and stupidly approaching the same tub of bloody water. It’s unintentionally hilarious after a while, and in the theater I was at the crowd laughed at the movie’s lame attempts to frighten. Pretty sure that’s not the reaction Pesce was hoping for. The movie’s only true moment of comedy, a “pack your bags” moment of clarity by Weaver’s character, frustratingly teases Pesce’s subversive sense of humor. You get it once so better enjoy it.
It’s not that Pesce isn’t a talented director, he’s just not built for generic, studio horrors that blunt his twisted sensibilities. His 2016 debut The Eyes of My Mother was a hypnotic, nightmarish look into the creation of a serial killer; his 2018 film Piercing was a savage thriller that mercilessly flips audience expectations. The Grudge has very little of what has made Pesce a rising star filmmaker to genre fans. It sidelines him, but also a strong cast who deserve much better than this. Riseborough, Cho, and Gilpin do their best with the given material, but they’re most effective when removed from the haunted house tropes that make The Grudge little more than a minor spat.