2020, R, 94 min. Directed by Nicolas Pesce. Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tara Westwood, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Junko Bailey, Frankie Faison, William Sadler.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 10, 2020
If you’re looking for the dead bodies of abandoned studio horrors, January is the ultimate dumping ground. The last few years have seen the month littered with the corpses of films for which the studios clearly had high hopes (The Bye-Bye Man, Insidious: The Last Key, The Forest) but instead threw away after Christmas, hoping to pick up a few dollars from bored college kids who want a break from their families. Surprisingly enough, The Grudge is not part of that dishonorable lineage, but a dark addition to a long-running horror franchise that arguably deserves better than a January release.
Like many of its seasonal predecessors, it’s a supernatural shocker and another attempt to Americanize the distinctive form of the yūrei, the Japanese long-haired ghost whose blind vengeance on the living leaves nothing but doom. It’s also the latest entry in the Ju-on/The Grudge series. After the Ring cycle (created by novelist Koji Suzuki and most terrifyingly brought to the screen by Hideo Nakata), Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on franchise is arguably the most globally recognized J-horror; and, like Ring, it spurred an American revamp (2004’s eponymous quasi-remake The Grudge) and forgettable sequels (the inept The Grudge 2 and 2009’s straight-to-video third). Those English-language mimics took the villains of the Japanese series but none of its impending dread and scorching shocks.
This iteration ignores the previous American versions and begins a year after 2003’s Ju-on: The Grudge 2 (actually the fourth Japanese feature). An American home caregiver, Fiona Landers (Westwood) flees the original cursed Tokyo home and heads back to the U.S., believing she has left something unspoken and terrifying behind her. In fact, she has taken the curse of the house – birthed from murders committed in a terrible rage – with her, and now the supernatural forces have made it across the Pacific. That’s when a small-town cop, Detective Muldoon (Riseborough) finds that the woman’s home has become a nexus for horrific crimes, and this is the point at which this latest Grudge starts to innovate the format. Muldoon’s storyline is set in 2006, and she is solving several interlinked cold cases: the Landers murders; the murder-suicide of their Realtor (Cho) and his pregnant wife (Gilpin); the horrifying fate of the latest residents, the Mathesons (Faison and the new patron saint of American horror, Shaye); and the madness that has beset Detective Wilson (Sadler), the former partner to Muldoon’s new colleague Detective Goodman (Bichir).
It was a bold choice to select avant-garde horror auteur Nicolas Pesce to undertake a U.S. reinvention 10 years later, and three years after the Japanese creators took the story into creature-feature territory with the oddball Ring crossover, Sadako vs. Kayako. Pesce doesn’t do franchise horrors. His debut, The Eyes of My Mother, was a black-and-white study in psychosis; his second, Piercing, was the rom-com’s evil twin. His stories are small, lyrical, character-driven, and grisly. Where most contemporary horror directors throw blood around like it’s on sale, Pesce vibrates between cerebral and visceral – between mental torture and physical corruption.
In some ways, that actually makes him the perfect writer/director to take on a story that at its best has always been unrelentingly dark. He keeps some of the iconography of the films – the rasping croak, the hand in the hair, the bathtub filled with a putrid liquid – and puts them through his own filter of corruption and decay (no one shoots a rotting corpse like Pesce). Perhaps what he most importantly catches is that Shimizu’s worldview is bleak. Darkness clings to all these characters, who are drowning in tragedy, and there is arguably no more despairing minor character beat than Muldoon, widowed by cancer, giving in and smoking again. Some fans of the franchise may be aggrieved that he does little with the original Japanese ghosts, but in his version, the curse is what’s important. It is rage against dying, against an unfair universe, and so it is self-propagating. It may not always make sense, but if you want the supernatural as a series of checkboxes, then you have the increasingly absurd Conjuring franchise. If your stomach is a little hardier, then Pesce’s The Grudge is a more fittingly disturbing extension of an erratic franchise. His ghosts are not just unquiet: They are disquieting.