2020 | rated R | starring Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Demian Bicher, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver | directed by Nicholas Pesce | 1 hr 34 mins |
I like to go after the writers at RogerEbert.com for supplementing actual reviews with politics whenever they can because when they actually write about movies, it can be spot-on. Case in point, I share the unpopular opinion written so well by reviewer Nick Allen about the 2020 remake of The Grudge. He puts it more efficiently than I could have: It’s like watching an artisan chef making cereal. So how did we get here?
One Week Earlier.
Nearly two decades after the PG-13 J-horror remake craze swept through Hollywood, it’s interesting how the movie that started it all, Ringu and Gore Verbinski’s hugely successful remake The Ring flashed out and went into public consciousness, while it’s inferior sister film, The Grudge ground out two more sequels, this remake and then a TV series. The Ring is tightly scripted around a set of strict rules, The Grudge on the other hand is just a haunted house movie, one you can plug any number of stories into.
Enter director Nicholas Pesce (who also scripts the story), who directed one of my favorite films of 2016, the crisp black-and-white rural horror film The Eyes of My Mother, as well as the adrenaline-pumped masochistic Piercing. While the structure, and pattern of The Grudge is basically the same as any other studio horror film, Pesce is coloring inside those lines with different ink. He adds character, texture, style, a brooding mood and an R-rated brutality to the proceedings. There are indeed a lot of jump scares – one that actually worked on me – as well as numerous time-filling scenes of characters walking around dark hallways – a studio horror staple, but there are also a few diamonds in the rough here, scenes of cringing violence, effective shocks and memorable images. Pesce’s Grudge starts out fairly generic, but don’t tune out during the dark-hallway sequences, it actually builds into something. The third act is expertly crafted. If everything that came before was that good this would be a very different review without any hesitations.
Pesce seems to know how thin The Grudge is as a haunted house movie. Instead of having one family move into a house gripped with the curse of a ghost that had a violent death, he sends us through time with several occupants of the curse. First a nanny who travels from Japan back to America, then a couple (Betty Gilpin and John Cho) who are reeling from the loss of their child, then an elderly couple (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison) who seek the counsel of an assisted suicide nurse (Jacki Weaver) and our present day story – a mother and detective (Andrea Risenborough) investigating the deaths surrounding the home, a cold case body found in a car in the woods and various other odd phenomena surrounding these people. This is a next-level cast for this kind of movie and Risenborough is very good. Lin Shaye is someone we’ve started to take for granted as she’s become a pervasive horror veteran post-Insidious, but she is excellent here and Pesce gives her a terrifically creepy introduction.
The Grudge’s trademark creep factor is the open-mouth gutteral groan sound the ghost makes. Pesce drops it in here and there, but has done away with dark-haired ghost girls for tortured spirits with bloodied trauma. This movie, in it’s best moments (which isn’t all the time), leans on a still, grim atmosphere. Late in the film Risenborough and her detective partner (Demian Bicher) sit up at night with wine pondering their circumstances; the scene feels cold and stoic, more like one of the original Japanese movies than a Hollywood film.
Pesce’s The Grudge is a resourceful indie horror talent trying to put his own sense of punishing nihilism on a studio project. That style is bathed in glorious red and nose-cracking, eye-gouging “the world is cursed” horror; the same straight-forward, irony-free sense of hopelessness that puts him in a peer group with Ari Astor. It has a wind-up, but when it clicks into place, it really works, which puts it head and shoulders over most wide-release horror films, particularly the current crop of 2nd remakes. The latest Grudge is the best Grudge. I’ve got some reservations with it, but it’s definitely worth a look.