“The Grudge” may have started in Japan with the horror film “Ju-on,” but after four installments, 16 years, and a villain that cannot die as long as there’s an ounce left of box-office potential in its intellectual property, it’s become a quintessentially American franchise.
Unfortunately, the intriguingly different — and, perhaps vitally, unspecific — set of cultural myths that drove Takashi Shimizu’s 2004 remake of his earlier work to more than $187 million at the box office has not only long since fallen out of commercial vogue, but also seemingly exhausted its own mysteries.
Even gussied up with a cast of prestigious character actors including Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin and Jacki Weaver, this new “Grudge” does little more than revive the visual lexicon of its predecessors without adding new mythic, narrative or emotional dimensions to the ongoing story of an unseen force that forever passes along its unstoppable evil.
Riseborough plays Detective Muldoon, a widow searching for distractions after the death of her husband from cancer. Teamed with lonely Detective Goodman (Bichir), the duo is assigned to investigate the mysterious death of Lorna Moody (Weaver), whose badly mangled body is discovered on the outskirts of town.
Goodman maintains his distance from the case, especially after clues suggest it may share elements in common with the deaths of the Landers family two years earlier, which he never solved and which slowly drove his partner Wilson (William Sadler) crazy. But after Muldoon encounters Faith Matheson (Lin Shaye), injured and seemingly insane, in the Landers’ home, she becomes determined to get to the bottom of these violent, unexplained deaths.
Muldoon’s investigation uncovers information about Faith and her husband William (Frankie Faison), who moved into the Landers home after she was diagnosed with a terminal disease, which eventually leads Muldoon to the case of Peter (Cho) and Nina Spencer (Gilpin), expecting parents who were killed while coming to terms with challenging news about their unborn child. But in spite of Goodman’s discouragement, Muldoon continues to search for the truth, even as she begins to experience strange visions herself.
As her worries mount that whatever caused these deaths has somehow attached itself to her and her son, Muldoon makes a desperate bid to expose this cycle of violence for what it is before they fall victim to its evil designs.
Directed and co-written by Nicolas Pesce (“The Eyes of My Mother”), “The Grudge” is almost slavishly devoted to the original (or “original”) film, taking place between 2004 and ’06 as a way to keep its continuity synchronized. At the same time, Pesce inexplicably opts to focus on Muldoon as his main character, while simultaneously jumping forward and back in time between the stories of various characters impacted by The Grudge without successfully uniting the morsels of information from each timeline into a cohesive (much less suspenseful) present. The audience learns details — about these couples, these families, as they descend into madness and murder — that none of the characters could know, with only a single takeaway: namely, that The Grudge is an evil force, and it cannot be stopped.
The nonlinear structure keeps Muldoon foregrounded throughout the film, but it accomplishes little else except distract viewers from the mounting list of important questions that never get answered. Meanwhile, Bichir’s Goodman seems to have evaded getting Grudged simply because he never went inside the house where the first murders occur; although that puts him a uniquely intriguing position to witness and react to (and maybe try to stop) this cycle of violence again and again, the character instead appears only to smoke cigarettes, provide useful expository information and then go away.
Pesce directs the whole thing with a handsome austerity that suggests a more thoughtful, reality-based interpretation of this long-running ghost story, and bolsters its seriousness with a cast of considerable acting if not commercial weight. (Gone are the Sarah Michelle Gellar days.) Riseborough wrestles with her role as cop and grieving mother-wife with more energy than the movie probably deserves, while Bichir lends his Sphinx-like stillness to Goodman in ways that are both effective and occasionally maddening.
But Cho and Gilpin are stuck in a domestic drama that gets interrupted by a monster movie, and Weaver’s natural effervescence — put to great use in the past in roles that underscored a character’s menace — makes her seem absolutely daffy as a woman who performs assisted suicides. Meanwhile, Faison gets a wonderful monologue about grief and remembrance of people lost that touches on ideas the rest of the movie can’t keep up with.
Finally, the rules of The Grudge are explained at the beginning, but they don’t make a lot of real sense, and they’re thrown out by the end of the film when new abilities are introduced to create suspense at the expense of common sense. But then again, unless you’re a dedicated fan of this franchise or the Japanese one that inspired it, little of this is likely to fit together in any cohesive or satisfying way.
“The Grudge” 2020 is a prestige drama sidelined by lackluster, incoherent horror, ruining the scares and undercutting the humanity of its characters. Mind you, this is the first theatrical installment of this franchise to receive an “R” rating, so I suppose there’s something appealing about the opportunity to really exploit that. But the scariest thing about Pesce’s film is imagining that someone believed this particular intellectual property had any actual life in it to revive.