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The Grudge Review: A Terrifying Tale of Wasted Talent

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BY January 3, 2020
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Somewhere in Hollywood, a studio exec turns a wheel in his office. The reboot wheel spins and spins, before finally landing on The Grudge. Or at least, that’s what I assume happened. I can think of no other reason to reboot this story, especially since the original American remake was just okay. The 2004 remake did make a lot of money, though, so there’s that. And not much more, as you’ll find out in this Grudge review.

The Ire This Time

The Grudge review image via Sony Pictures

Set contemporaneously with the 2004 film (for some reason), Nicolas Pesce’s reboot follows Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), a detective who’s just moved to a region of Pennsylvania where they apparently stopped buying cars made after 1985. Recently widowed, she’s partnered with Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir). When they catch an unusual death investigation, it leads Muldoon down a dangerous rabbit hole.

The dead woman, Lorna Moody (Jacki Weaver), had been visiting a couple, Faith (Lin Shaye) and William Matheson (Frankie Faison), in the area. Detective Goodman is immediately apprehensive. He and his former partner, Wilson (William Sadler), had investigated another murder that took place at the Mathesons’ house. Goodman never went inside–and that was just allowed, I guess–but Wilson became obsessed with the case. Even after the Mathesons moved in, he would just stand outside in the yard, seemingly in a trance.

At the same time we’re trailing Muldoon’s storyline, though, we’re also watching other people in flashback. We see what happened to the original owners, the Landers, for example, and their realtor Peter Spencer (John Cho) and his wife, Nina (Betty Gilpin). We also see Lorna’s story and how it intersects with the Mathesons and that house. But their stories all follow the same pattern: they come in contact with the house and things go bad. Lather (with that extra set of fingers), rinse, repeat.

The Grudge in Review

The Grudge Review This again. (image via Sony Pictures)

There are two questions that I answer when I review a movie, and I treated The Grudge no differently. The first question is “Who is this for?” Studios would do well to start with this question, too. They’d avoid some big budget bombs, and I wouldn’t have to wonder why they made this.

Ostensibly, the answer should be obvious: horror fans. However, when they made the 2004 film (and earlier, when Takashi Shimizu made the original Ju-On), Japanese horror (or J-horror, as it’s called) was in vogue. But, and I shouldn’t have to tell you this, that was over 15 years ago. Suffice it to say, horror tastes have changed since then. The hallmarks of J-horror, or at least the J-horror that became mainstream in the United States, are now cliche. The ghostly girls with their long, stringy hair and the white-faced boy ghosts are done. Today’s horror is all over the map, but social issues are a frequent inspiration–these movies want to say something. This movie, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be saying much. Euthanasia is briefly touched on, for instance, but only as a vehicle to get from point a to point b in the plot.

So it’s unlikely that this movie will impress modern horror fans. So who then is it for? I suppose it could find an audience with crime drama fans or art house horror fans, but it’s just not as good as its influences. And it shows them too much. For instance, writer-director Nicolas Pesce told Entertainment Weekly that “The movie is set up a lot more like Seven, that sort of movie.” (He wasn’t kidding about the David Fincher of it all, by the way–when the place and year appeared onscreen, my first thought, as a serious critic, was, “These Mindhunter-ass titles.” They look exactly the same as the ones on Fincher’s show.)

What Is The Grudge Trying to Do?

The Grudge Review image via Sony Pictures

The second question I ask myself is the Ebert question–was this movie successful in doing what it set out to do? The answer to that question is a bit more complicated. I mentioned the Fincher influence already, but another influence would seem to be Pesce’s own debut, the deliberate The Eyes of My Mother. I enjoyed that movie and found myself transfixed by its slow, creeping dread. That pace perfectly fit the uneasy story Pesce was telling.

However, I don’t think that style works here. I was with it for the first hour. I sat patiently waiting, sure that any minute now, it was going to kick into a terrifying gear. And then I almost started nodding off. Because despite the impressive gore, this just isn’t a scary movie. It’s a slow one that turns plodding after too long. It plays like someone tried to make It Follows and then stuffed it with millennial horror tropes.

And that’s too bad, because Pesce has assembled a formidable cast here. Riseborough, as always, is particularly first-rate. And while the intertwined stories don’t really work well together, individually, they’re mostly fine. Cho and Gilpin do the best work with their (rather stale) material, while Faison and Shaye deftly show us a look at another point in a marriage. However, it seems a waste of talent to strand so many gifted character actors in a story this logy. And worse than that, it’s a waste of time.

But somewhere in Hollywood, the reboot wheel has started spinning again.

Will you be seeing The Grudge? Or have you seen it already (and have Strong Opinions™ about it)? Either way, let us know by telling us your review of The Grudge on social media or by leaving a comment below.

featured image via Sony Pictures

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at salome@comicyears.com.

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