Returning two decades after the original Japanese film — and 16 years since the first forgettable American remake — this curse-driven horror franchise doesn't have much life left in it.
In its final frames, the latest version of The Grudge peers menacingly at an ordinary small-town house. Absolutely nothing else happens in this long, lingering shot, other than the film's end credits rolling over the image — but the static picture serves up the movie's biggest scare. That's not a compliment. Even though it ties into an earlier plot point, it's not a spoiler, either. Because everyone knows how franchises work in this time of undying sagas, constant reboots and remakes, and sprawling cinematic universes, you can easily guess why this visual is so unnerving. It's a warning that, even after sitting through this bland, by-the-numbers instalment, The Grudge's curse hasn't ended yet. As long as this flick makes enough money or Hollywood wants to merely keep the series alive, it'll keep hexing audiences in future movies.
As one of J-horror's huge international hits, alongside Ringu, the thought of more movies in this franchise shouldn't instantly make horror fans cringe. But two decades after the first Japanese Ju-On hit screens — and after seven sequels, one Ring crossover and four average-at-best, awful-at-worst American versions all called The Grudge — this series has very little life left in it, based on its latest film at least. Other big horror titles have survived excruciating chapters and returned with a splash, such as Halloween, but it's hard to see why anyone will want to keep watching US-made The Grudge flicks after this painfully dull and derivative effort. Of course, the fact that some curses just won't die, especially when long-haired Japanese spirits are involved, is this supernatural saga's whole premise.
You might be familiar with the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring 2004 version of The Grudge, the first Hollywood iteration — even though it wasn't particularly good. In fact, it was so unmemorable that you might not have bothered with its sequel in 2006, or with the direct-to-video third American movie in 2009. Luckily, 2020's take on The Grudge doesn't need you to recall much. While this new follow-on starts with American nurse Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) in Tokyo, standing outside the abode that sparked all the drama in the 2004 film, it quickly shifts the action to Cross River, Pennsylvania two years later. When detectives Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and Goodman (Demián Bichir) start investigating a strange corpse with links to an old case in an eerie house, it's clear what's happening: moving back to the town, Landers brought the franchise's enraged ghost, Kayako Saeki (Junko Bailey), with her — and so the spirit's reign of vengeance lives on.
While the Ju-On and The Grudge flicks have always traded in creepily effective imagery — Kayako, like Ringu's Sadako, has become a genre icon for a reason — a decent horror movie needs more than just a few scary visuals doled out with bumps and jumps in mind. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce knows that, as seen in his thrillingly unsettling 2016 debut The Eyes of My Mother. And yet, his version of The Grudge offers up little more than repetitive glimpses of gory sights wrapped up in multiple intersecting but still repetitive storylines. In addition to following Muldoon, who is also a grieving widow with a primary school-aged son (John J. Hansen), and a newcomer to town, too, the film flashes back to various different tales, all connected to Landers' Cross River home.
John Cho and GLOW's Betty Gilpin play realtors selling the property, and expecting their first baby. Jacki Weaver pops up as an assisted-suicide consultant, enlisted to help an elderly resident (Frankie Faison) with his terminally ill wife (horror stalwart and Insidious franchise standout Lin Shaye). Thanks to the case that brought the whole mess to the US, Goodman's old partner (William Sadler) also has links to the address. Sadly, no matter how many characters The Grudge throws in its malicious spirit's path, it's always apparent how each segment will turn out. And, no matter how hard this impressive roster of actors tries to breathe life and depth into their slim, vignette-style stories — Riseborough, Bichir and Cho, particularly — the whole thing is about as frightening as watching someone manically shouting the movie's most obvious plot points. Yes, that actually happens.
Pesce does bring an inescapable sense of unease to the film — a bleakness that not only infects his visibly wearied characters' backstories, or their otherworldly encounters, but the feature's grey-tinted vision of life in general. Indeed, with cinematographer Zack Galler (The Act) and production designer Jean-Andre Carriere (J.T. Leroy), he ensures that feeling of grim, unshakeable dread is present in every frame, as well as in the house that sits at centre of all the chaos. When a movie sticks to the most boilerplate of templates and well-worn of tropes otherwise, though, a disquieting look and mood doesn't go very far. That's The Grudge circa 2020's curse, and one this creatively fading franchise will undoubtedly dredge up again whether audiences like it or not. Talks of a sequel are already bubbling, because of course they are, as is chatter about an American crossover with The Ring series.