Absolute trash. Oh wait, that has no context, I’m getting ahead of myself. The Grudge is a sequel-of-a-remake of the Japanese horror film Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). I don’t recall anyone asking for another entry of this one-note exercise in jump scares, but here we are once again. If nothing else, the 2020 version of The Grudge is here to ensure that we have our annual crappy January horror flick, and the filmmakers didn’t even let the champagne on the new year to get warm before gracing us with their aggressive mediocrity.
The film follows detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), a widow who has just moved to a new town with her young son in the year 2006. Early on, we get some not so subtle exposition from the two characters that confirm the father is dead and that Muldoon works for the police. Which is not only lazy but insignificant given how little characterization is given to this family. After the discovery of a decomposed corpse in a car in the woods, Muldoon ends up tracing the background of this tragedy to 44 Reyburn Drive, a house that is believed to be haunted. This also leads her to profile a young couple, real estate agent Peter Spencer (John Cho) and his wife Nina (Betty Gilpin).
However, the events that connect the Spencers to the house in question have already happened in 2004, while Muldoon tries to piece together the story in 2006. The film tells a non-linear story, in which the horrific events at the heart of the plot have all happened in the past. Following in the tradition of previous entries in the franchise, there’s an episodic nature to the story as multiple families are haunted by 44 Reyburn Drive.
It’s obvious why director Nicolas Pesce and longtime series producer Sam Raimi feel this is the appropriate structure to tell their story. But there’s no tension or suspense in breaking up the story into a non-linear format for one clear reason – audiences already know what “The Grudge” is, so we already know where all these flashbacks are headed. 44 Reyburn Drive is a cursed home where evil spirits attempt to possess potential victims and shatter family bonds (these spirits would probably make for excellent divorce lawyers, but that’s another discussion). But if the audience already knows that then you have to be more creative with how you surprise them.
It is the lack of surprises, originality, and how little the story of the titular spirit is progressed that calls into question why this film needed to be made. The previous installments featured better-set pieces and were more successful at infusing their stories with a sense of anxiety or dread. There’s no such success here; in the non-horrific scenes, where characters are just talking, everything comes off as bland and lifeless. Even Cho and Gilpin, whose characters are going through a trying time in their marriage, fail to piece together chemistry and empathy largely due to the insufficient material.
This is true for every family dynamic we come across. Not that they have much time to construct a character as the film is very short on scenes, choosing in favor to litter the movie with a never-ending parade of ineffective scares. After the release of last year’s It: Chapter 2, one of the common criticisms of that film was the lengthy middle section where several nightmare scenes were jammed together in back-to-back-to-back fashion. Here, that’s the entire movie, but with inferior set pieces. When The Grudge isn’t drawing references to the previous installments (a’la the shower scene) it settles for the lowest bar – jump scares obvious set-ups, and telegraphed blocking (Oh, I wonder if a ghost will appear in this one half of the frame that literally nothing is occupying).
It’s lazy and it’s cheap. There’s no attempt to draw upon any type of societal anxiety (I stand by my divorce idea. Make the movie the people deserve, Raimi!), and the characters are so nondescript that it might as well be a silent film. In fact, the most expressive character here is Muldoon’s dog Frank; when the damn dog has the most memorable expression in the film, then clearly we lost our way somewhere.
Despite these criticisms, not every horror film has to be a metaphor for some great angst; I’m all for a fright fest. But The Grudge fails at that too. It’s The Bye Bye Man (2017). It’s Rings (2017). It’s the lowest of the low in the genre, one so bankrupt of passion and innovation that it resembles nothing but a husk. It’s boring and shallow, but also too generic for you to mine any laughs from how bad it is. Its grudge is against the audience, and that’s no justification for a reboot.