With his 2016 directorial debut The Eyes Of My Mother, writer/helmer Nicolas Pesce had critics championing him as a bold new voice in horror for his black-and-white cinematography, dread-entrenched character study, and its bleak tale of love, isolation, and violence. In 2018, he returned to the spotlight of the Sundance Film Festival with Piercing, a horror-thriller about an aspiring killer and the sex worker he’s eying to be his victim. Now, this on-the-rise horror auteur returns to put his mark on a once-hot horror franchise with the star-stuffed, studio offering The Grudge. But horror fans might wish Pesce had let dead things stay dead. This Grudge is a trudge through muck, meandering plot, half-baked performances, and tired tropes that should’ve been retired by the end of the 2000s.“Inspired by” Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 Japanese horror film Ju On, The Grudge is a sequel to the 2004 American remake, which was also titled The Grudge. This film begins in Japan partway through the remake’s tale of vengeful poltergeists. In this franchise, agony is a contagion that spreads from the souls of the brutally killed to the lives of those who come after, poisoning them with madness, mayhem, and murder.
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Spooked by the bad vibes of the haunted Japanese home, American caretaker Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) decides to return to her family in Pennsylvania. But too late! She already carries the plague of that place and so infects her big, beautiful house, her bearded husband, and her long-haired little girl. The plot leaps from Fiona’s arrival home to two years later, where a widowed mother juggles parenting her grieving kid and her job as a police detective. The discovery of a rotten and horrifically injured corpse raises questions that connect to a horrid series of strange murders. Fascinated, Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) sets out to solve the cases.
As she investigates, the film jumps between 2004, where the Landers tragedy spills into the lives of a pair of married realtors (John Cho and Glow’s Betty Gilpin), then to 2005, where married retirees (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison) face a terrible choice, then back to 2006, where Muldoon is trying to put the pieces together. She will. Pesce will not.
This convoluted plot with its non-linear flows feels like both a retread of the remake and a cheap means of upping the body count and scare set pieces. All the jumping back and forth can be a bit confusing. And when half of the characters are introduced as corpses, it’s hard to get too invested in their arcs, no matter how much melodrama about assisted suicide, prenatal complications, single parenting or mourning come into play.
It all feels like filler stuffed between supposedly spooky sequences that lean heavily on ghoulish gore and predictable jump scares. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before: A glimpse of a ghost in the reflection of a bathroom mirror. A glaring specter who vanishes once the lights are switched on. And of course, pale women with long, dark, wet hair obscuring their faces. At least Pesce made them white so that this American snatching of J-horror is less glaringly xenophobic.
All this gives the cast very little to do beyond bargain-basement theatrics. Riseborough, who’s held her own opposite Michael Keaton, Nicolas Cage, and Tom Cruise, seems on steely cruise control as she strides and occasionally squawks through this slog. Gilpin, a two-time Emmy nominee, is chiefly left to rub a fake pregnant belly and sob, while Cho is bridled with concerned eyebrows for 90% of his screen time. Jacki Weaver has two Academy Award nominations, and yet is left to do heavy lifting again and again as an unusual caregiver opposite Shaye who is delivering a creepy old lady schtick that feels beneath her, considering the depth and thrills she’s brought to the Insidious franchise. Demián Bichir sleepwalks through as a haunted police chief, while beloved character actor William Sadler is saddled with cumbersome prosthetic make-up and a comically rushed downward spiral. The only one who gets out unscathed is Faison, whose world-weariness might be over the terrible script, but reads like a man desperate for more than the grim world that surrounds him dare offer.