‘The Grudge’ Review: J-Horror Lite, Rebooted From Genre to Generic
Released in 2000 and celebrated by international-horror nerds via videotapes passed around like viruses, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on helped usher in a wave of modern Japanese creepfests that slowly made their way west. The title translated as something like “The Curse”; it would eventually be better known as The Grudge. Along with 1998’s The Ring, the film (and the numerous related series, sequels, quasi-remakes, and brand-name bastardizations) was the most recognizable ambassador for a genre folks dubbed J-Horror. By the time Sam Raimi and producer Roy Lee enlisted Shimizu and noted genre cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto to do the English-language remake in 2004 — in which Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, is stalked by pale-skinned phantoms throughout Tokyo — audiences were primed for what these films brought to the table. To wit: lank-haired angry spirits, eerie children, technophobia, free-floating post-millennial dread, a stark view of humanity, and the occasional slate-gray fingers mysteriously massaging someone’s scalp from inside the back of their head.
That signature image shows up in the new Americanized Grudge reboot/continuation — you can’t keep a good franchise title down, people — along with a lot of other familiar sights and sounds. No previous knowledge of either the original-recipe films or the extra-crispy U.S. versions are necessary. In fact, it may be better if you’re going in completely cold to writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s update; you’re less likely to think of this as a greatest-hits reel. And even then, you may still pick up on a vague, creepiness-by-numbers vibe that seems to permeate the whole project from start to finish. The song more or less remains the same: When someone dies in the grips of a powerful rage, a curse is born. Once someone encounters it, it will never let them go. Symptoms may include madness, hallucinations, chronic digit amputations, amped-volume jump-scares, some occasional neat stylistic touches, and too many grasping hands to count. Only the returns have diminished.
After a woman living in Tokyo circa 2004 stops by an awfully familiar-looking house, she returns to her family in Cross Rivers, Pennsylvania. Mass murder, unsurprisingly, ensues. Several years later, a cop (Andrea Riseborough) who’s transferred to the town comes across a dead body, decomposing in a car in the woods. This eventually leads her to the cold case involving the aforementioned massacre. It also leads her to the house where it happened, much to the dismay of her superior (Demián Bichir). He was the officer who first worked the case way back when; he also saw his partner (William Sadler), who kept prattling on about some imported ghost-infection or another, lose his mind over it. Naturally, she goes by to investigate the scene of the crime. Bad move.
Riseborough’s detective work is only one narrative strand among many, serving as a hub for numerous other tales of rewarmed terror. There’s the original story, which serves as a link to earlier entries and gives us the requisite recurring underage specter (Zoe Fish). There’s the realtors who live next door to them, a married couple played by John Cho and GLOW’s Betty Gilpin who are dealing with a potential problematic childbirth. And there’s a terminally ill woman (contemporary-horror MVP Lin Shaye, in prime crazy-old-grandmother mode) and her husband (The Wire‘s Frankie Faison), who has hired an assisted-death consultant (Jacki Weaver) to help his spouse go gently into the night. Each of them get Grudge-d in various ways, be it via an apparition unexpectedly appearing in the shadows and/or behind them, or having a silent, staring figure suddenly unleash a shriek resembling both a creaky door and two alley cats fucking.
The effect makes it feel like you’re watching one of those scary British portmanteau films from the Seventies, or — more pertinently — the type of vintage Japanese mix-and-match ghost stories that inspired the late-Nineties wave. (See: Kwaidan, Kuroneko, Onibaba, The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond.) It also gives you the sensation of sampling various spooky stories without ever having to commit to any of them, or care about much of anything. You can see where Pesce, the bright, young, warped mind behind the Great American Gothic Horror Movie of the past decade, The Eyes of My Mother (2016), is able to add his own touches to the template; a sense of decaying Americana and seedy clapboard-house clutter keeps oozing its way into the frame. (Big up to the production design of Jean-Andre Carriere, who lent a similar rotting mojo to the landmark 2008 French nightmare Martyrs.) His choice of a final shot, in which stillness is the move, borders on a quiet stroke of genius.
But things keep devolving into a sort of “stock beats” catalog of J-scares that goes from déjà vu to dullness to deadening as The Grudge’s running time marches on. It’s as if the director has been forced to spin an arrow to choose what comes next. Oh, it’s landed on an abundance of flies. Ok, done. Spin. Now it points to someone slowly rising out of a murky tub. Next. Spin. Now let’s have someone jolt themselves into someone else’s face and scream. Spin. To start as a genre resuscitation and end up as simply generic — that’s a far more fatal ending than any curse befalling the characters onscreen.