Back in 2002, “J-horror” was already a hot catchphrase in Japan with Hollywood chomping on the bit to buy up all the clever ideas coming from Tokyo filmmakers. Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: the Grudge was already in its third installment when Sony and Sam Raimi came a-calling, hoping to mirror the success of Gore Verbinski’s own J-horror remake The Ring a few years earlier.
It has now been over 15 years since that initial American remake did pretty decently, and filmmaker Nicolas Pesce, who got critical raves for the horrific visuals in his films The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing, has been brought on by Raimi to tackle the premise with a hearty R-rating. It sounds like a good match on paper, although some might go in wondering whether Pesce will stick to what worked before, try to change things up or find that tough balance of remaking a movie that probably never needed to be remade the first time around.
When the movie opens in Tokyo, 2004, you might starts thinking, “Uh oh, we’re back in Japan again?” but this is just a prologue to explain how the vengeful spirits that have caused such mayhem in Japan get to the States. The majority of the film involves a police detective named Muldoon, played by Andrea Riseborough, who starts looking into the case of a murdered family that has haunted her new partner (Demian Bichir) since he began his own investigation.
If you’re familiar with any of the other “Grudge” movies, then you know it involves the spirits of those killed in a rage who decide to exacerbate matters by giving people such horrifying visions they’re forced to kill others and/or themselves. As with previous renditions, time is rather fluid in the storytelling as we cut back and forth across the years, meeting others who fell foul of the demons that have set up camp in the house belonging to the woman we met in that prologue. Others who encounter the spirits include a realtor (John Cho) and his pregnant wife (Betty Gilpin), as well as a woman seemingly suffering from dementia (Lin Shaye) and Lorna Moody, a woman who has been hired to help end this woman’s life (Jacki Weaver).
Much like the previous movies, it’s a lot of characters to keep track of, but we really only get to spend any sort of quality time with Muldoon, a single mother who is already dealing with tons of grief. Riseborough is great in this role and much better at the walking around spaces, exploring weird sounds and occurrences than others. Shaye is also quite good in a role very different from her supernatural investigator in the “Insidious” movies, playing a role that harks back to an older woman from Shimizu’s earlier films.
With the handcuffs of a PG-13 rating removed, Pesce is able to up the ante on the gore for some particularly nasty and grisly scenes, which are certainly effective in making the movie’s central premise even more disturbing. The problem is that there’s a certain factor to the very premise that makes the storytelling feel somewhat rote and predictable. Pesce and his sound FX/music crews do a fine job creating tension, but knowing the general principle behind The Grudge, you are always expecting everyone you meet to either get killed or kill someone else at some point. Some of the scares happen so quickly it doesn’t even give you much time to absorb what’s going on.
It probably isn’t the worst thing to realize fairly early on that maybe this version of The Grudge doesn’t have too much new to offer other than the amped-up gore factor, but it’s a shame, since you can tell that Pesce really wants to screw with the viewer and maybe defy their expectations a little.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much he can do with what he has to work with, so the pairing doesn’t have quite the effect of hiring someone like David F. Sandberg to direct Annabelle: Creation, which has proven itself to be a franchise spin-off that built on what worked so well with J-horror but found a way to make the scares and spirits feel much more personal. I’m not sure there’s anyone in this version of The Grudge that anyone watching will really care too much about, so it just motors along until it’s over.
In other words, The Grudge is a perfectly fine and faithful rendition of the J-horror premise… but what a grim way to start the New Year!