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In Theaters: THE GRUDGE (2020)

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THE GRUDGE 
(US - 2020)

Written and directed by Nicolas Pesce. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Jacki Weaver, Lin Shaye, Betty Gilpin, Frankie Faison, William Sadler, Tara Westwood, Dave Brown, John Hansen, Zoe Fish, Junko Bailey. (R, 94 mins)

Going back over the last decade and change in the grand tradition of the US remake of ONE MISSED CALL, THE DEVIL INSIDE, DEVIL'S DUE, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES, THE FOREST, and THE BYE BYE MAN, THE GRUDGE continues Hollywood's seemingly annual ritual of kicking off the new year by bilking genre fans out of some multiplex gift cards with a horror movie that's forgettable at best and a contemptible piece of shit at worst. A reboot of the US franchise that was itself based on a Japanese franchise (got that?), THE GRUDGE 2020's biggest problem is its utter pointlessness. It's a step up to the major studio big leagues for writer/director Nicolas Pesce, who established some indie horror cred with 2016's THE EYES OF MY MOTHER and 2019's PIERCING. I'm not saying Pesce is an auteur, and I haven't seen PIERCING, but THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, while flawed, had some genuinely unsettling elements that showed Pesce was a promising new talent in the horror genre. But the kind of style and potential that got him the GRUDGE job in the first place is rendered moot when it's all just loud and predictable jolts and a tired story that could've been directed by anyone. GRUDGE 2020 is the kind of bland, by-the-numbers, one-note jump-scare machine that doesn't really even require a talented filmmaker as much as it needs a competent manager, someone handed a checklist and able to work through it without rocking the boat and making sure that all the same shit you've seen in dozens of other horror movies over the last several years is dutifully repeated--and instantly forgotten--yet again.






Counting Sam Raimi among its dozen or so producers, GRUDGE 2020 employs the non-linear structure used by director Takashi Shimizu in the 2004 GRUDGE and its Japanese antecedents in the original JU-ON series which, along with the likes of Hideo Nakata's RINGU films and Takashi Miike's original ONE MISSED CALL, helped establish the iconic "J-Horror" movement of the early 2000s. Set from 2004 to 2006, GRUDGE 2020 is both a reboot and an offshoot, opening in 2004 with American nurse Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) leaving the Japanese house seen in the previous GRUDGEs, where someone was once killed in a fit of uncontrolled rage and their spirit cannot rest, forever haunting those who move into the cursed residence. But the Grudge (Junko Bailey in a brief appearance as the franchise's crawling, croaking spectre, thus sparing Japanese actress and JU-ON and GRUDGE vet Takako Fuji the indignity of embarking on the "Will Play Kayako for Food" phase of her career) also attaches itself to Fiona, following her to her home in the fictional Pennsylvania suburb of Cross River, where she's ultimately driven to murder her husband Sam (Dave Brown) and young daughter Melinda (Zoe Fish). Cut to 2006, as recently-widowed Detective Muldoon (MANDY's Andrea Riseborough, looking ready to crush her audition for the lead in THE CARRIE SNODGRESS STORY) has just transferred to quiet Cross River with her young son Burke (John Hanson), hoping for a change of scenery after losing her husband to cancer three months earlier. She's paired with weary, chain-smoking Detective Goodman (Demian Bichir) and they immediately catch a case where the charred remains of a woman are found in a car in an isolated stretch of woods on the outskirts of town. The dead woman is Lorna Moody (Jacki Weaver), an assisted suicide counselor who had been staying at 44 Rayburn Dr., the home of the Mathesons--William (Frankie Faison) and Faith (Lin Shaye, whose presence in these post-Blumhouse-era horror movies appears to be required by law)--to evaluate the terminally ill Faith's decision to end her life. Goodman wants nothing more to do with the case after hearing the address, so Muldoon goes there alone and finds a delirious Faith with her fingers hacked off and the rotting corpse of William sitting in the living room chair.


Then it cuts back to 2005, when married realtors Peter (John Cho) and Nina Spencer (Betty Gilpin) have the Landers house--at 44 Rayburn Dr--on the market, soon to be purchased by the Mathesons. In all the instances--Peter spending time at the house, Muldoon looking into the death of Lorna Moody, and Goodman's old partner Wilson (William Sadler) investigating the Landers killings in 2004 and ending up in a mental institution after blowing his face off in a failed suicide attempt (and allowing Sadler to wear what appears to be leftover remnants of Gary Oldman's Mason Verger prosthetics from HANNIBAL)--the "grudge" attaches itself to anyone who walks in the house, resulting in recurring instances of flickering lights, garbled phone calls, and out-of-nowhere appearances by little Melinda, who essentially serves as the new creepy, croaking, grudge ghost. Pesce rewrote an earlier draft penned by Jeff Buhler, who scripted last year's underrated THE PRODIGY but is also responsible for writing the recent dismal remakes of PET SEMATARY and JACOB'S LADDER. I'm willing to bet that Buhler is a big fan of Mario Bava's SHOCK, aka BEYOND THE DOOR 2, whose famous hallway jump scare was recreated in THE PRODIGY by director Nicholas McCarthy and is trotted out again here, to much lesser effect thanks to Pesce's bungled staging of it.


It's not that THE GRUDGE 2020 is an overtly terrible movie, though it does start to get pretty dumb near the end when Muldoon inexplicably takes her son--who Pesce leaves offscreen for so long at one point that you might start wondering if he's a Shyamalanian figment of her imagination--with her to 44 Rayburn Dr in the middle of the night and tells him "I want you to be safe!" and to...wait in the car, as if he's really going to listen to her (also, why is everyone driving beater cars from the late '70s and early '80s in a film that's explicitly set from 2004-2006? I don't know what small-town detectives make, but they should be able to get something newer than a primer-colored 1981 Caprice Classic). It's not an offensively bad movie, it's just an unbelievably routine one that does nothing to justify its existence or, at the very least, explain why it's opening on 2400 screens instead of premiering at your nearest Redbox. It not only squanders an overqualified cast (Bichir and Weaver have three Oscar nominations between them), but it takes the time to set up new metaphorical implications for the Grudge and doesn't even bother to explore them. With Muldoon's late husband and the cancer-stricken Faith, along with mention that Goodman's mother recently succumbed to cancer and pregnant Nina learning that her unborn child has the brain disorder ALD, THE GRUDGE 2020 seems poised to make some statement about the effect that terminal illnesses and grief have on caregivers and survivors, but it never does anything to work those ideas into the Grudge mythos, instead falling back on more ominous burps and croaks and jump scares you'll see coming a mile away. So why even bring them up and use them to develop the characters if nothing's going to be done with them? Maybe there was something more here and the studio whittled it down. Who knows? There is one telling moment that could almost be interpreted as a cry for help from Pesce. Faison's William gives a long speech about how all we really have is hope and love and we gotta hold on and be there for each other every day as the sentimental music cue swells and Pesce just abruptly cuts it off and goes to a shot of Riseborough in another location, and it's accompanied by the faint sound of a needle dragging across vinyl. It's a jarring cut that doesn't really have any artistic purpose unless you consider it an in-film auto-critique from Pesce, possibly incredulous that things have gotten so far off course that veteran character actor Frankie Faison is being forced to embody the archaic "Magical Negro" trope in the first goddamn movie of 2020.



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