The first film of 2020 did not set a high bar for quality. Writer and director Nicolas Pesce’s The Grudge (2020) is a reboot of a 2004 film, which was an American re-make of Ju-on (2002). This version of the film makes a strong case that not everything needs a reboot, and that original properties – especially when looking at the increase of original horror films – is the way to go. It also, hopefully, appears to be another case of too much studio interference, as there are so many pieces of this film that appear to be missing, to be questionable choices, or just generic horror tropes. To put it frankly: The Grudge is bad.
This film poorly tries to weave four different stories and time periods together – none of which feels totally complete or connected in any meaningful or purposeful way, outside of a house. There are easter eggs for fans of the source material, as we see Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) exit the iconic house in Japan that is the setting for the original. She is clearly scared and informs the person on the phone she is going back home. Upon arrival, she hugs her husband and daughter…but there is a haunted look in her eyes. Cut to title cards that explain what Ju-on is, and imply quickly that our characters must not ever learn this, or there wouldn’t need to have this text at the beginning to explain it to the audience.
Jumping ahead a bit in time, Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and her son Burke (John J. Hansen) are moving to a new house in a new town to start over after the loss of her husband. We are told, in such an unnaturalistic way, that she’s a cop, and nothing about her behavior implies she has any training at all. Her partner, Goodman (Demián Bichir), brings her to their first case, where a dead woman is found in a car connected to the address of the Lander’s home, where we learn Fiona killed her husband and daughter then herself years before.
Does it feel a bit murky yet? Don’t worry, there are two more stories to fit into this film just to make sure it all comes together like a delicious Gumbo at the end; everyone in the pot! Peter Spencer (John Cho) and his wife Nina (Betty Gilpin) are realtors who are selling the Lander’s house, presumably before anyone knows they’re dead (this part is really unclear, and probably a great example of too many hands in the cookie jar). Also notable – they are expecting, but their unborn child may be born with a rare genetic disorder which is putting a lot of stress on the couple that serves no real function for this movie at all. Peter goes to get the signatures from the Landers, and only finds their daughter Melinda (Zoe Fish) there – but she doesn’t appear to be all there.
Lastly, there are the current owners of the Lander’s home that are initially introduced, when Detective Muldoon follows up on the dead body they found in the car. She is met with a horrid scene and another dead body. However, the movie jumps back to introduce us to Faith Matheson (Lin Shaye) and her husband, William (Frankie Faison), in the middle of planning an assisted suicide for Faith with Dr. Lorna Moody (Jacki Weaver). The fourth of four underdeveloped and seemingly pointless stories that could have potentially made for a cool anthology of shorts, if executed correctly. Instead, there are almost no themes present in this film. Many of the connections between the four stories feel superficial, and the film seems to violate its own rules with the Spencer family.
This movie tries to do too much that at one point…realizing this during my viewing, I turned to my friend, and asked where Muldoon’s son was, as he is absent for a good two-thirds of the film. Yet, Muldoon seems to be the main protagonist, and her grief should be the metaphor for the Grudge that the audience hangs their emotions on. However, that is not the case. Nothing about her performance – or the moments we get with her – do anything to serve the character, or build her up as an empathetic host. Not that we dislike her – but instead, Muldoon is a prop for the scares to happen to. Unfortunately, none of the “scares” are executed in a way to actually get a reaction from the audience. They are all predictable and generic, with almost not tone or atmosphere naturally established.
Part of that is the score by The Newton Brothers, which is all over the place depending on the scene. In earlier parts, the score feels like something out of a melodrama, leaving no question as to what emotion the film wants the audience to be in – though it doesn’t actually put us in that state. Late in the film, the music takes on an electronic metal vibe that stands out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the film and feels so out of place during moments that should be the climax of the film. It’s almost as jarring as the random scenes (or lack of them) that stand out in the film as a whole.
The one positive of the film is that is is just over 90 minutes, so our suffering is short by some standards. The problem is that there are clearly moments missing from this film, or scenes included that go nowhere. Time jumps inexplicably from moment to moment, and the scenes that cause this often give us nothing. The one that stands out the most is that suddenly we are reminded of Burke, as Muldoon has to bring him into the office because the sitter canceled last minute. She is clearly flustered and concerned that her boss will be mad that she has brought her child into work. Goodman – being the aptly named goodman – offers to take him and hang out while she works…not sure why he can do that if he is also at work, but you know. We see him holding two police DVDs, and decides 48 Hours is appropriate for the young boy. Then, we suddenly cut to night time at Muldoon’s house. That’s it. No reference to Goodman and the boy, no connection for him to need that scene. Nothing. Even worse is that later in the film, she calls Goodman for help…he says a few things, and then vanishes from the rest of the movie with no explanation. Clearly, studio interference (I’m looking at you Sony because Slender Man (2018) had a lot of similar editing problems) is the cause of these gaps – or at least that is what I hope because if not, it is one of the most incomprehensible stories assembled and released on the big screen that I have seen.
The Grudge is objectively a bad movie because of the major errors in the story, its construction, and its lack of substance. Subjectively, it is even worse, because what is on the screen is boring and predictable. I guess the most positive thing I can say is I find it unlikely that I will see a worse movie in the theater in 2020. Well, I hope that’s true. The Grudge earns the Avoid like the Plague rating.