It seems like so long ago when J-horror swept through the world, embodied by the likes of the zeitgeisty Ring franchise and the grubbier, smaller–and somewhat nastier–Ju-On/The Grudge cycle. Both brands have had shelf lives long past their due date, with the latter spawning a total of nine Japanese films and now four American ones. The fourth and hopefully last of these, simply titled The Grudge, slinks onto screens today and only serves as a reminder that the series was more or less played out even when Sarah Michelle Gellar’s name above the title of the 2004 The Grudge meant something.
As you can tell by the deployment of that name again, with no numbers or subtitles following it, The Grudge wants to be both a reboot and a sequel. It is the first of the entire franchise to take place solely in America, although it does briefly connect in a prologue to the Japanese house in which this whole mythology started. At least I think that’s the case, because the film is so confusing in its overall use of multiple timelines that I doubt even Smart Hulk could sort it out.
Director and writer Nicolas Pesce, who ladled on both the atmosphere and the grue in his genuinely unnerving 2016 debut The Eyes of My Mother, appears to aim for the same dense, claustrophobic atmosphere here, but someone in the Screen Gems development or marketing department obviously reminded him that a) this is a Grudge movie, so we need some of the series’ trademark images (a ghostly face underneath the bedsheets, spectral fingers running through someone’s hair in the shower), and b) we need to pull in the college kids and twentysomethings for this one since it’s rated R, which means we need a jump scare every six seconds or so.
The problem is that we’ve seen all the Grudge images before, and the jump scares are so heavily telegraphed that I’m surprised we didn’t get text messages warning that they were coming. Combined with often incomprehensible editing that flip-flops randomly between plots and years, The Grudge ends up being deadly dull–I would say, fully aware of how cheesy it sounds, that the dead in the film have more life than the movie itself, but even the ghosts can’t seem to summon up much energy.
The Grudge of course is based on the idea that when someone dies in the throes of rage, their anger lives on and infects everyone who comes in contact with it. That is how a wife and mother named Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood), working at a very familiar house in Tokyo, manages to bring the curse home with her to the small Pennsylvania town of Cross River. The film’s most striking image, of Fiona standing outside the Tokyo home while a plastic bag next to her on the ground begins to literally breathe, offers some early promise that is soon dashed.
Once the curse/grudge ends up in the Landers household, it’s only a matter of time before tragedy ensues, and the ripple effects eventually encompass the married real estate agents who sell the place (John Cho and Betty Gilpin), the elderly couple who are its next occupants (Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye), and the two cops investigating a decomposed corpse in the woods and its connection to the house (Demian Bichir and Andrea Riseborough), with events flashing back and forth among the four story threads and two timestreams.
Each of these fine actors is given a moment or two to flesh out their thinly drawn characters, with Faison delivering an eloquent speech and Riseborough, ostensibly the film’s lead, getting a bit more to work with as both the widowed mother of a young boy and a detective starting a new job in an unfamiliar town. But even she falls prey to the film’s (or studio’s) need to place people in situations where something will leap out of the darkness at them.
The instances where Pesce gets to infuse a scene here or there with a real sense of grief or foreboding are constantly undercut by the cheap shock tactics he has to fall back on. By the time the multiple plots all tie together at the lackluster finish, the only grudge left holding any real power will be the one you bear against yourself for paying to watch this.
The Grudge is out in theaters now.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye