2/10 I adore Takashi Shimizu’s American Grudge movies from the mid-‘00s for their unforgiving pacing and dense array of strong jump scares, so I was excited to see a reboot coming from writer/director Nicolas Pesce – not because I’d seen or enjoyed any of his prior work, just because I implicitly trust the process of promoting indie directors to do studio work despite all the examples of it not working out. I’d somehow gotten into my head the idea of this 2020 Grudge movie as being a passion project by someone who wanted to bring the franchise into a new decade instead of a routine attempt by Sony to milk its properties, one that they’d been trying to push out for almost 10 years by itself without success.
Hoping for a piece of art when I should have been expecting a corporate cast-off, I kind of got both.
Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), who is referred to as a “rookie detective,” moves to a new police department in rural Pennsylvania. Her first case leads her to 44 Reyburn Drive, a house at the intersection of several recent, gruesome deaths. Over three interwoven timelines following Muldoon in 2006, assisted suicide consultant Lorna Moody (Jacki Weaver) in 2005 and real estate agent Peter Spencer (John Cho) in 2004, The Grudge details the spread of a haunting that started in Japan in 2004.
The no. 1 front-facing pervasive problem with The Grudge is the jump scares are bad. This movie is a gory corpse conveyor belt, designed to put as many ghosts covered in as much viscera in front of the audience as possible, and it doesn’t really care how they get there. Jumps are almost always on smash cuts to a suddenly appeared corpse, always accompanied by harsh music stings and often some camera shake, and then the corpses that we’re supposed to be scared of disappear without doing any harm.
There’s an art to jump scares, one that hasn’t been lost as much as it’s been abandoned by the troupe the puts on the Insidious and Conjuring movies. There’s more to it than this, but the best jump scares are done in-shot, or at least with a clear geometry established – like any action scene, the spacial relationships matter here. When a scary monster isn’t around the corner but is instead around a cut, which can come at any moment, there’s no physical tension in the scene. You’re just on a mundane shot, and then the movie grabs you and shakes you. It’s not scary as much as it is physically difficult and mentally discouraging to watch.
It’s one of many ways The Grudge fulfills its promise of bringing the story into 2020, but in a very, very bad way. If you watch the Blumhouse franchises and spin-offs with dedication, for the most part, you can see a pretty steady movement toward more jumps on cuts, villains who are more and more reluctant to actually harm their prey and movies that are more focused as a whole on character design, all of which are reflected in The Grudge remake. It also crops up in the subtheme of Det. Goodman’s (Demián Bichir) Catholic mysticism and the prominent casting of Lin Shayne, whose career is closely tied to the Insidious franchise.
It loses a bit of what was special about the Grudge franchise, but the thing that was really special about it was the really strong filmmaking, and strong filmmaking still does exist every now and again under the Blumhouse umbrella – see Lights Out or Ouija 2: Origin of Evil for examples, though both of those steer away from these conventions I’ve been complaining about.
The Grudge is as garbled and messy as you’d expect from a movie that took almost a decade to get to theaters, but where that long of a process leading to this kind of result normally indicates a “too many cooks” situation, it looks like in The Grudge’s case it was because nobody really cared about the movie. There were only two scripts commissioned – first from Jeff Buhler, who’s still credited as a co-writer, then from Pesce – and an eternity between them. The project was first discussed in 2011, but Buhler wasn’t hired until 2014 and Pesce wasn’t hired until 2017. Production ran May 7 to June 23 2018, and then there were four days of additional photography almost a full year later.
The plot’s sloppiness doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a strained production and multiple scripts, it comes from the final product being split between three timelines and not handling it well. There’s essentially three separate full three-act narratives here, and they all play out roughly in lockstep with each other, each dealing with their exposition, rising action and climaxes in sequence. It feels like the movie is repeating itself through most of the runtime, and since the haunting is introduced early in each of these story threads, each of them spends a lot of time walking through these horrible, grating jump scares.
All of this is easily contrasted, obviously, against the earlier Grudge movies. Instead of having parallel narratives that end up stepping on each other’s emotional beats, you essentially have a series of shorts, all of which lead up to strongly crafted jump scares, often done in-shot and often lethal even to characters we’ve just met. The narratives of the two films are created by continuity details between the shorts.
It’s still easy to see the brutal, avant-garde horror piece this remake might have been in some particularly strong shots and a performance from the always-wonderful Riseborough, but the movie is simply a mess, the type of mess that gets put out to pasture on the first weekend in January with minimal advertising. It opened at no. 5 and has already dropped to fewer than 500 theaters. Good luck seeing it at this point, even if you want to.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.