Nicolas Pesce’s update on The Grudge, that early 2000s supernatural Japanese horror series, has the dubious honor of benefitting and suffering from the conditions of its Blu-ray and VOD release at the same time. In the Good News department, the film’s audience may increase now that folks are stuck in their homes and yearning for escapist entertainment. (In the interest of fairness, its box office receipts tell a tale of commercial success, if meager, compared to its predecessors.)
In a major case of Bad News, it’s hard to escape the stress of COVID-19 quarantines by watching a horror picture about an American who brings a lethal, easily transmitted virus back home with her following a stay in a faraway Asian country. Grant that “virus” here translates to “curse,” and that all of us hunkered down on our couches aren’t at risk of dying violently at the hands of the croaking pale ghost serving as the killer du jour in the original Japanese movies and their trashy American remakes. Grant also that the connections between what’s happening in the real world and what happens to characters who make a misstep as casual as touching a doorknob or walking into a stranger’s home are basically unavoidable. The relationship makes The Grudge a tough sell given our current circumstances.
Aesthetics make it a tougher sell still. Visually, The Grudge presents most of its scenes in a sickly yellow, as if Pesce left it in the john to marinate overnight with urinal cakes and unflushed effluvia. Did someone leave a yellow filter over the lens for 90% of the shoot, or did someone think Pesce’s jump scares and explicit gore would be enhanced if given the appearance of being soaked in human waste? As if the lazy episodic storytelling isn’t enough of a party foul, the cinematography and design in The Grudge comprise high crimes in filmmaking. There’s theoretical logic to tweaking the appearance of one’s horror movie in ways that reflect its interior: Images that are ugly on the outside can, if done well, facilitate ugliness within. In a manner of speaking that’s exactly what The Grudge shoots for, but the only thing the Zachary Galler’s cinematography reveals is the film’s rank awfulness.
The film mostly follows Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), new in town, new to her precinct and balancing the hirewire act of single motherhood with her son, Burke (John J. Hansen), as she investigates a fresh spate of grudge-related murders in 2006. The more she learns about the Landers house, where this new grudge began, the more the narrative cuts back to 2004 and 2005. In the former year, Detectives Goodman (Demián Bichir) and Wilson (William Sadler) check into the deaths of the Landers family (Tara Westwood, David Lawrence Brown and Zoe Fish), which leads to Wilson losing his marbles under the curse’s influence. The Landers’ husband and wife real estate agents, the Spencers (John Cho and Betty Gilpin), contract the grudge, too. In the latter year, an assisted suicide consultant (Jacki Weaver) helps an elderly couple (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison), and fill in the blanks as ghostly apparitions make them all go mad and die. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Pesce’s structure hobbles plot and character development alike. Each thread could have functioned as a standalone film about the terrible consequences of presuming safety in a world menaced by invisible dangers. The scariest shot Pesce puts together here isn’t the one where Shaye chops off her fingers or Cho attacks Gilpin with kitchen shears, but the one where Cho walks into a house. It’s the mundane stuff that hits hardest, mostly because when filming the mundane, Pesce abstains from coloring his frames in a muted shade of pee. When the world is recognizable, the world becomes relatable, and in those moments The Grudge gains tension. But those moments of circumspect craftsmanship are few, and besides: Viewers get such brief windows of time with each character that caring about them is impossible. A short about a possessed husband gutting his pregnant wife should hit like an uppercut. Not so much here. We never get to know the Spencers for the amount of time it takes to care.
Three films into his career, Pesce is batting below average: Last year, he dropped his inventive sophomore stunner, Piercing, and demonstrated range and precision not as evident in his hollow, unrepentantly nasty debut The Eyes of My Mother. With The Grudge, the worst proclivities of that movie override the sensibilities of Piercing and combine with studio horror’s “just play the hits” ethos, resulting in one of the year’s most unpleasant releases to date. There’s value in giving this movie a critical reevaluation during this time of national duress, but it won’t come out the other side looking less like a piss-take.
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Writer: Nicolas Pesce
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, John J. Hansen, Tara Westwood, David Lawrence Brown, Zoe Fish
Release Date: March 24, 2020 (Blu-ray and VOD)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.