“When someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage… a curse is born. The curse gathers in that place of death. Those who encounter it will be consumed by its fury.”
Nicolas Pesce’s The Grudge might seem like your typical January horror release – a remake of an English-language remake of a Japanese horror film from the early 2000’s, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (one of many highly successful “J-Horror” films of the era which spawned six sequels in its native country) – and in many ways, it is. January has long been considered a “dump month” for the big studios, a time of the year when the audiences tend to be smaller and the studios choose to release films which they would have rolled out any other time of year had they performed better at test screenings – including genre films (especially horror) with less recognizable stars. Despite this knowledge, I went into The Grudge feeling cautiously optimistic, as I’ve found I often discover a few diamonds in the rough during the first month of every year and the film’s stellar cast – a murderers’ row of talented (albeit slightly lesser known to the mainstream movie-going public) actors and actresses, including Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Jackie Weaver, William Sadler, and Lin Shaye – as well as the involvement of writer/director Nicolas Pesce had me more than a little intrigued.
The Grudge follows a pair of police detectives, Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and Goodman (Demian Bichir), as they discover a body which may be connected to an old case from Goodman’s past. Goodman urges Muldoon not to investigate the case as his last partner became obsessed with it and lost his mind, but she starts digging against Goodman’s wishes, discovering a series of violent deaths which all seem to converge at a single house in town – 44 Reyburn Drive.
The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion as Muldoon digs deeper-and-deeper into the history of the house, jumping from case-to-case as she pieces the clues together, connecting events beginning in 2004 and going all the way through to 2006. I found the decision to present the story non-linearly to be pretty inspired, with each storyline converging and informing the others as the film goes along in an immensely satisfying way, interweaving the stories of three ill-fated families – The Landers, The Spencers, and The Mathesons. Many of the characters are struggling with death or illness in their lives – whether it’s the death of Detective Muldoon’s late husband from cancer, the passing of Goodman’s mother, The Spencers (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) wrestling with the decision to abort their pregnancy because of the likelihood that their child will be born with a rare genetic disorder, or William and Faith Matheson (Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye)’s struggles with Faith’s declining health – and the jumping between timelines only serves to highlight the differences and similarities between these people even before the house propels each of the families toward their shared, doomed fate.
The film’s greatest asset is Andrea Riseborough as Detective Muldoon, bringing a compelling inner life to a character who could have easily come across as stock, serving as the glue which holds The Grudge together. Riseborough’s Muldoon is simultaneously world-weary – still grieving the recent death of her husband – and driven to fight through her grief and pain in order to uncover the truth behind the seemingly open-and-shut circumstances surrounding the murders at the house on Reyburn Drive, all the while trying to connect with her young son, Burke (John J. Hansen). Actor William Sadler is similarly great (and creepy) in a relatively small part as Goodman’s ex-partner, Detective Wilson, who’s lost his mind (and half of his face) after going too far down the rabbit hole and has found himself in a mental institution after a failed suicide attempt.
The Grudge marks writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s jump from independent horror to mid-budget studio filmmaking after the critical success of his previous debut and sophomore efforts, 2016’s Eyes of My Mother and 2018’s Piercing, respectively. From a technical perspective this film is rock solid, which makes sense considering the precisely distinct look and feel of Pesce’s previous directorial efforts – from impeccable framing and washed-out, gloomy lighting, to oppressive, cluttered interiors and the Newton Brothers’ (The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep) alternately nerve-jangling and somber musical score lending the proceedings a palpable sense of dread. Pesce has proven once again his skill at building frightening atmosphere – even if this film’s straightforward attempts at jump scares and horror set-pieces are often less than successful (and there are many, many attempts throughout).
There’s an art to sustaining a sense of dread over the course of a film, just as there’s an art to crafting an effectively scary sequence. Pesce has more than proven his ability with the former, while the latter remains the stock-and-trade of his contemporaries such as James Wan (The Conjuring) and Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe), both filmmakers who understand the importance of slowly ratcheting up tension and building up to a scare, rather than simply showing the audience a creepy face accompanied by a loud sting on the soundtrack – what is often referred to derogatively as a “jump scare.”
Jump scares aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They can be quite effective when used to subvert and play with audience expectations, but here they frequently come across as lazy and not very well thought out – apart from a handful of sequences, including a set-piece with Muldoon trapped inside the police station’s evidence locker with a vengeful spirit, as well as the film’s final 15 or 20 minutes, which in one sequence borrows a fantastic trick from Italian horror maestro Mario Bava’s 1977 film Shock. On that note, despite being derived from late-90’s/early-2000’s J-Horror, The Grudge mostly plays out like a 1970’s Italian nightmare film in the vein of Bava or Lucio Fulci (The House by the Cemetery) with lots of fog, zombies, and gory, mutilated corpses – it should be said that the practical effects used to portray the victims of the titular curse are first rate, the image of one car crash victim in particular leaving a lasting impression in my mind.
The Grudge is a technically beautiful film with tonnes of atmosphere and dread to spare, as well as solid performances all around from a game cast, more-or-less making up for what it lacks in effective scares and horror set-pieces.
The Grudge: A Curse Is Born
Writing - 5.5/105.5/10
Storyline - 7.5/107.5/10
Acting - 8/108/10
Music - 7/107/10
Production - 8.5/108.5/10
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