Review: ‘The Grudge’ (2020), starring Andrea Riseborough

January 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Andrea Riseborough in “The Grudge” (2020) (Photo by Allen Fraser)

“The Grudge” (2020)

Directed by Nicolas Pesce

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United States and briefly in Japan, this reimagining (and third version) of the Japanese horror movie “The Grudge” has a predominantly white cast playing mostly American characters, with some representation of Asian, Latino and African American characters.

Culture Clash: A supernatural ghost story, the main plot involves the conflict between living humans and the evil spirits that cause murder and mayhem. A minor subtext is the movie characters’ varying levels of superstitions and beliefs in the paranormal.

Culture Audience: “The Grudge” will appeal primarily to horror fans who like scary stories to stick to a certain formula and don’t mind if a movie takes long stretches to build suspense.

Andrea Riseborough in “The Grudge” (2020) (Photo by Allen Fraser)

A lot has changed in the horror-movie landscape since Japanese filmmaker Takashi Shimizu wrote and directed his classic 2002 film “Ju-on: The Grudge.” Shimizu directed Hollywood versions that were a remake (2004’s smash hit “The Grudge”) and an inferior sequel (2006’s “The Grudge 2”). While the aforementioned movies took place primarily in Japan, and the first two Hollywood versions were rated PG-13, the 2020 Hollywood version of “The Grudge” (with Nicolas Pesce as writer/director) takes place almost entirely in the United States and is rated R.  If you’re wondering why this movie is rated R instead of PG-13, it’s because the death scenes are bloodier and gorier. (Don’t watch this movie if it’s too disturbing for you to see a child being murdered.) But having more graphically violent killings doesn’t necessarily make a horror movie better or scarier.

Movie audiences now have much higher standards than when the first “Grudge” movies were released. Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele, who is the reigning king of writing and directing horror films, has been offering up biting social commentaries in his movies that go beyond the usual horror tropes of murdered people and good versus evil. “The Grudge” is Pesce’s third feature film, and he has some way to go before he can reach the level of storytelling talent shown by Peele and other horror filmmakers such as Ari Aster and Jennifer Kent, who all began making movies around the same time as Pesce. Peele’s blockbuster success indicates there’s a huge appetite for R-rated, original horror movies that do something a little different than expected. Sam Raimi (director of the first three “Spider-Man” movies, “Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell”) is a producer of all of the Hollywood versions of “The Grudge,” so it’s disappointing that he’s behind a horror movie as boring as this one.

As it stands, the 2020 reimagining of “The Grudge” breaks no new ground whatsoever. The movie takes place from 2004 to 2006, which is how outdated the horror writing seems to be for this film. In between long stretches of the movie’s under-written characters looking morose, shocked or confused, there are predictable and not-very-frightening jump scares. Pesce also has a thing for showing rotting, decaying or burned flesh with flies buzzing around (even in the butcher section of a grocery store), since those images show up numerous times in the movie. The cinematography from Zack Galler is gloomy and foreboding in all the right places, but there’s so much “been there, done that” to the film that almost nothing in this movie feels original.

You don’t have to see the previous “Grudge” movies to know that this is yet another horror film about an evil spirit taking over a home, and the body count starts to increase when the spirit goes on a vengeful murder spree. “The Grudge” is one of many horror film franchises that have used this trope, including “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” “The Ring,” “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”/”Annabelle” movies. If you’ve seen any of these films, you can know what to expect from the 2020 version of “The Grudge.”

Switching the location from Japan to the United States (in the fictional suburb of Cross River, Pennsylvania) does little to make the 2020 version of “The Grudge” more interesting. In fact, it makes the movie even more generic than the previous “Grudge” movies (which took place in Tokyo in the 2004 film and Tokyo and Chicago in the 2006 sequel), because Cross River is indistinguishable from the many other similar, nondescript American suburbs that are the locations of countless other horror films. Pesce should be commended for not following the horror-movie cliché of having a female protagonist who’s a nubile woman in her late teens or 20s with not much adult life experience. However, Andrea Riseborough’s Detective Muldoon character (a police officer who’s in her 30s) is so hollow and underdeveloped that Riseborough’s considerable acting talent is wasted.

At the beginning of the film, it’s 2006, and Muldoon (Pesce didn’t give her or any of the other police officers a first name) is grieving the loss of her husband, who died of cancer three months before. She and her pre-adolescent son move to Cross River to get a fresh start. Immediately upon arriving in Cross River, Muldoon is intrigued by a case from 2004, in which a Cross River woman named Fiona Landers (played by Tara Westwood) murdered her husband Sam (played by David Lawrence Brown) and their underage daughter Melinda (played by Zoe Fish) in their home before committing suicide. In the film’s opening scene, Fiona is seen in Tokyo talking in a panic on the phone, because she’s clearly spooked by something, and she says she can’t wait to come home to the United States. (And there you have the thread between the previous “Grudge” movies and this one.)

It’s also obvious from this script with too many plot holes that Pesce would have benefited from better research of real-life police work. Muldoon’s partner Detective Goodman (played by Demián Bichir) was one of the two detectives who arrived at the Landers crime scene and assigned to investigate the case (remember, this is fairly small city), but he says that he was too scared and superstitious to ever go inside the house where the murder took place. You don’t have to be a cop expert to know that kind of incompetent investigator wouldn’t last long as a homicide detective. Muldoon, however, doesn’t bat an eye when Goodman tells her that he never went inside the crime scene. It’s explained later in the movie why Goodman was intuitive enough to know that if he went in the house, he might be “cursed,” but it’s a shaky explanation that does little to bolster the very thin plot.

Meanwhile, Pesce tries to fill out the story by inserting some unnecessary subplots that are shown as flashbacks to what happened to the people who lived in the house after the murders. A married couple in the film—Peter and Nina Spencer (played by John Cho and Betty Gilpin)—also have a connection to the house. Peter and Nina have a real-estate business together, and they’re the first people to buy and move into the house after the murders. Peter must be the dumbest real-estate agent in Pennsylvania, because he’s unaware of the recent murder-suicide tragedy at the house, which would undoubtedly be one of the first things a real-estate agent would know in buying or selling property.

When he shows up at the house to close the deal, he sees a sad, sick-looking girl with no parents around, and she starts bleeding from the nose, so Peter goes in the house and helps stop her nosebleed. Of course, the viewers already know who this girl and her parents are. Peter goes in the house and calls her father (because we’re supposed to believe that dead people can do real-estate deals to sell the house they were murdered in), gets the father’s voice mail (of course), expresses confusion over why the father missed the appointment, and tells him that his daughter has a nosebleed but that she should be just fine. (Really?)

Peter and Nina (who’s pregnant) have recently found out that their unborn child will likely be born with a crippling disease, and Nina has to decide whether or not to continue with the pregnancy. There seems to be no other reason to put that medical drama in the story other than to make Peter and Nina a more sympathetic and tragic couple, considering what happens to them later in the movie. (This movie’s trailer pretty much gave away that things do not end well for Peter and Nina.)

Another pair of unlucky residents of the house are William and Faith Matheson (played by Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye), a couple who’ve been married for 50 years. Faith has a terminal disease, which has gotten worse after they moved into the house in 2005. A distraught William has consulted with euthanasia specialist Lorna Moody (played by Jacki Weaver) to find out if Lorna can use her services on Faith. When Lorna meets her, Faith is definitely acting crazy, because she says likes to play peekaboo with her imaginary friend Melinda. It’s no surprise that Lorna quickly decides that Faith is mentally unfit to consent to euthanasia. You can easily guess where this subplot goes.

Meanwhile, as Muldoon becomes more obsessed with the Landers murder case, she starts seeing menacing ghosts that look exactly like the dead Landers family. She also finds out that Goodman’s former cop partner Detective Wilson (played by William Sadler), who investigated the case with Goodman, has since been put in in a psychiatric institution. Naturally, she tracks him down and interviews him. And because she already decided to enter the empty house to investigate this closed case on her own, we all know what that means.

One of the biggest complaints that movie fans have about the industry is that there are too many unnecessary remakes and reboots. Unfortunately, the 2020 version of “The Grudge” is an example of a remake that should not have attempted a comeback.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Screen Gems released “The Grudge” in U.S. cinemas on January 3, 2020.