A New Place, A New Start: The Grudge (2020)
I still haven’t seen The Eyes of My Mother or Piercing, but I’ve heard enough about both that when Nicolas Pesce was picked to helm the new remake of The Grudge, it at least felt like an interesting choice. Then the red band trailer dropped, and the film looked ugly and vicious and mean—which is certainly a take on the material at hand.
Good news for those who liked the trailer: The Grudge 2020 is certainly ugly and vicious and mean. It is to the preceding iterations of the franchise as 2013’s Evil Dead was to the original—except that film at least felt like it was trying to do something new with the material. This one has little to fall back on besides meanness.
The elegant nihilism of the preceding versions—and their predecessors like Ringu/The Ring—is replaced here with something more visceral and grimier. But while those films made the viewer complicit in the spread of their curse, this one just pulls us down in the undertow of its rottenness and leaves us filthy and exhausted—but not haunted.
It’s been a few years since I saw either Takashi Shimizu’s original or the first 2004 American remake—which Shimizu also helmed and which is essentially just the same movie again, with a bigger budget and a (somewhat) whiter cast. But one thing I remember about not just those films but most of the Shimizu pictures that I’ve seen is that one of their best qualities is that they really have no center.
A Shimizu ghost story defies the three-act structure of the Hollywood film. There is a beginning—the act of violence that causes the haunting—though it isn’t always situated at the beginning of the film. Everything else is just collateral damage.
The trauma that starts the story is like a pebble dropped into a pond. It sends out ripples, and when these ripples interact with other lives, new pebbles are dropped, sending out new ripples, and so on. It’s as messy as real life, and gives the best of Shimizu’s movies the unmistakable ring of true crime, even as the residue of the past becomes literally ghostly.
This film tries its hand at the same thing—we have fractured timelines and even a suggestion that time passes differently inside the walls of the house, which is the only possible explanation that I can think of for at least one scene—but it feels artless and jumbled.
Literally before the opening titles, this new Grudge performs both its best and worst trick, establishing itself as a sequel to the other films, rather than a remake. We see the original house and a brief glimpse of Kayako before the film transports the action to Pennsylvania—bringing the curse along with it.
A new set of pebbles dropped into the pond. A new set of lives. And, with them, new ghosts. Which is maybe for the best, if the film wants to establish its own new identity. Unfortunately, the ghosts we get to replace Kayako and Toshio are among the most boring ghosts imaginable. You have literally seen the same little girl ghost in a dozen other movies in the past few years.
The film leans hard into its R rating, with lots of loving shots of putrefying bodies and enough red stuff to have just gone ahead and been another Evil Dead flick. Unfortunately, it seems to mistake “gross” for “scary,” and while there are plenty of cheap (and not-so-cheap) jump scare moments, the ghosts don’t have the personality they need to stand out in a crowded field.
For all the carnage and mean spiritedness of the haunting, this Grudge lacks the emotional weight of its precursors. It feels like a film that is going through the motions—an impression that isn’t helped by littering the picture with Catholic iconography and stunt-casting the likes of Demián Bichir (from The Nun) and Lin Shaye (from just about every other ghost movie of the past decade).
For its first half or so, The Grudge is… okay. The various interlocking stories have only begun to interlock, the film has already tossed out its gnarliest corpses, but the haunting is only starting to ramp up in each timeline.
Then the closest thing the fragmented flick has to a main character (Andrea Riseborough) takes a trip to the obligatory cartoon version of a psych ward from a ‘90s movie to visit an obsessed former detective played by William Sadler (who deserves better) who shot himself in the mouth earlier and now has to act under essentially the same prosthesis that Gary Oldman wore in Hannibal.
It’s a scene so silly—and, given its portrayal of mental illness, borderline offensive—that it doesn’t seem like it could possibly get any sillier until abruptly it does as Sadler’s character digs out his own eyes while shouting that he can still feel the ghosts looking at him.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of the many, many, many times that the movie feels the need to explain itself.
Perhaps the greatest failing of this new version of The Grudge is that it doesn’t have any faith in its audience. It wants to simultaneously throw you in the deep end and hold your hand through everything and, as a result, it’s bad at both.
The jumbled chronologies are simply confusing, and everything still wraps up exactly as you most expect. Worse, the film feels the need to explain its own inner workings not once but over and over again. By the third or fourth time a new character was expositing how the titular grudge works, I wanted to shake the movie—or just walk out of it.
Unfortunately for me, I did neither. But you can.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.