By Ethan Westerfield (Chicago, IL)
“The Spiritual Prankster”
Nicolas Pesce took a giant swing and missed when he decided to helm another installment in the long-running Grudge series of films. Unfortunately, this rendition of the haunted house tale does very little to mystify and terror audiences as Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 classic, Ju-On: The Grudge did so many years ago. The film does nothing new to reinvent the horror space in any meaningful way, instead, it utilizes the same old tired and overused tropes of the 2010s we have all grown accustomed to; ominous noises, character investigation, music sting, jump scare, rinse and repeat. The Grudge (2020) is a dime a dozen, it is no exception to the rule, it is the rule.
The Grudge (2020) features a handful of characters we are introduced to throughout the entirety of the film’s ninety-minute runtime. We are first presented with the character of Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) who was presumably working in Tokyo at the original home before deciding to flee back to the states out of sheer panic. Despite her eagerness to leave, it means nothing because when she returns home to 44 Rayburn Drive, the curse of Kayako has already infected the family and plagued the home. This inciting event kicks off the haunting that will alter the lives of all who enter the home. However, it is not Fiona who functions as our main protagonist, it is instead Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) that takes up that role. As an audience member, you will recognize that Muldoon will be the primary character because Buhler and Pesce pull out all of the stops in an attempt to make you emotionally care for her and her situation. Nevertheless, we follow her as she and her partner Goodman (Demián Bichir) investigate a car crash from a couple of years ago. It is then revealed to everyone present that this grizzly death has been linked to the sinister house on Rayburn Drive. Goodman’s response to hearing this information ignites the spark that lights Detective Muldoon’s obsession with the history of the home.
From this moment forward the film begins its story by showcasing the tales of multiple families from across the years who have had the displeasure of stepping foot inside the home. We see real estate agents Nina (Betty Gilpin) and Peter Spencer (John Cho) as they deal with the stress of their unborn child, along with long-time married couple, Faith (Lin Shaye) and William Matheson (Frankie Faison) who’s warped reality of the curse leads to a few inexplicable events. The family matters are all uncovered by Muldoon as she sifts through voice recordings and case files in order to uncover what truly occurred to the people connected to 44 Rayburn Drive. Muldoon chooses to investigate the case with such a burning desire, but due to her detachment from the house and the prior cases, we are left wondering why she would even continue. All the while, we go along for the ride with Muldoon as she falls deeper into the rabbit hole unshrouding the mystery. However, with every discovery, Muldoon’s world becomes more consumed with the curse of Kayako. The film’s nonlinearity is a genius reflection of the structure utilized in the 2002 original. Unfortunately, the issue with this scattered nonlinear technique of storytelling is that it sets up scares, frightens the viewers, and immediately jumps to the next scene without letting things breathe; it refuses to force the audience to sit with the traumatic actions being played out in front of them. The film would rather make you jump with cheap scares than establish a meaningful and terrifying mythos that can linger with viewers for years to come.
As with many horror films, characters always insist on showing a lack of competence and reasoning when faced with the circumstances at hand; let me be the first to tell you, The Grudge (2020) is no different. Whether it’s Muldoon or Peter, almost everyone involved finds a way to display a lapse in judgment when the hauntings begin. Why did this person choose to hide there? Because they need a scare. Why did they step foot in that room? Because they need a scare. Why don’t they just leave? Because they need a scare. The Grudge (2020) is littered with dozens of jump scares that are tremendously predictable and uninspired. Yet, the worst sin this film commits is that it just simply is not scary at all. Besides a few low effort jump scares featuring some corpses being flashed on-screen accompanied by a loud musical sting, the film does nothing more than make you groan and roll your eyes.
To make matters even worse, this film has access to one of the most iconic j-horror monsters and completely wastes it. Kayako never comes across as a scary demon hell-bent on vengeance but is instead perceived as nothing more than an unbathed prankster that wanders around aimlessly. At any chance he can get, Pesce always puts Kayako in the frame but never cleverly hides her or alludes to her presence; he just outright shows her. There is no inherent problem with that method, but when it is the only method applied, it becomes stale and feels as though they are simply baby feeding us. It is as if Kayako is nudging us and saying, “Hey look, I’m over there.” The fear of the unknown is a beautiful tool this film seems to have forgotten.
Ultimately, The Grudge (2020) suffers from a multitude of problems stemming from poor writing, terrible character development, a jumbled narrative that goes nowhere and some of the dullest scares the genre has to offer. Despite that, Pesce understands how to competently shoot a film, as majority of his choices when working behind the camera are extremely well thought out and executed. But, throughout the entirety of the film’s runtime, The Grudge (2020) fails to plant any long-lasting seeds of genuine fear. It fails to deliver any meaningful scares, so if you are looking for a night of frights, you would be better served visiting YouTube and typing in the search bar, “scary videos”.