'The Grudge' (2020) Movie Review: A Dreary, Unscary, Gory Slog

Four Star Rating: *
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Betty Gilpin, William Sadler, Frankie Faison
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Screenplay: Nicolas Pesce
Story By: Nicolas Pesce & Jeff Buhler
Source Material: Takashi Shimizu for original screenplay for Ju-On: The Grudge
Producers: Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Taka Ichise
Music by: The Newton Brothers
Cinematographer: Zachary Galler
Editor: Gardner Gould & Ken Blackwell
Production Company: Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films, Ghost House Pictures
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Releasing
Genre: Horror
Rated: 14A (Ontario)/R (United States) - Disturbing violence and bloody images, terror, coarse language
Release Date: January 3, 2020
Run Time: 94 minutes

There is an unfair stigma that movies released in January are a blazing dumpster fires that studios are just trying to forget about as quickly as possible. I won't argue that there hasn't been a fair amount of awful January releases that gave the month this reputation. I'd also point to some delightful surprises over the past several years like Escape Room, The Kid Who Would Be King, Split, Paddington and its even better sequel.

It probably doesn't help that the first movie of the year is almost always a horror picture. A genre that I love but know there are many who despise it or have a misunderstanding about it. I have several people in my life who do not understand my affection for the genre. Discounting the entire genre means one could be missing incredible stories from the past few years that are about so much more than scares like Get Out, The Conjuring, It, The Babadook, A Quiet Place and Hereditary. This is of course ignoring all-time masterpieces like The Exorcist, Psycho, Alien, Thing and Jaws. 

Well, January can still have some pretty bad movies. I feel like the reboot of The Grudge is the type of horror that non-fans think about when dismissing the entire genre. It is a bleak, dreary, gory and heartless slog that is made worse by not even being scary. As someone who liked the original American version, I was left scratching my head as to what creative reason anyone had for returning to this story. It was the first movie all over again but without the unique spine-chilling atmosphere or creepy iconic spirit.

This story is also set in the mid-2000s and seems to be taking place in the same universe as the 2004 American remake, but this time we see the hauntings that are happening in America instead of Japan. The idea is when a horrific murder occurs in a house that vengeful spirits haunt it and then curse whoever enters the house, where it torments that person until they die. A lady who is working in Japan is freaked out by events at a house she is staying at (my guess is she is the person that the Sarah Michelle Gellar characters takes over for in 2004) and decides to move back home to her family, where a horrible tragedy takes place and the curse kicks off American style.

When I say American style, I mean instead of the creepy Japanese ghosts from the 2004 version, we now get a generic creepy little white girl that we've seen in a hundred haunted house movies since The Shining and lots of lumbering undead types with their mouth gaping wide open in near comedic fashion.

Andrea Riseborough is Detective Muldoon who moves to a small Pennsylvania town in 2006, as she is ready to have a fresh start with her young son and starts investigating an odd murder case. Her investigation leads her to learning about several cases linked to a specific house, and then much like the 2004 version, we then get a series of flashbacks learning about various characters' experiences after entering the house. There is a grim inevitability with each of these narratives since they are part of a murder investigation, so we already are aware of their fate. I think, the original was framed in a similar fashion, but it felt much fresher, had a unique style for the time and was full of scary moments.

This time around it is crammed with predictable jump scares. To make up for the lack of frights, there is ample amount of gore that seems designed to shock but is overused and feels desperate. None of the kills are memorable and even the grotesque moments are set up in a generic and standard way. Director Nicolas Pesce seems intent on beating down both the characters and the audience, which sucks out any potential hope. A horror hater may not be aware that hope has been central in many modern horror movies, so maybe that is one thing that makes this movie different but also makes it a nihilistic downer.

Every character that enters the cursed house, also has a tragedy or trauma in their life. So, there was some potential for linking the death curse with lingering sadness and depression, and how a fragile emotional state can set us up for more hardship. But the movie isn't really interested in exploring how we deal with hardship, but rather just uses the tragedies to make things more miserable for the characters before their horrible fates.

There was one interesting scene where one character explains that the reason he doesn't leave the haunted house is because it gives him hope of an afterlife and being connected with his loved ones again. Of course, before doing anything unique with that, we just get another slaughter scene.

Despite the movie being a huge downer and a generic jump-scarefest, actors like Riseborough, John Cho, Jacki Weaver and Lin Shaye really bring some emotional weight and strong performances. They give layers to characters that are paper thin and actually keeps the film watchable even if the script is generic and lifeless. The confidence of Riseborough makes you want to stick with her character, and she gives the movie glimmers of feeling like a thriller with actual layers to uncover. The story betrays her though.

There have been much worse January horror movies over the years. The most annoying part was while watching this, I couldn't comprehend why anyone felt this movie needed to be made other than a chance to cash in on the name. This is coming from producer Sam Raimi who has given us some of the most original horror movies as a director (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell). This time his name is attached to a generic horror flicks that is only memorable for being really depressing and dull.