JU-ON SOME MORE?
The Grudge (15)
Review: David Stephens
And the candidate for Horror’s first dump-it-early-in-theatres-in-the-New-Year-and-hope-for-the-best is… “The Grudge”. This is the first much-delayed reboot of a US remake of a J-Horror classic since… erm, “Rings” in 2017. And we all know what happened with that attempt to recharge a franchise. So does this new “Grudge” revitalise the J-Horror formula any better? Well, on paper, it should be able to. Directed and written by Nicholas Pesce, who made the critically acclaimed movies “The Eyes of My Mother” and “Piercing”, it boasts an impressive cast that includes: horror doyenne Lin Shaye, John Cho (“The Exorcist” TV show), Andrea Riseborough (“Mandy”), and William Sadler. But it went through several rewrites that delayed it, a near lawsuit from Japan, and when it was finally released in the US several weeks ago… a damned good kicking from mainstream critics. But it’s now in UK cinemas, and unlike Japanese spirits, we don’t hold a grudge for long, so we thought we’d check it out…
Set at the same time (2004 – 2006) as the previous US “Grudge” films, the narrative takes the same time-out-of-joint approach and is a sort of anthology, mixing 4 interconnected stories over 4 different periods. So, it’s basically “The Grudge 4” and there’s nothing to mess with chronology in those other films, making it a side-quel rather than a reboot. In fact, the plot moves away from original antagonist Kayako Saeki (mad-eyed-stringy-haired-croaky-ghost-lady) and her son Toshio (yowling-cat-boy). As live-in nurse Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) leaves a veeerrryyyy familiar-looking house in Tokyo and returns home to the USA, she unwittingly brings the “Ju-On” curse with her. Pretty soon the address of 44 Reyburn Drive in Pennsylvania, becomes the central point for all manner of weird events and gruesome deaths over two years….
It's difficult to see how the studios thought that this lacklustre and (to be frank) bloody depressing production would breathe new life into the franchise. Whereas the recent reboot of “Halloween” genuinely brought the scariness back to Michael Myers, this generic effort is just a collection of rehashed jump-scares and obvious set-ups for shocks. The only single thing that is different is an intentional shift away from the J-horror imagery of Kayako creeping about and having more westernised versions of bile-vomiting spectres to menace the main characters. They may be an attempt to give the US franchise its own (slightly nondescript) identity, but they still have the croaking “death-rattle” and aren’t anywhere as near as unnerving as the original “onryō” (google it). But there are worst things than just omitting Kayako from the story. The plot is incredibly depressing and obsessed with death and mortality… and not just from a supernatural perspective. The characters seem to be occupying some purgatorial realm where every single person is just shit-out-of-luck. So, prepare for individuals with terminal diseases, suicidal tendencies, dementia, euthanasia-wishing, problematic pregnancies, and probably the lowest rate of lottery wins in the USA. Just to drive this home, the stores and streets are always empty, and scenes are dominated by flies, rotting meat and putrefied corpses. It might be a style-choice by Pesce, but it makes “Saw” feel like a laff-fest! At least the sometimes downbeat “Haunting of Hill House” was quantified by hope and humanity, but here everybody seems to be waiting to be put out of their misery. Which most of them are.
The worst sin though is that it’s just not scary. The cast (especially Riseborough and Cho) try their best with the material, but they’re defeated by the downbeat tone and seen-it-all-before jump-scares. We’ve seen the corpse-in-the-bath schtick a dozen times before, and even the fingers-in-the-hair (used in the UK poster) has been used in previous films. But the scenes are often framed and a shot in a way that spoils any surprises. A person in a doorway next to a lit window? Look for a shadow. A character standing in a corridor with an out-of-focus door behind them? Wait for it to open. Bloke hiding in a cupboard with a half-screen of darkness next to his head? Well, you can probably guess what’s coming… It’s just so generic that it almost feels ironic in the way that it’s made. The scares are either a corpse springing into view or a fuzzy image of someone moving in the background. It's a shame because Pesce and the cast are capable of so much more, and some minor moments touch upon what-could-have-been. There’s a lovely Giallo-type sequence where a character cuts her throat in silhouette against a stained-glass window for a brief memorable image as blood splashes across it, and the scene where Shaye’s character’s cackles turn into the familiar death-rattle is quite effective. There are clever subliminal constant references to the number “4”, which is likely a nod to Japan’s fear of the number (because it is sometimes pronounced “shi” which means “death”), and not just a “Part 4” in-joke we think. But any moment that promises to bring on something different, is followed by umpteen more which just contain more generic plot twists, dull sequences, and moments of suspense that drag on past their sell-by date. Even the climax is … non-climactic. In its defence, it does look good most of the time and the dark mood is constant and mature, but more than that was needed to raise this franchise from the dead. It is possible that if you’ve never seen a “Grudge” (or “Ju-On”) film before then you may get a kick out of this one and find it hard to shake off. Otherwise, we can’t really find a reason to recommend it. Still, cheer up. Maybe this year’s “Candyman” and “Saw” reboots will hit the mark. Maybe.