Don’t try to make sense of the timeline/mythology of The Grudge film franchise. That way madness lies. There have now been 12 feature-length Grudge films, a team-up movie with The Ring, two short films, a video game, and various books and graphic novels. Moreover, the first Japanese Grudge film most people know, 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge, is actually the third film in the franchise. It was preceded by two quickly produced direct-to-video flicks, yet they all tell the same basic story of a Japanese house infected with a unique kind of haunting that not only brings eventual death to all who enter but often does so by following them home and occasionally crossing over entire oceans, continents, and even timelines.
If all of that sounds like too much homework, I have good news: they finally decided to start over. There is a new American reboot that – though described as a spiritual continuation of the franchise – ultimately has nothing to do with the earlier films. So, if you don’t have the free time it would take to catch up on all the prior films you don’t need to. This new Grudge has got you covered.
Small problem: it’s really bad.
Here’s the thing: Opening night audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave The Grudge the ultra-rare and incredibly dreaded “F” rating. RottenTomatoes currently has it rated even lower than Cats. Than Cats!
…is somehow better than this…
That can’t be right. No. I don’t accept that. This Grudge is probably a bit of alright, a harmlessly dumb little horror movie dumped into the same January corridor that previously gave us Underworld: Blood Wars and The Bye-Bye Man. I bet all the detractors just don’t know how to appreci…
Yeah, no, it’s bad. To be fair, I’ve seen far worse. Unlike Cinemascore, I wouldn’t give this an “F,” that is unless the F simply stood for “Forgettable.”
“What do we do when we’re scared?”
That’s what Andrea Riseborough’s police detective character asks her son near the end of the new Grudge reboot, and the answer to the question is that we close our eyes and count to five. When you open them again the thing that scared you will be gone.
In a good screenplay, this is the type of get-out-of-scares-free-card foreshadowing that would have been introduced early in the story so that a character could use it to blink away the scares at the beginning but not at the end. (Think Robbie counting between the thunder and lightning in Poltergeist.) Sadly, that’s not the type of script this Grudge is working with. This bit of maternal scare-be-gone only comes to us in the third act. Oh, well. We’ll make do with what we can get, right?
So, surely, the next thing that happens is mother and son close their eyes, count to five, and open them just in time for a jump scare or perhaps even the start of an action-horror setpiece. Maybe the music slowly builds on the soundtrack during the prolonged five-second pause. Maybe the screen goes completely black, giving us their point of view. Maybe you hold the camera on them and show us the ghosts getting closer to their faces while their eyes are closed, leaving us to wonder what happens next. Maybe, since this is The Grudge, we hear that terrifying cat sound before the ghost boy shows up.
Whatever. The point is you’ve got options, multiple scenarios to try out. The Grudge never does any of that that even though it was right there for the taking. In general, this Grudge doesn’t do anything imaginative completely wasting Lin Shaye, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Jackie Weaver (who, God love her, turns in one of the worst performances of her career), and a wildly overqualified cast.
The plot: an American woman working as a live-in nurse in Japan hastily hops a plane and returns to her Midwestern home, reuniting with her husband and young daughter in the process. However, she unknowingly entered a cursed home while in Japan, and now that curse has followed her to America. Ruh-roh.
Smash cut to several years later. The family from the opening is inexplicably gone. Their house is now occupied by a mentally altered older woman named Faith Matheson (Lin Shaye) and her mysteriously absent husband William (Frankie Faison). When a badly decayed corpse is discovered in a nearby car, Detective Muldoon (Riseborough) enters the house to question the Mathesons. Shit goes south. Fast. Much crazy Lin Shaye action ensues, mildly impressive considering we are talking about a woman who is 76-years-old.
Why did we just watch Lin Shaye cut off her own fingers? What happened to that original family all those years ago? And, come to think of it, back at the beginning when we first saw the house wasn’t there a realty sign in the front yard? I wonder what happened to those real estate agents (Cho and Gilpin).
The rest of the film aims to answer all of that through periodic flashbacks, all of them cued up by Muldoon reading the police file the earlier detectives created for the supposedly haunted house. The more she reads, however, the more she starts seeing some ghosts of her own. (The people in all of the flashbacks see different ghosts, though a long-haired little girl pops up repeatedly.), Luckily for Muldoon, one of the earlier detectives (William Sadler) might have cracked the case, leaving behind all the Ju-On exposition she’ll need. He also happened to go insane in the process. So, ya know, not super encouraging for her chances.
Those who know the earlier Grudge films can take all of that in stride since non-chronological storytelling is kind of this franchise’s jam. Those who don’t, however, will find it incredibly jarring, and even after you adjust you’ll wonder who thought this was a good idea for a script. (Evil Dead legends Rob Tappert and Sam Raimi are among the listed producers.) This new Grudge is basically a movie about a detective reading a police file about a bunch of people who died under mysterious circumstances. The only real tension is waiting to see how and when the people bite it. That completely robs the flashbacks of any real suspense, and despite Riseborough’s game efforts, the main scenes with Muldoon are hardly much better.
It’s all rather boring, actually, light on quality scares and prone to unintentionally funny/nitpicky moments like when a mental patient who just killed her husband is allowed to roam the hospital grounds without restriction and then, shocker, does something violent. If only someone could have seen it coming, but, alas, where were the signs? When you’re noticing stuff like that, the movie’s not working for you.
So, don’t worry, when you watch this Grudge you’ll never have to close your eyes and count to five to avoid the scares. Mostly, you’ll just be counting the seconds until the whole thing is finally over.
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