When The Ring, the American version of the Japanese horror film Ringu, came out in 2002, it was like I had been hit by a truck. To this day, almost 18 years later, I still consider that film to be one of the most terrifying movies I have ever seen. Then in 2004, following the popularity of Japanese horror, The Grudge, the American remake of the J-horror film, Ju-on: The Grudge, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, arrived. This ended up spawning two additional sequels but overall the consensus for the American version felt luke-warm at best. Now, at the start of 2020, we have a new iteration of THE GRUDGE from up-and-coming director Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing). However, though there was excitement about this new film, many wondered if we even needed a new Grudge film.
2020’s THE GRUDGE is leaps and bounds better than what we first received in 2004. Similar to the original Japanese film, this new version centers around a house that’s cursed by a vengeful ghost that dooms those who enter it with a violent death. The film picks up right after the events that took place in the 2004 remake, but instead of taking place in Japan, this time it takes place in America, in a small town called Cross River, after a woman named Fiona (Tara Westwood) returns to the U.S., infected with the Grudge. What follows is a film that plays with numerous timelines all intersecting to explain the occurrences that end up taking place at the house on 44 Reyburn Dr.
The film stars Andrea Riseborough (Mandy) as Muldoon, a detective trying to connect the dots of a previous police investigation involving a family brutally murdered at 44 Reyburn Drive. Actor Demián Bichir (The Nun) plays the character of Goodman, a Detective who is distant and troubled after experiencing a traumatic incident with his former partner. Upon meeting his new partner, Detective Goodman tries to convince Muldoon to stay away from the house and not investigate the occurrences that took place there. Actor John Cho (Searching) plays Peter Spencer and Betty Gilpin (Glow) plays Nina Spencer. They are a married couple who are real estate agents who sold the house on 44 Reyburn Dr. to the Landers family. Lastly, horror legend Lin Shaye (Insidious franchise) plays Faith Matheson, an elderly woman dealing with the devastating effects of dementia and who is currently living in the house on 44 Reyburn Drive.
I think one of the reasons why I loved this re-imagining of THE GRUDGE was because it wasn’t a shot for shot remake. Instead, the film focused on the continuation of the story from the American version and allowed for a new storyline to take shape. Also, I think having the film be rated-R instead of PG-13, like its predecessors, really helped in bringing the more horrific aspects to life. Each of the stores that we encounter from each character is haunting and upsetting, and I don’t mean just in the supernatural sense. Their struggles are all grounded in reality – dementia, issues within a marriage, loss, grief – which makes it harder to watch as each of them deals with their own personal traumas, something that the curse clearly feeds off of.
Those not familiar with Nicolas Pesce’s earlier films may be taken aback by the dismal tone of the movie, but that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. It’s not a happy movie. There is no neatly tied bow to wrap everything up. The suffocating atmosphere of the film is in your face especially in the execution used for moments of true terror. Making a scary movie isn’t necessarily easy, and I really appreciated how Pesce used differing scare tactics to keep the viewers on their toes. As with most horror films, there are the required jump-scares that we are all used to (and boy did they get me); however, what was even more unsettling was the subtle ways in which Pesce created certain scenes to truly get under the viewer’s skin. If you’re wondering what I’m getting at, I don’t want to spoil it but just trust me when I say you’ll want to keep your eyes on the windows throughout the film.
As for the acting, I really liked what everyone brought to the table. Having first seen Andrea Riseborough in the mind-fuck that is Mandy, it was nice to see her play such a differing role. Furthermore, she brought a genuine embodiment to Muldoon making the character feel more grounded in reality. As much as I like Demián Bichir, I felt like his character wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked but that could be because he was more of a secondary player compared to what Riseborough’s character was going through. That said, I absolutely loved John Cho’s performance as Peter Spencer. Known mostly for his comedic chops, it’s been really fascinating to see Cho lean more into the horror/thriller genre. Then there is, of course, Lin Shaye who does NOT disappoint (but really, does she ever?). No matter what the role is, she takes it on entirely, enveloping herself in whatever character she is presented with. You can see it in her execution in the role of Faith, a character that is not only terrifying but one that has the ability to pull on the viewer’s heartstrings with her backstory.
January is usually seen as the month of throwaway films but in the case of THE GRUDGE, I think it’s a great start for the New Year. The film isn’t without its faults, of course, but it more than delivers on scares as well as executing an unsettling and foreboding atmosphere. Furthermore, this film has a lot of heart and deals with real-world issues – they just happen to be embraced by a terrifying and deadly curse. It would have been easy to fall back on what the previous films had already accomplished, but Nicolas Pesce went into this with his own vision, bringing to life a movie that pays homage to the original but also sets itself apart. Horror fans will definitely appreciate all the R-rated aspects that THE GRUDGE has to offer – and there are more than plenty to choose from. The practical effect work is superb and the grittiness of those moments will leave many covering their eyes in disgust and/or audibly gasping. If this is how horror is going to start out in 2020, count me in. THE GRUDGE is now in theaters and for more on the film, check out our interviews with the cast here.