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Grudge, The (2020)
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by Jay Seaver

"A canny match between a rising filmmaker and a moribund franchise."
4 stars

As exciting as "Ju-On: The Grudge" was when it first appeared alongside "Ringu" and introduced a particular strand of Japanese horror to the wider world, it is now long past the time when one can reasonably expect anything new from this franchise - heck, creator Takashi Shimizu was getting self-referential with the second Japanese feature back in 2003 because there's just not that much there. Fortunately, up-and-coming director Nicolas Pesce is good enough to make an entry in the series that is, if nothing else, effective. In its better moments, the film manages to do a bit more than just getting the job done.

The film starts at a familiar house in the Tokyo suburbs, where the Saeki family died but the rage behind it became a sort of infection. American visitor Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) is creeped out enough to go home to husband Sam (David Lawrence Brown) and daughter Melinda (Zoe Fish) early, but takes some of that curse with her. Two years later, two detectives - veteran Goodman (DemiƔn Bichir) and newly-transferred Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) - are called to the scene when a corpse is found in a car that drove off the road months ago. She turns out to be Lorna Moody (Jacki Weaver), an assisted-suicide activist who had gone missing after visiting William Matheson (Frankie Fiason) and his terminally-ill wife Faith (Lin Shaye) in the house previously occupied by the Landers family and once listed by married realtors Peter (John Cho) and Nina Spencer (Betty Gilpin). Goodman had worked the Landers case, but some instinct had kept him from actually entering the house and being as thoroughly shaken as his then-partner Wilson (William Sadler) became.

That's a lot, but it's spread out over a couple of years, 2004-2006, making it a sort of spin-off or sequel to Shimizu's American remake as a full reset. Pesce retains important elements of Shimizu's original films but does a good job of adapting them to small-town America, letting the escalating crimes happen unseen because there are empty spaces rather than hidden corners, working with cinematographer Zack Galler to evoke a false warmth rather than the clinical digital video of the original Japanese films. He makes the signature creaking on the soundtrack count, although his ghosts aren't quite such iconic images. He also retains the fractured timeline and does a much better job of making it work than the folks behind the most recent Japanese reboot, in part because there's a reason for it beyond withholding information from the audience or "these movies have always done that"; he's letting the case pull Muldoon in as she discovers it.

There's something to how she gets pulled in beyond morbid curiosity. The burden of loss hangs over almost every character as a counterpart to the mindless, violent rage that the curse represents - Muldoon is recently widowed, Goodman has lost his mother and has yet to take the hospital bed out of his living room, the Spencers have been told their unborn child will very likely have a deadly genetic disease, and William is living with Faith already half-gone. It gives this Grudge a mournful and tragic air that perhaps makes the living more vulnerable to the blind murderous fury of the ghosts. It doesn't always map exactly, but that's often fine - both grief and rage are messy things; perhaps what's most important is that it gets the audience to an especially empathetic place, allowing the well-honed and executed scare scenes to have genuine tension, rather than just going through the motions for a jump.

Those themes lead to a more seasoned cast than many horror movies go for, and it's a choice that pays off in the compulsive, exhausted shading Andrea Riseborough gives to Muldoon's obsession, or the combination of terror and resignation DemiƔn Bichir gives Goodman. Jacki Weaver has an odd contrasting energy as Lorna in her scenes with Frankie Faison, not quite a fool but not nearly ready for what she's gotten herself in for. John Cho and Betty Giplin make characters who could easily be tossed aside feel lived-in and like they're stumbling through an impossible situation. Special recognition to William Sadler, whose restraint at playing a man driven mad means he can call a house "grudged" and somehow make it work.

It's not necessarily surprising that the script starts to fray near the end - Pesce's previous films both reached a point where he didn't quite know what to do with his mad, tortured characters - but neither is it surprising that the movie mostly works anyway. Both his other films were unnerving and "Piercing" already suggested J-horror influence without resorting to simple imitation. It turns out that somewhere between the franchise's played-out familiarity and his art-house ambitions, there's a pretty decent "Grudge" to be made, one better than the first-week-in-January release may suggest.

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originally posted: 01/04/20 07:07:44
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  03-Jan-2020 (R)
  DVD: 24-Mar-2020

  24-Jan-2019 (15)

  09-Jan-2020 (MA)
  DVD: 24-Mar-2020

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