Death isn’t dark enough for the haunted characters that populate the unwieldy “Grudge” franchise. Instead, it’s what happens after that’s worse, when the vengeful (and always very moist) spirits appear and attempt to exact cosmic-level revenge on whoever happens to be around. The fourth American film based on Takashi Shimizu’s wildly popular J-horror films functions as both a reboot of the series and a strange sequel to the first Americanized remake of the franchise. The new entry has all the hallmarks of the first round of remakes, but the pitiful retread only succeeds at proving that the potential for this franchise died long ago.
Like its predecessors, director Nicolas Pesce’s “The Grudge” utilizes cheap tricks both on a narrative scale (a baffling, fragmented timeline is impossible to follow) as well as with tired genre conventions (jump scare after jump scare, occasionally broken up by a weird presence floating in the background). Yet Pesce’s skill with gore — used so masterfully in his black-and-white breakout “The Eyes of My Mother” — and a stacked cast that includes the likes of Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Demián Bichir, Lin Shaye, and Jacki Weaver, hints at what could have been a compelling new horror outing. Brief moments of brilliance, including a riveting performance by Riseborough and a number of gorgeous frames, only shine with momentary appeal before the whole thing slips back into vapidity and convention.
Familiarity with the original American remakes isn’t necessary, but will prove to be more entertaining than a slapdash flashback that attempts to explain the connections: Opening outside a familiar Tokyo house in 2004, “The Grudge” soon zips through three time periods, two countries, and four sets of characters, before landing in 2006 Pennsylvania and what may (or may not, the film is edited to the point of nonsense) serve as our central story.
The convoluted timeline only briefly pays off dramatically, and the rhythms of it remain difficult to track until the very end. It’s a silly way to spice up a familiar enough story — a visitor to a haunted house is infested with some sort of evil spirit, brings it back into her own life, and sees it end in only murder and terror. Unlike the rest of its Americanized brethren, the ostensible lead of this “Grudge” isn’t the one who was initially haunted; instead, it’s picked up second-hand by Riseborough’s flinty Detective Muldoon (who has no first name for no good reason), thanks to a complex case that starts with her and her new partner Goodman (Bichir) finding a long-dead body and working backwards to her last known stop.
Built on such cheesy, exposition-heavy dialogue as a cute kid whimpering “I miss Daddy” (oh, is Daddy dead?) and a no-nonsense cop sighing, “Looks like we got another one” and huffing away (another…spirit-based killing?), “The Grudge” chugs along until eventually reaching the barest of plots. In 2004, a rage-based spirit (you know the one) pushed a woman to kill her family, and then herself. The guy who found their bodies? He murdered his loved ones in gruesome fashion. The next family that moved in suffered their own casualties. Whoever comes next, they’ll find something awful there, too.
And yet it’s not as if Muldoon’s discoveries — made by use of some of the flimsiest law enforcement techniques recently committed to film — aren’t believed, that her fears aren’t founded, that anyone (even her haunted partner and cute kid) doesn’t quite believe she’s found something nefarious in a clearly nefarious house. Instead, Muldoon is up against what every audience member is: terrible plotting, truncated scenes, and enough idiotic jump scares that involve bathrooms that you have to wonder why she’s even bothering to wash her face while she’s alone.
The question isn’t if Muldoon will find answers, but when the jumpy editing and non-linear storytelling will calm down long enough for her (and the film) to capture any sort of forward momentum. The real villain of “The Grudge” isn’t a pissed-off spirit; it’s the choppy editing. Chilling! By the time the final act pads out the film’s mercifully slim 90-minute running time with what amounts to a montage of disgusting deaths and at least one flashback so unnecessary you almost have to wonder if its inclusion was a genuine mistake, both Muldoon and the audience will be praying for the end credits. (Amusingly enough, the end credits are actually quite terrifying.)
For all its wasted opportunities, there are some compelling ideas about the nature of the genre lingering just beneath the surface. “The Grudge” series has always invoked the corrosive power of rage, death, and grief. Pesce and Jeff Buhler’s script makes sure to outfit their film with a coterie of characters already in the grip of such pains, even before the spirits show up. It’s a concept that goes a long way toward selling the series’ biggest, weirdest idea — that even seemingly “normal people” can be attuned to great supernatural unease, emotions so horrific they can’t be suppressed for long. That’s an idea worth considering, but “The Grudge” never digs any deeper, instead opting to resurrect gimmicky frights that never deserved a resurrection.
Screen Gems will release “The Grudge” in theaters on Friday, January 3.