Runtime: 94 mins
Writer/Director: Nicolas Pesce
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Demian Bichir, Jacki Weaver
By Mique Watson
I was not looking forward to 2020’s “The Grudge”. In the interest of transparency, I will admit I have seen Takashi Shimizu’s original 2002 film, and I utterly hated it. It was a sluggish, overlong piece of work that, I feel, was incapable of overcoming its low-budget roots. There was very little that co-writer (Jeff Buhgler) and director (Nicolas Pesce) brought to my excitement. The only hope to be had had come from the fact that I recall loving Pesce’s previous film, the ultra-dark, black and white exercise in bleak cinematic macabre, “The Eyes of my Mother”.
And for the first 20 or so minutes of this, I was worried. In the year 2004 (the year that the American remake of “The Grudge” was released, also directed by Shimizu–I wish I could say he pulled a Micahel Haneke, but nothing in both the remake or the original deserve that compliment), Fiona, a live-in nurse is seen visibly disturbed by events she had witnessed in a house she has just left. Right as Fiona informs her co-worker she will be returning to America, she comes face-to-face with the iconic ghost of Kayako Saeki.
“The Grudge” is bloody, sure, but there is a certain brand of beautiful cynicism here that has been missing in the horror genre as of late. This is one of the most misanthropic, punishing, despair-laced mainstream films I’ve ever seen.
We are then introduced to newly widowed Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) who, against the wishes of her partner, Detective Goodman (Demian Bichir), begins her own investigation into the connections between a horrific series of murders that have mysterious connections to a house on 44 Reyburn Drive. It just so happens that this house used to be owned by Fiona Landry (Tara Westwood) who had just come back from Tokyo. We are then made privy to the stories of the people who have come into contact with the house–be it people who’ve lived there, or merely visited–and how they’ve ended up dead.
It’s all standard haunted-house spooks…until a scene where someone’s eyes get ripped right out of his face. In that moment I sat up, crossed my legs and inched my way higher onto the theater seat because, my oh my, my interest had been piqued significantly. It was around the film’s midpoint when I shockingly found myself on the verge of defending a January horror release: “The Grudge” is bloody, sure, but there is a certain brand of beautiful cynicism here that has been missing in the horror genre as of late. This is one of the most misanthropic, punishing, despair-laced mainstream films I’ve ever seen; it’s scene after scene of foreboding atmosphere and unlucky people doing their best to manage their respective personal tragedies.
This is a film filled with some nasty images–even grading on the curve of the genre. Gore aside, rarely has a mainstream horror release felt so emotionally brutal.
As each character is introduced, we witness the absence of joy in each of their lives. Life, Pesce seems to be saying, is suffering–suffering is inevitable, and suffering is the tie which binds every character here. This suffering is heightened by a brilliant performance from Andrea Riseborough–she imbues every scene she’s in with enough emotional fortification to make you feel for Muldoon; we feel awful for her and her traumatized son, and we’re angered that a supernatural entity insists on compounding her situation.
This is a film filled with some nasty images–even grading on the curve of the genre. Gore aside, rarely has a mainstream horror release felt so emotionally brutal: take the story of William Matheson (Frankie Faison) for example. He is an elderly man witnessing the cognitive deterioration of his wife of 50 years, Faith (scream queen Lin Shaye!). William invites Lorna Moody, an assisted suicide consultant, to help him end Faith’s life. Lorna witnesses some spine-tingling things in the house and William shares with her how he sees the existence of ghosts as an opportunity for him to spend more time with his wife after she passes away. With William’s sentiment, Pesce introduces us to an existential thought process of a character holding on to hope despite being in a state of constant despair. The irony here is that William sees the haunting of his house not as a threat, but as an opportunity; I can’t remember the last time a horror flick has ever deployed an idea such as this one.
Each scene is awash with constant anxiety and dread–the haunting here is one which mirrors the sadness of each character. Like depression and grief, this haunting is oppressive as it is suffocating. Yes, this film has the title of a mainstream horror remake–Pesce, however, has made something all of his own–with his own brand of nihilistic, harrowing trauma. This is a brutal art house director’s take on a studio project–it’s as mean as its R-rating suggests and as suggestive as its legendary “F” grade on CinemaScore. Hopefully Pesce considers directing a sequel/prequel to 2017’s “The Bye Bye Man”–boy, would I like to see that.