Cinema Dispatch: The Grudge

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The Grudge and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing

Directed by Nicolas Pesce

In the great debate that I ASSUME exists, I was always more of a The Ring guy than a Grudge fellow; mostly because I’ve actually SEEN the Ring movies (at least the Western ones) and haven’t seen any of the Grudge movies (not even the Western ones).  Things might change however as The Ring had its chance to reassert its relevance, but instead completely missed the mark with the awful Rings, and if nothing else this one looks to be trying to build a stronger and more intense atmosphere than the cheap cash in nature of Sadako’s most recent Western adventure.  Is this the movie that will finally get those of us to jump on the Grudge train, or is this the perfect illustration of why we never bothered with it in the first place?  Let’s find out!!

Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) has just arrived in town and is still reeling from the death of her husband, but is managing to eek out a somewhat stable life with her son Burk (John J Hansen) with her new job at the local police station.  Her partner Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir) has some clear baggage from something that Muldoon hasn’t sussed out yet, but when a body shows up with an address to the nearby spooky house, it’s time for her to uncover whatever secrets are being hidden from her.  It turns out that the first owners of the House, The Landers (Tara Westwood, David Lawrence, and Zoe Fish), were all murdered by the wife.  The realtors who were trying to sell the house for them (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) ALSO wound up dead under similarly grim circumstances.  There were other occupants who arrived after them, you can probably guess how they ended up, and now Muldoon is sniffing around the place which will no doubt attract the attention of whatever ghost, curse, or GRUDGE as it were, that is affecting the people who get near this place.  Will Muldoon not only uncover the secret of all these mysterious deaths but also stop the bloodshed once and for all?  What is the entity that is behind all of this, and what is after aside from endless slaughter and mayhem?  Is it just me or did they seriously oversell John Cho’s presence in the trailers?  I’m getting flashbacks to that Godzilla movie that had Bryan Cranston in it for like twenty minutes!

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Sir Barely Appearing In This Movie

If the other Grudge movies are anything like this, then I don’t want to see them because this was absolutely DREADFUL!  It’s just so entirely boring which would be bad enough for a horror film, but then they go the extra mile to make this ugly on top of that.  The deaths in this movie happen on a whim with no involvement of the characters and therefore the ridiculously dark way that many of them leave the film feel like shallow edge-baiting for the audience’s sake instead of the story’s.  Look, I don’t know what anyone’s told these horror filmmakers but I’m actually NOT here to see brutality and murder for the sake of seeing it, and as far as I’m concerned the darker the subject matter the more a film has to EARN it, and there’s not a single death in this movie that this movie earns; not through thematic resonance, genuine suspense or tension, or even creative ambition.  It’s a film that is ultimately going through the motions with a chip on its shoulder; a pretention towards SERIOUS HORROR without understanding what makes movies that are often given that (somewhat erroneous) designation worth praising in the first place.  It may not be as bad as some horror movies I’ve had to sit through in the past, but boy are we off to a BAD start in 2020!

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“Do you have a minute to talk about our Lord and Savior?  DON’T YOU IGNORE ME!!”     “Why won’t this light turn green!?”

On its fundamental nuts and bolts level, this movie is just kind of a mess.  It definitely has a look to it with a down to earth yet still grimy aesthetic and one of the songs towards the end is pretty good, but other than that there’s not much to praise about the movie’s technical chops.  The acting is not what I’d call great as the actors seem woefully restricted in the parts they have to play.  John Cho in particular gets a pretty raw deal as we all know he’s a great actor and can handle material like this, but here he comes off as a total block of wood with no charm, charisma, or believable anguish and fear when things start to get all spooky around him.  The editing is pretty awkward as there are clearly added shots to scenes that had nothing to do with what the actors originally shot in those scenes, and the time skipping mechanic feels like it’s coming to SOME sort of point but it never really does.  It’s a narrative trick that tries to imbue some sort of meaning to the segmented structure of the film that frankly feels about as cohesive as one of those short film collections like V/H/S; not that those are inherently bad, but that’s not what they’re going for here.  Aside from two cops who are tertiary to everything going on in this story, the various people who fell victim to this curse don’t intersect in meaningful ways.  I’m actually pretty sure that the cop who’s been there this whole time doesn’t actually know about John Cho’s story because as far as I can recall he never once mentions it!  It’s its own little bubble inside of a movie that just can’t seem to figure out what it wants to do and so a bunch of smaller things instead hoping that someone will connect the dots for them.

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“The demon girl, in the car, with the flamethrower?”     “Works for me.”

What bothers me so much about this movie is just how pointless it all seems, and that’s something that bothers me about ghost movies in general but is ESPECIALLY true here.  The ghosts are not characters in this movie, they do not have any real motivation that we can identify with, and they can seemingly do anything they want without exerting the tiniest bit of effort or even seem to enjoy doing it all that much.  To me, I just find that really boring and it does nothing to help the characters who I would assume are actually there to have some sort of perceivable arc, though I’d argue that because of the way the ghosts are so indiscriminate and all powerful with their techniques that they simply CAN’T have an arc in this story.  One of the ways to do a ghost story right is to make the ghosts in some way a manifestation of the fears, flaws, and rage of the person being attacked.  Make the possession or the death itself in some way meaningful to the character that it is happening to so that it feels like their role in this is more than just a meat sack to carve up.  That is not at all what happens here as the only goal is shock value and boy does that wear old REALLY quickly.  There’s a couple struggling with a pregnancy which is a ripe subject for some evil entity to exploit someone’s hidden feelings or insecurities, but there’s no indication that the characters themselves are feeling that way and so when THE BAD THING happens to them, it doesn’t resonate in any way other than how despicably low they were willing to go for a movie that isn’t in any way helped by the excess.  The CLOSEST we get to that is the couple where the wife is suffering from dementia, but it’s unclear what the movie is even trying to say about it.  Maybe there is some hidden depths to the way this character is handled and the subject of end of life care, but none of it is coming through when we get to the gratuitous bloodshed in that part of the story!

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The blood symbolizes… our crumbling health care system?

A lot of the faults in this movie’s lore and structure are perfectly exemplified by how The Ring gets around them.  The Grudge as it is depicted in here really doesn’t have any rules or restrictions on what it can do, so there’s no tension or no hope for relief as there’s no restrictions in place.  Supposedly THE GRUDGE occurs when a particularly violent death occurs, but does it count when The Grudge itself causes the death?  The Grudge followed the first victim back to her house in the United States, but why doesn’t it follow other people to their homes, like the case with John Cho or when one person dies at a hospital?  With Sadako the rules are clear and severely limit her powers but it doesn’t take away any of her menace AND gives the characters a degree of agency so you can have HOPE that they will pull through and therefore the tension can exist.  You watch the movie, you’ve got seven days, and there’s a bit of fine print about transferring the curse, but that’s about it!  The rest of the movie is about the characters stuck in that situation and how they react to it as well as investigating Sadako’s origin!  Very straightforward thriller narrative with a very interesting hook.  There’s just nothing nearly as interesting about The Grudge as it’s presented, as its lore is described, and how it conducts its business; no matter how many dead bodies, blood splatters, or creepy ghost faces you throw at the screen.

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“Come on in!  The water’s fine!  There’s bubble bath, and rubber duckies, and… candy I guess.  JUST GET IN HERE!!”

A lot of times when I see a bad movie, the act of writing a review for it leaves me with some degree of catharsis.  For movies like this though I just don’t get a lot of satisfaction from writing out all the reasons that it’s ugly, unwieldy, and ultimately boring.  At least with the horror show that was Cats, there was enough going on that you could piece together an interesting critical viewpoint either form the point of view of big budget musicals, modern day effects run amuck, or even the fundamentals of adaptation.  This movie?  It’s just a bad horror movie made worse by how shallow and grim it wants to go about it.  Not much more to even think about even with its OCCASIONAL dalliance towards greater issues like pregnancy and end of life care, simply because the movie goes too far with its gore and undercuts any good will or positive feelings that can be had about it.  Skip this movie, don’t rent it when it comes out, just put it alongside those copies of Rings that no one bought and maybe we can stop trying to make more of these outside of Japan.  Gore Verbinski got it right ONCE over fifteen years ago and these studios still trying to chase that dream, but this sure as heck isn’t the way to recapture that lightening in a bottle.

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