Friday, January 03, 2020

The Grudge (2020)

Okay, who expected the latest version of The Grudge to be good? I'm not going to lie, I thought the idea was pointless, especially since the revival attempts in Japan seemed to demonstrate more that the well is dry than any actual point in reviving the franchise (maybe The Final Curse pulled something off, but The Beginning of the End was bad enough that I didn't bother). My eyes went up when I noticed Nicolas Pesce's name on it, but a quick look at my reviews for The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing showed I had at the time been more impressed with the ideas of his movies than what he actually managed.

And yet… It mostly works. He may not quite have the skill to match his most ambitious ideas yet, but he's still got more than enough to crank out a new entry in a series that has a pretty well-defined template, especially since he's clearly fond of the material and doesn't quite see this as just a paycheck or a way to get an in with the studios. There's a non-zero chance that in ten or twenty years, we'll be nodding at the obviousness of his career path - show raw talent in a couple of interesting independent films, hone it on studio work (where you've got a few more resources and, hey, maybe Sam Raimi occasionally gives you a useful pointer or two), emerge as someone who can marry big ideas to impressive execution.

At any rate - for a movie released on one of Sony's less prestigious labels during a period where they usually dump junk, this is an impressively solid film that the audience was mostly into. Go figure.

The Grudge (2020)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2020 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

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 (Demián 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.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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