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Staring into the Dark: Re-evaluating 2020’s “THE GRUDGE”

Monday, December 20, 2021 | Retrospective


“I should never listen to you. You told me Nicolas Pesce’s THE GRUDGE was not good. I just watched it. You were wrong.”

Filmmaker, musician and former Fangoria editor Chris Alexander wrote that in an Instagram post a while back, and his words threw me for a loop when I read them. Really? The most recent version of THE GRUDGE, the one that had an abysmal 21% rating–at one point it was even lower–on Rotten Tomatoes, was worth watching? Surely he was kidding.

It’s not like I had watched the thing. I was going to (had been quite impressed by the film’s trailer, in fact), but the critics had done the work for me and the verdict was in: The movie was trash. But because I like Chris’ work and his opinions are ones I generally trust, I decided months after its short theatrical run to give the movie a shot. And you know what? He was right, and I was a damn fool.

I’ve watched THE GRUDGE a few times now, and I become more flabbergasted by the reception it received with each viewing.  While certainly not without a few warts, by and large it’s a terribly affecting film that’s packed with scares and deals with incredibly human themes like grief, survivor’s guilt and confronting one’s own mortality.

Then again, maybe that was the underlying problem most critics (especially of the non-genre variety) had with writer/director Pesce’s take on the popular Japanese franchise: At the end of the day, THE GRUDGE is a bleak film to sit through. There is no heroic arc or sense of justice to be felt by the time the credits roll–no real moments of levity at all, really. It’s an unflinching examination of the very real horrors of everyday life, the kind that many of us will have the misfortune of encountering at some time or another during our journey on this spinning rock. It offers no hope of escape from these lurking realities, just as there is no possible way to elude the title curse once it has stained you.

To put it plainly, the movie is a total bummer.

However, here’s the thing: Just because a movie is depressing or makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. And despite some pacing issues, bouts of disjointedness and, yes, a lack of the franchise’s OG baddie Kayako, 2020’s iteration of THE GRUDGE deserves to be seen and talked about.

In 2004, a woman working as a live-in nurse at the infamous Kayako house flees Japan and returns to her family in Pennsylvania. Unknowingly, she brings the estate’s deadly curse with her and, possessed by its vengeful spirit, kills her family and then herself. This causes a grudge to blossom within her home, which leads to anyone setting foot in it receiving a similarly brutal fate.

Fast-forward to 2006, and a string of deaths have since taken place, all of them tied to the now notorious “house at 44 Reyburn Drive.” New-in-town sleuth Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) gets scent of these killings and cannot understand why her partner (Demián Bichir) has no interest in understanding what the connection could be between these killings and the mysterious two-level flat that nobody in her department wants to talk about. Naturally, she starts pulling at whatever threads she can find, and unravels a tapestry of terror that will threaten to consume her and everything she holds dear.

Let’s start on the surface: THE GRUDGE is worth a watch judged on its visual and aural aesthetics alone. It’s a beautiful-looking film–not in the “Hey, look at that gorgeous sunrise” way, but more in the sense of “Damn, the mold on that tuna casserole in the fridge looks weirdly pretty.” That’s because when the movie isn’t expertly using darkness to build tension and dread (you’ll find yourself wondering what could be lurking in the shadows that drape every interior) it’s utilizing a color palette reminiscent of decades-old nicotine-stained wallpaper. The grungy yellows and greens of THE GRUDGE lend a dingy atmosphere to its world that’s legitimately tangible. It’s like seeing a picture of flypaper, then immediately having your hands feel sticky: You know it’s just in your head, but the sensation is still there.

THE GRUDGE is just as effective sonically. Sporting a score by the Newton Brothers (who’ve done wonderful work for such Mike Flanagan bangers as MIDNIGHT MASS, DOCTOR SLEEP and OCULUS), the musical backdrop never feels intrusive and, what’s more, effectively blends in with both the horrific and human sides of the film. Too many fright flicks feature scores that sound as if they were created using a paint-by-numbers approach, as if the composer thought the subject matter warranted their lack of effort to truly get to the heart of the story. Thankfully, this has never been the case with the Newton Brothers, and their music for THE GRUDGE helps add to its memorability.

One apt criticism of THE GRUDGE is how it tends to rely too much on jump scares to frighten viewers. These funhouse tricks can be done artfully (see the filmography of James Wan, for instance), but far too often are a sign that a director isn’t familiar with the horror genre and has no idea how to construct a truly impactful shock moment. Which is why it’s suspect that so many of them appear in this movie. If his directorial debut THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is any indication, Pesce clearly has a solid grasp of how to creatively petrify. Perhaps the peppering in of so many jump scares was a studio choice, a way of “livening up” a film that takes its time getting under your skin.

Either way, THE GRUDGE is much more successful when it takes the slow approach with its attempts to terrify. There are moments in the film where anxiety is built so well that the frights that follow will stick with you long afterward (I will never be able to chop vegetables again without thinking of one particularly gruesome scene). Pesce also understands that you don’t always have to take the “more is better” approach, opting at times to allow the horrors of simple sights like a bathtub (filled to the brim with murky water) linger in your mind. And for the gorehounds in attendance, there are a couple of stomach-churning moments that are bound to wet your whistle.

THE GRUDGE’s story, told in a non-linear fashion and weaving together the lives and demises of four separate parties, is one of its most impressive qualities. Unfortunately, thanks to some unkind editing, it’s also its most divisive. There’s a weird sort of alchemy that goes into successfully blending multiple timelines, and if that balance isn’t struck, you can leave an audience feeling lost. Pesce’s decision to construct his narrative this way was an ambitious one: it helps reinforce how frightening this curse is by showing us the width and breadth of the damage it can do. Though contained to one place, the pain and anguish of its darkness still manages to extend itself past the house’s doors and into the lives of people who haven’t even come into direct contact with it. Its corruption has no borders (be they physical or temporal), and that’s a truly terrifying concept.

But there are also moments, particularly in THE GRUDGE’s second act, where the narrative becomes too disjointed and loses its balance. Interestingly enough, the almost 25 minutes of scenes that were removed from the movie (visible on the Blu-ray release) feature bits of connective tissue that help clarify some of what was lost in THE GRUDGE’s theatrical cut. Perhaps this was studio interference, or maybe it was just the result of attempting to get the movie’s runtime down to a cool 94 minutes. Regardless, the end result is an admirably big swing by Pesce and only somewhat of a connection.

Ultimately, what makes THE GRUDGE worthy of more praise is the performances given by the majority of its impressive ensemble cast. This isn’t just a story about ghosts and curses; it’s about human beings struggling under the weight of the grim circumstances in their lives long before the supernatural enters it. Detective Muldoon’s efforts to mute her grief over the loss of her husband are communicated beautifully by Riseborough, as she dives into the cases surrounding the house on Reyburn Drive in an attempt to distance herself from her pain. Bichir’s Detective Goodman is a man trapped in amber: living in the home of his dead mother (unable to leave or even bring himself to alter the house from the way she had kept it), he keeps its fires warm, as if she might someday return. John Cho and Betty Gilpin are instantly relatable to any parents in the audience as a husband-and-wife real-estate team faced with the gut-wrenching news that their baby may be born with serious health problems. In their relatively short time on screen, the two do an excellent job of getting across both their connection as a couple and the complicated wave of emotions they experience as they decide their course of action after hearing the news.

As strong as these performances are, it’s Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison who truly steal the show. Their turns as Faith and William Matheson, an elderly couple trying to come to terms with the former’s diminishing health after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, is absolutely heartbreaking. Faith is steadfast in her goal to be euthanized before the disease that’s coursing through her can ravage her to the point of being unrecognizable, which puts William (already grieving for someone he technically hasn’t lost yet) in the difficult position of trying to find someone to help take his wife’s life. Shaye and Faison have wonderful chemistry that brings the tenderness and love in their relationship to the forefront, which makes their situation (not to mention their eventual fates) all the more tragic. Of all the characters we meet in the course of THE GRUDGE, they will stay with you the longest.

There are plenty of examples of films that were panned by the public and critics alike upon their release, only to experience a resurgence in popularity years later. Some (like John Carpenter’s THE THING) are now considered cinematic classics, and while THE GRUDGE will never go down as a touchstone of the horror canon, I do think it deserves to be re-evaluated. Too many of us wrote it off because of the aggregated opinions of critics who never gave a shit about our genre to begin with or got swept up in the wave of negativity surrounding the film, and decided to add to the pile-on it was receiving. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been guilty in the past of both these things, and that THE GRUDGE was definitely a victim of that foolishness.

That’s the beauty of movies, though. The ones we cast aside as trash never truly go away. They just lie dormant, waiting for a new audience to see them with fresh eyes and appreciate their efforts to entertain us. That can take some time, many years even. Hopefully in THE GRUDGE’s case, it won’t take that long.