'The Grudge' Review: A Few Atmospheric Scares Aren't Enough To Salvage This Reboot

The soggy scares of The Grudge are reborn yet again, this time in the hands of Nicolas Pesce, director of the horrifying The Eyes of My Mother. Pesce has a real knack for nasty nightmarish imagery, so handing him this franchise isn't the worst idea in the world. At least on paper. Unfortunately, even though the filmmaker is working with a strong cast while conjuring up some haunting imagery, this Grudge fails to justify itself.

One thing you can say about the new The Grudge: it knows how to get spooky. Pesce brings a keen eye to the proceedings, putting together imagery that looks both stylish and grounded. Cinematographer Zachary Galler employs lots of sickly yellows and cold blues to match the shadowy tableaus Pesce has put together, and the results are often quite stunning.

Pesce also deserves credit for dialing down the jump-scares. There are, in fact, several moments that seem like they should be jump-scares – with creepy stuff suddenly appearing in frame. But Pesce resists the urge to crank up the sound effects, or have the score from The Newton Brothers blare an alarming note. Instead, more often than not, the director allows the moment to speak for itself. Too bad the script – also by Pesce, with a story credit from Jeff Buhler – fails to match all that great atmosphere.

Serving both as a reboot of and a direct sequel to the 2004 American Grudge (a remake of the Japenese film Ju-On: The Grudge), The Grudge picks up with a prologue set right before the events of the 2004 film. We meet an American woman living in Japan who unexpectedly quits her job and flies back to the states, and her welcoming family. Unfortunately, she's brought a curse back with her, like a virus.

Two years later we check-in with Detective Muldoon, played by human chameleon Andrea Riseborough. Muldoon (she never gets a first name) has moved to a new town following the death of her husband, and she's partnered-up with chain-smoking Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir). Muldoon and Goodman immediately end up catching a case that has connections to one from Goodman's past – a case involving a grisly murder at a house in suburban Pennsylvania.

From here, Muldoon launches her own investigation and learns that a whole slew of terrible stuff surrounds that house and the people who have come in contact with it, including a married pair of real estate agents (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) who sold the house in 2004, and an elderly couple (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison) who moved into the house in 2005.

The timelines get muddled rather quickly as Pesce jumps back and forth between storylines. The 2004 Grudge had multiple stories as well, but they unfolded in a (mostly) linear fashion. But mixing up the times and settings, this Grudge grows far too complicated for its own good. At the same time, the script is loaded with painfully simplistic dialogue – people pop-up to repeat stuff we already know over and over again. In one flashback after another, one character after the next will remind us that the house is cursed and anyone who encounters it will be infected. There's even a title card at the start of the film that spells this out. We get it.

Riseborough does the most she can with an underwritten part. Her Detective Muldoon is a maddeningly passive character – for most of the runtime, she simply exists to catch us up on stuff that's already happened in the past. And her new partnership with Goodman doesn't amount to much, especially since Goodman seems weirdly absent. Muldoon is seen constantly at work, alone, while Goodman just hangs out in his house smoking cigs. Isn't he supposed to be working with her? Is he on vacation or something?

This is a film at war with itself. Every time it starts to build up enough dread it kicks its own legs out by throwing out clunky dialogue – "I don't want to alarm you, but I think your house is haunted!" – or adding a scene that has absolutely no weight or purpose. Case in point: during one scene, Muldoon has to bring her son to work because she can't get a sitter. The young boy goes off to watch a movie in the police station breakroom with Goodman. But in the blink of an eye, the entire moment has ended and it's suddenly nighttime and Muldoon is back home. Why include the pointless "bring your child to work" moment at all? Cut it.

There's plenty of grisly stuff here, and a lot of it is done practically, which might entice some gorehounds. But that can only go so far. Pesce's The Eyes of My Mother has ten times less gore than this and still managed to be ten times as scary. Here's hoping he gets back to making something like that, and soon.

/Film rating: 5.5 out of 10