Nicolas Pesce’s remake/reboot/rendition of The Grudge is perplexing. Not only because it’s an awful film from an incredibly promising up-and-coming filmmaker with two excellent features behind his belt, but it’s somehow even more painfully dull and incoherent than the regular horror trash we’ve seen churned out in recent years like Countdown and Truth or Dare. The film rarely rises to the level of mediocrity that plagues most modern horror, and the few moments that it does aim for cheap scares or creepy imagery, it’s completely ineffective, eliciting far more laughs than gasps. The direction is borderline absent, and the narrative choices are so fundamentally miscalculated, removing any sense of tension in favor of convoluted non-linear storytelling. Worst of all, even those going in expecting an entertaining good-bad movie will find themselves bored out of their minds, as evidenced by it receiving the first F CinemaScore in years.
Pesce’s first film, 2016’s The Eyes of My Mother, was an atmospheric and deeply unsettling nightmare presented in stark black-and-white. The gruesome and terrifying images were hard to shake, and Pesce smartly leaned into the film’s disturbing tone rather than bogging it down with needless plotting. His follow-up, last year’s Piercing, was almost the opposite, adapting Ryū Murakami’s novel into a pitch-black comedy about a man seeking to satiate his overwhelming desire to murder. That film relied more heavily on the unraveling story and plot twists than a hypnotic atmosphere, though Pesce’s eye for vibrant visuals (the cinematography and set design are superb) and his ability to make the horrific beautiful and alluring still remain perfectly intact. His remarkable talent, especially with such small budgets, made him one of the most intriguing new filmmakers. His first two features highlight his versatility and ambition as he experimented within the horror genre in distinct and new ways, earning him the right to be mentioned in the same breath as the recent wave of “elevated horror” filmmakers reinvigorating the often stagnant genre, at least until now.
Strangely, it seems Pesce had been given free reign with his reboot of The Grudge. He directs from his own script, (rewritten from a previous version by Jeff Buhler, screenwriter of last year’s similarly terrible, though somehow superior Pet Sematary), he was allowed the rare R-rating that sacrifices a wider audience in favor of more ghastly imagery, and he was also given a healthy $10 million budget. Plus, studio horror films are almost guaranteed to turn a profit, especially if they’re tied to an existing property; even the aforementioned recent “original” horror films Truth or Dare and Countdown made absurd profits off smaller budgets. But despite being neutered and more amateurish, they had much higher CinemaScore ratings. So what’s the difference here?
Well, it honestly comes down to the only really interesting thing about the film: its structure. Taken at face value, The Grudge, in any given scene, plays like any other generic supernatural horror film, packing the same jump scares, ridiculous plot holes, horrendous dialogue, and gaps in character logic that we’ve seen countless other times. But Pesce’s non-linear twist on the material is this: the story takes place over 3 separate timelines. Most of the plot follows a police officer (Andrea Riseborough) as her research into a case leads her to a cursed house with a lengthy history. As she slowly digs into her case files, the film arbitrarily cuts between the two previous timelines: one of an elderly couple living in the house, eventually consumed by the spirits residing with them, the other of a real estate agent (John Cho) looking to sell the home, who eventually murders his pregnant wife and child there. This isn’t a spoiler by any means, because it’s revealed in the main plot via exposition very early on, and demonstrates the film’s inherent flaw: any sense of surface-level tension is undercut by the fact that we already know everything that’s going to happen.
Not only do we know exactly where each plot line ends up because it’s explicitly stated before we see it play out (except for Riseborough’s main story, though hers also takes no unexpected turns), but the film is structured so the climaxes for all three narrative threads don’t come until the closing stretch, making the rest of the film an unexciting, grueling slog. It’s an absolute shame, because, even though the original Grudge films weren’t good either, they at least knew how to mimic the pacing of better films. Pesce’s The Grudge isn’t just another derivative remake, it’s an inherently uninteresting and baffling waste of talent. Hopefully it serves as just a brief aberration in an otherwise strong career.