When it was released earlier this month, "The Grudge" was welcomed into exclusive company, a guest list even more exclusive than Best Picture winners: the list of movies to receive an F from CinemaScore.
A marketing firm that measures and reports audience reaction to movies, CinemaScore has slapped a mere 20 films with its lowest score – from complete creative failures ("Disaster Movie," "The Devil Inside") to arthouse auteur projects bravely given a wide release then torn apart by unsuspecting general audiences who were likely sold something very different ("Mother!", "Solaris," "In the Cut").
That’s the caveat with CinemaScore: It’s less a barometer of a movie’s quality and more of a movie’s marketing and how well it delivered what was promised, for better or worse. Horror movies get hit particularly hard by CinemaScore crowds (more than half of the F-Grade Club are horror or were at least sold that way) in part because the genre often traffics in emotional and visceral extremes. But sometimes, it’s just because a movie is really, really crap.
The good news for "The Grudge": That’s not the case here, as there’s nothing egregious awful or particularly bad to inspire F-word laden vitriol, much less an F grade. The bad news? There’s not much to recommend either in this generic and dull horror sequel that turns its franchise’s signature creaking groan into an audience’s yawn.
While technically serving as a side-quel taking place around the same time, the new "Grudge" barely connects to the previous two American theatrical remakes – much less to the 2009 direct-to-video sequel or the original Japanese "Ju-On" series that inspired them all (which, at last check, pit its leading malady against the girl from the original "Ringu"). Instead, the story quickly visits the Japanese haunted house from the original just to briskly pick up the vengeful spirit and move it into an unassuming house in the Pennsylvania suburbs.
New home – but same bad roommate, though, as the "grudge" works its way through the family that accidentally caught the plague-like ghost as well as those unfortunate enough to trip into its orbit. Those doomed souls include Peter and Nina Spencer (John Cho and Betty Gilpin), the two real estate agents in charge of selling the cursed house while starting their own home with a new baby on the way, as well as Lorna Moody (Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver), an assisted suicide worker helping out an elderly man (Frankie Faison) whose wife (Lin Shaye, "Insidious") has started talking to mysterious figures in the house – always a great sign in a horror movie. Then there’s Det. Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, "Birdman"), who’s investigating the house’s strange and brutal history with the reluctant help of her partner (Demian Bichir), who already watched one partner lose his mind to the house’s powers.
For a January horror franchise reboot, it’s a wildly overqualified cast, all putting in respectable work. Despite playing a standard horror flick cliché – the single mom moving to a new town with her child for a new start – Riseborough brings a bruised aura to Muldoon that gives her more depth than the page gives, while Shaye has fun feasting on her mentally-deteriorating, blood-splattered, glorified cameo. Cho and Gilpin, though, make the most of the script’s meatiest story as two soon-to-be parents coming to terms with their unborn baby’s ALD diagnosis, coping with their contradictory emotions, both happy and ugly.
Unfortunately, while there’s a smattering of interesting material in the script from writer-director Nicholas Pesce, the final product is chopped up and rearranged into unsatisfying mince. The original films similarly played with structure, hopping from timeline to timeline, but the result here plays less effective and cleverly connected than convoluted and confusing. It’s easy to get lost and distracted sorting out the basic timeline – though it’s even easier to give up early since it’s already revealed early on where most of its threads end and predictable to see where the others will (even more so than the usual horror film). So "The Grudge" turns into one of those movies where the viewer tediously waits for the movie to catch up with what the audience already knows.
In the meantime, they’ll also tediously wait for something scary to happen – a wound more brutally lethal than anything the curse does in this movie. Almost every set up for a scare or tense sequence ends with a thuddingly empty letdown. Trying to avoid resorting on cheap jump scares is laudable, but Pesce doesn’t devise a better way to pay off his scenes, so each moment deflates rather than crescendos. For a furious murder spirit, the grudge sure spends a lot of time just pestering people for no reason with mild jolts as opposed to actually doing anything – part of the problem with a time-hopping structure that, instead dispersing impactful moments throughout, crams all of the meaningful mayhem to the end with little to hold one’s attention before.
That’s not to say "The Grudge" still doesn’t have lazy jump scares too, which use all the predictable tropes and cheap techniques – from frantic flashing edits to loud shrieks from the speakers – to no impact, each clanging jump coming several beats after the brain’s braced for the shock. The sluggish result bounces without rhythm from half-hearted mystery to half-hearted obvious scare and back again, turning 94 minutes into seemingly forever.
Pesce at least fills the time with some respectable atmosphere; after all, I’m always a sucker for any movie that puts a silent shadow or specter in the corner of a shot and trusts the audience to find it and freak out. But even then, while you can feel the director aiming for a grim sense of omnipresent mournful horror, as if the true unbeatable menace isn’t the grudge but the characters' tar-like grief and trauma, the visuals and tone don't summon any more than off-the-assembly-line chill. Forget finding any fingerprints from Pesce’s black-and-white dread-drenched debut, "Eyes of My Mother": There’s barely even a remnant of the "Grudge" franchise, its once-suffocating atmosphere replaced by standard drab homes and hallways, the wide-eyed spider-haired ghouls recast with bloody-faced screamy zombies that could be pulled from any generic horror film. If not for the occasional croaking moan, you wouldn’t even know it’s a "Grudge" movie – and even the signature sound effect doesn’t quite sound right, its otherworldly gravelly pop sanded down.
In the end, its infamous grade aside, "The Grudge" is just another January horror film with an above-average resume – iconic franchise, star-studded cast, indie-friendly director – but below-average scares, a movie that never quite commits to either tone-heavy, character-rich dread or mainstream roller-coaster horror thrills and therefore does neither well. Its F grade doesn’t stand for failure or fiasco. It stands for merely forgettable – and in a way, that's almost worse.
"The Grudge": *1/2 out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.