Director: Nicolas Pesce
Writer: Nicolas Pesce, Jeff Buhler (story), Takashi Shimizu (original screenplay)
Composer: The Newton Brothers
Starring: Tara Westwood, Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Lin Shaye
Genre: Horror, Mystery
The Grudge franchise was a major contributor to the J-Horror trend in the early 2000s. Containing a multitude of Japanese films and spilling over to three American adaptations, the series was typified by its anachronistic narrative structure, creepy hauntings and an unrelenting curse. If it didn’t create a number of horror movie tropes and clichés still seen to this day, then it certainly perpetuated them. By 2009, the straight-to-DVD American film, The Grudge 3, signified the fall of this once-respected franchise. The cyclical presentation of the titular curse that was once thrilling with its sense of fatalism had now become boring. The story had run its course.
So it’s genuinely surprising to see another American Grudge film. As a fan of the franchise, I was genuinely excited to check this one out, though unfortunately Australians had to wait another month for its release compared to the United States. Though while I waited, I did wonder: what else there was to explore? This was a film that ran the risk of re-treading the same ground, but will a new approach save this atrophied franchise?
Violence/Scary Images: This is a horror film that aims to scare its audience with violent imagery, jumpscares and heavy gore. Multiple close ups on blood splatter, pooled blood, and physical injuries (some self inflicted, going as far as amputation). Grossly disfigured, rotten corpses are shown. Drowning, arson, and suicidal gun violence are depicted (the latter occurring off screen). The story heavily revolves around a double-murder suicide. Ghosts frequently appear suddenly, spewing black bile and attacking people.
Language/Crude Humor: God and Jesus are said as exclamations. The f-bomb is dropped once or twice, along with the s-word and a few h*ll.
Drug/Alcohol References: A character is a cigarette smoker—there is mention of quitting, though it’s clear the habit has restarted. One character is seen drinking alcohol while resting at home.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: The movie is a about rampant curse that begins when someone dies in the grip of rage or extreme sorrow; it’s a supernatural force that overwhelms the life of anyone that encounters it. Considering this is a ghost story, there is a brief discussion about the afterlife and what happens once we die.
Other Negative Content: A pregnant couple touch on the possibility of abortion. There is heavy talk concerning assisted suicide/assisted dying practices.
Positive Content: This film contains a fatalistic message, so it’s hard to extract a positive moral from the story. Regardless, the majority of the characters are hard-working figures that try to do the right thing.
It’s difficult to talk about The Grudge (2020) without also discussing the previous films. If you’re new to this franchise, it can be understandably confusing as to where to begin. So first of all, let’s do a history lesson…
If you wish to simply read about the newest film, then scroll down to the next underlined sentence.
Most of the films link back to Japanese director, Takashi Shimizu. He started exploring this narrative back in 1998 with his two short films, Katasumi and 4444444444. He later expanded them to two feature-length movies, Ju-On: The Curse and Ju-On: The Curse 2, both made in 2000 and released to V-Cinema (sort of like Japan’s version of direct-to-video, though it operated like a bastion for creative expression for experimental directors).
Obviously these early films will be difficult to track down. Most people (myself included) start with Takashi Shimizu’s first theatrically released movie, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). Even though it’s technically a sequel to his previous features, this film still sets up the basic premise—due to a rage-induced double-murder suicide (kinda), the site of these violent deaths becomes cursed, engrossing and destroying anyone who enters the haunted house. The story was told through a series of vignettes set over the course of a number of years, detailing the death or mysterious disappearance of the characters that encountered the titular grudge, usually carried out by Kayako’s vengeful spirit (although her dead husband, Takeo, and deceased son, Toshio, can also make an appearance).
The J-Horror (Japanese Horror) trend in cinema was where the old met the new. Taking the folktales and spooky legends traditionally told through Kabuki or Noh theatre, it was combined with modern society’s increasing concerns over our reliance on technology. Pale faced with long, black hair, Kayako’s appearance and backstory is reminiscent of an Onryō in Japanese culture, though she has the ability to haunt her victims through phone calls, security footage and other electronic devices. Japanese audiences already have a traditional understanding of the narrative’s backstory, so the film makes no effort to explain certain elements which are otherwise foreign concepts to overseas viewers.
Whilst I personally haven’t revisited the next sequel in the series, Ju-On: The Grudge 2, in over a decade, I still recall it being the scariest one out of the main films. Made in 2003, it once again told the fate of its hapless victims through interweaving vignettes, though its increasing sense of fatalism and surrealism resulted in a freakishly bonkers ending that no viewer will forget any time soon. The untraditional narrative structure and the “foreignness” of the film’s style were appealing to Western audiences, as it was unlike the ghost stories they were normally accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t long till Hollywood studios clued in that this was the next franchise ripe for an American remake, following in the footsteps of the other J-Horror granddaddy, The Ring.
In a surprising move, Takashi Shimizu was given the opportunity to direct the first two American films, so naturally they stay close to the source material. The setting is still in Japan (the design of the original house was even replicated in the soundstage) and some of the original Japanese cast still feature in the American version. Though Takashi Shimizu did lament that the change in audience meant heavier exposition due to a Western viewer’s lack of knowledge regarding Japanese culture. It’s genuinely difficult to pick which version is better; the Japanese films can be convoluted at times, although they pull off the creepy vibe better, whilst the American movies are more streamlined and neater with their storytelling.
Essentially The Grudge (2004) and the Japanese film, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) tell the same story, though they diverge in the final act. The parts of the narrative in the Japanese version that aren’t covered in the 2004 film, are later adapted in 2006’s The Grudge 2, which is the second American movie in the franchise. The events in Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2003) aren’t really remade in any of the American incarnations.
Like a good little sequel, 2006’s The Grudge 2 develops more of Kayako’s backstory whilst also cementing the franchise’s horror traits. Those are: Kayako’s vocal fry, Tashio’s screams sounding like his deceased cat, Kayako’s creepy-crawly movement, supernatural black hair, lights going out signifying the grudge getting closer, an unexpected hand in the hair, and the curse’s otherwise unrelenting pursuit of its victim. For the most part, these four films (Ju-On: The Grudge, Ju-On: The Grudge 2, 2004’s The Grudge, The Grudge 2) are still fairly strong even today.
The third American film, The Grudge 3, is where things get interesting from a film criticism perspective. A straight-to-DVD sequel and the first film without Takashi Shimizu’s involvement, it’s clear this move struggles to find its own identity. It rightfully continues to explore the idea that the curse can infect entirely new areas, creating different methods of transmission. Yet it’s still hopelessly bound by its own tropes. There’s only so many times Kayako can crawl across the floor and Tashio can meow before it becomes funny instead of scary. The unrelenting cyclical nature of the curse, which was once the franchise’s unique strength and trait, now became the film’s downfall as it had all been done before. After The Grudge 3 the franchise began to atrophy, with all subsequent Japanese films (and a Wii game) never reigniting the same level of horror as its predecessors.
So where does the 2020 film come into all of this?
Many have stated that this is a reboot, though that is technically untrue. It’s a sidequel. The story starts off in 2004 (same year as the first American film, The Grudge) outside the infamous haunted house in Tokyo that is featured in all the previous major films in the franchise. While it’s unclear precisely where in the timeline this sits in regards to whom enters the house when, it’s obvious 2020’s The Grudge still doesn’t want to completely detach itself from its Japanese origins. From there it adopts the rules and mythology developed in The Grudge 3, where if the grudge’s cycle is replicated in a new house then a new curse is born. While the plot occurs concurrently to the events in The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006), there are no direct references to the other characters of these films, aside from the original cursed Japanese family.
I certainly don’t envy the director and screenwriter, Nicolas Pesce. This is a hard franchise to fix. It popularized a number of horror tropes, which then inspired the next generation of films in the genre, including but not limited to the found-footage Paranormal Activity series, and The Conjuring universe—both franchises which are also now in their final death throes, inspiring yet another generation in the process. The Grudge’s time has come and gone; it made its contribution to cinema, and others have already adapted and evolved its legacy. So how does someone pay homage to a set of films that are now littered with clichés? It’s the equivalent of watching a John Woo movie and rolling one’s eyes every time a dove flies in slow motion, not realizing that he was the one to start the trend.
It seems that Pesce has learnt from the mistakes of The Grudge 3. Like with any movie monster that suffers from overexposure, Kayako simply isn’t scary any more. All sense of mystery has been lost. So as sad as it is to say goodbye to Kayako and her twisted, ghostly family due to them being so iconic, it is a wise choice from a narrative standpoint to not have her as the main focus. Instead Kayako’s curse has been transferred to the Landers family, with their double-murder suicide sparking a new grudge.
2020’s The Grudge is the most “American” out of all the films thus far, not only because of where it’s set and the lack of returning cast, but also in how it’s filmed. This movie is easily the goriest in the main franchise, swapping out creepiness for jump scares. With their mud-dusted skin and oozing black blood, the look of the ghosts are more reminiscent of American horror films, like The Evil Dead. The scenes are well lit and the movie is beautifully shot, certainly making it one of the more visually stunning instalments to this never-ending franchise.
The cast is stacked with talent, including twice Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver, and recognizably experienced actors such as John Cho, Demián Bichir, Andrea Riseborough, William Sadler, and Lin Shaye. They all do the best they can to bring their shallowly crafted characters to life. Since this film was released in the United States early in 2020, many viewers were quick to declare this January flick as a bad horror movie, predicting it will be a contender for the worst in the year. Firstly, it’s not—I’m willing to bet that Netflix’s Deadcon will hold that honor for many months to come. Secondly, it’s not as though they didn’t try. They gave this film the best shot they could. The main grief circling this movie is with the unavoidable makeup of the franchise itself.
The Grudge (2020) is one of the first films in the franchise to provide their characters with decent backstories. One character is dealing with the loss of loved one to cancer, another is questioning the future of their unborn child, then there’s one person who wishes to remain detached due to past traumatic events, while the most unique perspective is provided by a husband exploring the assisted dying process for his mentally unwell wife. Yet none of that ultimately matters. The franchise’s almost iconic vignette style cripples any solid growth the cast may experience, truncating longer character journeys as the runtime is spread too thinly across its multiple timelines. This was the main criticism Ju-On: The Grudge received, and the problem still persists to this day.
Kayako’s curse is the most unforgiving entity in the entire horror genre; it’s a darkness that merely consumes and destroys everything it encounters. You literally have better chances facing up against Final Destination’s version of Death, outwitting the creature in It Follows, bypassing the effects of Sadako’s cursed video tape from The Ring, or utilizing Brightburn’s Brandon Bryer’s kryptonite despite the heavily unmatched odds of survival. So if you find yourself in a Cabin in the Woods scenario picking between movie monsters, remember: never, ever, ever, ever, ever choose the grudge! It’s by far the worst one.
As terrifyingly strong as this curse is, Scriptwriting 101 dictates that it’s always the better narrative choice to have the villain related in some way to the hero, and sadly Kayako’s grudge is as impersonal as it gets. Doesn’t matter how varied or detailed the victims become, the curse is a constant force that eventually treats everyone the same, making the characters’ arcs seem rather disconnected to the hauntings themselves, unlike such masterpieces like The Babadook or The Orphanage where the two events are inseparably married. The Grudge desperately wants to gut-punch its audience, but it never develops the thematic weight to deliver a hit worthy of any strong emotional reaction. Instead it’s a franchise filled with a revolving door of realtors, social workers and police officers, with all of them simply going about their jobs until their fatal mistake catches up to them.
What’s disturbing is that the heart of the piece is hollow as well. The police frequently ponder over the motive behind the Landers’ family tragedy, yet there is no real mystery to be solved. The audience understands the Landers were merely echoing the events that occurred in Japan, so we’re stuck following an imitation; a shadow of an inciting incident that originally had some depth to explore but none anymore. In turn, nothing in the film feels genuine—try as they might, portraying the Landers as something evil feels off, given that their state of affairs differs little from the fate of their victims.
The Grudge (2020) is like an old car that has been outfitted with new upholstery and given a lovely paint job, but it ultimately still drives the same. A lot more could be replaced, particularly the engine itself. But then it becomes like the philosophical saying where one wonders how many pieces can be removed and updated before it simply no longer resembles the original product and becomes and entirely new entity instead?
Kayako and her twisted family have already been cut, along with her mannerisms and her certain style of haunting. Once again, this was a smart decision, as she was no longer working as a scary character. This leaves the anachronistic narrative and the unrelenting curse as the only remaining defining attributes of the franchise. Yet these no longer work either; it seems that a Grudge film is merely a typical ghost story but told in the most convoluted way possible.
The biggest problem is that the Conjuring Universe has already carved out a massive territory in the haunted house sub-genre. If the Grudge franchise were to remove the anachronistic approach to its narrative, then it loses that little bit of extra flavour to an otherwise bland ghost story. Likewise, if it waters down the nature of the curse, then how is it different to an entire multitude of other films, including its rival, The Ring? The Grudge is renown for its severity. It could possibly change up its cast, where instead of featuring passive protagonists, it starts including more active ones. Though the most logical path would be to have a group of paranormal experts inspect the house, but once again the franchise will be stepping into the Conjuring Universe’s well-guarded territory, even if it explores its Shinto roots. There is very little wiggle room left for this intellectual property.
Still, one more film could be squeezed out of the Grudge’s dying premise. If it altered the tone and upped its sense of fatalism to mimic that of Kairo (Pulse), or dared to do a deep dive on the subject of domestic violence—something which underpins the entire story which oddly hasn’t been fleshed out as of yet—then maybe this franchise might find its unique voice again. Alternatively it could wholesomely embrace its anachronistic nature and take it to the next level, becoming an anthology film made up of several shorts that simply set up and paid off different aspects of the curse. It may be reminiscent of Ju-On: The Grudge 2 by doing so, but it would continue to differentiate itself from an already overcrowded sub-genre.
Then again, maybe the very nature of depicting a curse that repeats itself over and over is a concept that only works for a single film, two at most, due to simply running out of perspectives to explore. Maybe this was never an idea that was fit for franchising? (Although the cynic in me snorts that this is exactly what a franchise is in the first place, in which case maybe the Grudge can start to parody the nature of the repetitive film industry)!
For Christians, there’s little to mull over, as there is no good vs. evil dynamic to thematically explore, nor does God feature in the world of The Grudge. As it stands, like a lot of horror movies, the film is most suited to older teens and young adults—people that are relatively new to the genre that are seeking something more gory than what the Conjuring Universe has to offer. For veterans of this franchise, you already know what you’re in for. It’s a rather boring experience as a result, while newcomers will be disappointed once they discover how shallow this plot has become. It had the best of intentions, but it seems it may be best to put this curse to rest once and for all.