The Grudge review: J-horror remake just about escapes the horror sequel doldrums

Dir: Nicolas Pesce. Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver. 15 cert, 93 mins

There’s no reason why this film should be called The Grudge. As a second American remake of Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 Ju-On: The Grudge (after his 2004 one with Sarah Michelle Gellar), it’s about as familiar with Japanese horror as its grimy, knotty-haired ghosts are with the concept of personal grooming. The basics are the same: explanatory titles explain that a violent death can create a curse that, like a virus, latches itself onto anyone who comes into contact with it.

Yet the only real references to its source material are a brief glimpse of the house from the 2004 film and the repeated use of that ghostly, guttural croak – the one that sounds like the world’s longest burp. The ghosts themselves could easily have floated in from The Conjuring, Insidious, or any other popular horror franchise; there’s none of the powdery, white skin and kohl-rimmed eyes that made Shimizu’s creations so distinctive. Gone, too, is the little boy who sits and screeches like a cat. It was an image so strange, you couldn’t help but find it creepy.

Thanks to director Nicolas Pesce’s smart handling of the material, however, The Grudge just about escapes the horror sequel doldrums. Like the original films, it’s told in non-chronological order, keeping its focus on a single location – 44 Reyburn Drive. The suburban home is the infamous site of a murder-suicide involving a couple and their six-year-old daughter. When Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) discovers that the grisly, half-rotted corpse discovered in the woods has a connection to the home, a pattern of death and rage starts to emerge. What happened to the elderly man (Frankie Faison) caring for his dementia-afflicted wife (Lin Shaye)? Or the two real estate agents (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) expecting their first baby?

Pesce, who previously directed The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing, is an accomplished horror filmmaker. And so, even though The Grudge’s script and overall aesthetic feel drearily familiar, its director still knows how to keep his audience off-balance. The sounds of the afterlife (weeping, croaking, and creaking) pepper every scene, creating a suffocatingly oppressive atmosphere. He knows to carefully frame his actors so that they’re slightly off-centre, leaving you to obsessively scan the empty space beside them for any sign of danger.

The film also takes advantage of the multiple storylines to bypass the usual, predictable cycle of horror. After something’s gone bump in the night, the film doesn’t have to traipse through the next day only for the same exact thing to happen again. If Pesce had been given more free rein to cook up something truly nightmarish, The Grudge could have been something much more than just another notch in a never-ending franchise. As it is, the film is exactly as competent as it needs to be.