‘The Grudge’ Remake Is All Scream With Little Fright 

The Grudge” cinematically captures that well-known definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. Like “Star Wars” it’s easy to lose count but this is the fifth film in the “Grudge” series while actually functioning as a “reimagining” of the first. Or that’s supposed to be the idea. Even if it were the very first film in the franchise, judged on its own this new addition feels more flat than chilling. 

We open in Japan in 2004 and a Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) leaves the eerie house we remember from the first “Grudge” films and flies back to Middle America. Landers also brought along with her a “curse” from across the Pacific. That curse decides to make its home at 44 Reyburn Drive, where in later years several stories converge in a triangle of horror. Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and her colleague Goodman (Demian Bichir) come across a fiery crash that leads Muldoon to investigate various murders at the address. The bloodshed, mostly involving a specter with long dark hair who snarls and nabs you and a rotting guy trailed by flies, affected a married couple, Peter and Nina (John Cho and Betty Gilpin), an elderly couple, William and Faith (Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye), and their doomed caretaker Lorna (Jacki Weaver). There’s also Detective Wilson (William Sadler), who is the only one aware there’s a dark force causing trouble and starts losing his sanity. 

The real curse in “The Grudge” is that there never seems to be a way to make this story convincing. It all began with the 2002 Japanese film “Ju-On: The Grudge,” directed by Takashi Shimizu, which became enough of a hit to make Hollywood bring Shimizu over to direct the 2004 remake “The Grudge,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Neither version is particularly notable for the plot, which is muddled, fractured and lacks intensity. But general audiences were freaked out by the story’s famous long-haired girl/demon/ghost that tends to pop out of bathtubs, elevator shafts, hallways and pull you into oblivion. Even as the movie made little sense it made a lot of money and spawned several sequels. As with the 2004 version this one is produced by Sam Raimi, but the only mark of the genre maestro’s touch is sparse, over the top gore. Directing is Nicolas Pesce, best known for the better low budget fare “The Eyes of My Mother” and “Piercing,” which also dabbled in gruesome biology. 

Pesce’s task here is in transferring the first two movies’ structure of alternating timelines and stories into a rural American setting. The idea is we’re watching interlocking tales where everyone at some point was attacked by the entities residing at 44 Reyburn Drive. The result is a script traffic jam. Not only is it hard to know where we are in the narrative, sometimes it’s hard to process what’s even going on. One key problem is that Pesce gets stuck on recycling the same “boo” moments. Every three minutes or so someone stares into the bloody bathtub or into some open door and either the long-haired girl or the rotting man appear and scream in your face. Apparently these are the ghosts from previous murders in the house, and we know when they will appear because there are always a lot of flies just before a scare. Pesce has taken notes from countless other bad scary movies and believes maggots are somehow terrifying instead of just gross. Detective Muldoon, who spends most of the movie going over case files and pictures to determine that there’s indeed a ghost causing a lot of problems, finds a demented Faith chewing on her own fingers while a decomposed William sits in a chair, being gobbled up by the squiggly larva. What’s worse than the maggots is Riseborough, who takes in this discovery as calmly as someone finding a stray plastic bag. Lin Shaye, a cult favorite of many recent horror films including the “Insidious” franchise, gives the film’s best performance, especially when the “Grudge” entity takes control of her and she cackles while chopping off her digits.

“The Grudge” also tends to drag because there’s not much going on with the characters. No one has any purpose other than to walk into a dark hallway and bump into the accursed entities. Peter and Nina discover their baby might have ALD, but it doesn’t matter because back home the dark forces take over Peter and he fillets his family. Detective Wilson claws his eyes out in frustration and we never see him again, Goodman doubts for the whole movie and simply disappears from the plot by the end and Muldoon investigates and investigates before settling on the oldest trick in horror movies, a hint: it involves matches. The cinematography is so dark and dreary we can barely see these proceedings. If there is any true atmosphere it belongs to the Newton Brothers’ music score, which has a real eeriness. 

When the end credits roll after a depressingly pessimistic conclusion, “The Grudge” only inspires the question of why it deserved to be made. If you scare easily then surely the jump scares will get to you, or not considering it’s the same jump scare over and over. If there is a true grudge to be had it is with the movie itself, for not trying to at least brainstorm a better way of making your date grab your arm.

The Grudge” opens Jan. 3 in theaters nationwide.