Collins’ Crypt: THE GRUDGE (2020) Was Pretty Good, Actually
Despite my "profession" seemingly suggesting otherwise, I put little to no stock into "critical consensus" type things like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, finding them to be closer to repulsive than anything useful. The "fresh/rotten" system is simply a byproduct of Siskel & Ebert's "Two thumbs up/down" metric, which I also took issue with but at least it was based on the opinion of just one or two people. Like all critics, I never agreed with either man 100% of the time, but from paying attention to them over the years, I knew when my tastes and theirs aligned, at which point their word carried more weight. A Rotten Tomatoes score, however, means absolutely nothing on its own and barely helps even when you dig into it, when you see "fresh" reviews with blurbs like "it's got a lot of problems but eh, it's fine". Well if every critic felt that way gave it a fresh, suddenly you have a 100% rating for a movie best suited for an airplane.
A Cinemascore rating, however, is at least a little more revealing, because it's not simply "what paying audiences think!", but specifically the people who were so excited to see a particular movie that they raced out to see it on the first day. And interestingly, the worst rating to get is not an F or even a D, but a C (hell, even a B- isn't a good sign). When a movie gets one of those middle ratings, it's not saying it's an average movie (because, as it turns out, most films ARE), but a nothing movie that left no impression on the people who were primed to see it as soon as possible. In contrast, an F rating - of which only 21 films have ever gotten - means that they were actually angry about something, and they were still upset enough to give it the lowest scores possible to the people asking them to rate it as they stormed out of the theater.
Unfortunately, one of those rare films is THE GRUDGE (2020), this year's sacrificial first horror film and, in the US at least, the first theatrically released entry in the franchise since 2006 (2009's GRUDGE 3 was released direct to video here but played theatrically elsewhere). The simple title led many to believe it was actually another remake (I don't have the space to run down this very confusing franchise's history, so click here for a primer), but it was actually what's called a "sidequel" - a followup film that takes place alongside earlier entries but doesn't actively involve any of its participants or require the audience to be aware of their events. One might wonder why Sony opted for a confusing title instead of "The Grudge: Rebirth" or some other subtitle, but after HALLOWEEN (2018) grossed $160m doing the same thing, I guess it seemed like a lucrative gamble.
So were folks angry that they *didn't* get a remake, prompting its historic F? Your guess is as good as mine. I saw the film on opening night and while I didn't exactly love it, I didn't have much of an issue with it either - I thought it was decent, the sort of studio horror film I see all the time and don't think much about either way once I finish writing my review. If you look at the other Fs, they tend to be high profile releases from polarizing filmmakers (Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER, Richard Kelly's THE BOX), low-hanging fruit due to popular targets (Uwe Boll's ALONE IN THE DARK, Lindsay Lohan's I KNOW WHO KILLED ME), or feature traditionally "safe" actors doing unconventional work (Ashley Judd got in there twice during her peak period: BUG and EYE OF THE BEHOLDER). Few films on the list are universally derided as true stinkers, most of them are actually quite good, and scanning over it you'll see a lot of films you probably caught on video or cable and found refreshing, or if nothing else, worthy of discussion.
What you don't see, however, are a lot of "January" horror movies, and furthermore as of this writing GRUDGE is the only sequel in the lot. Somehow, the folks who rushed to opening night screenings of the likes of HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 were more satisfied than those who opted for yet another movie about angry ghosts cursing anyone who entered a particular home. And the response left me in the curious position of wanting to defend a film I myself didn't love either, but certainly wasn't worthy of being written off as an all time stinker. But I also had to recall that I hadn't seen either of the other American GRUDGE films since their releases, and thought perhaps my memory of them being "fine" (2004) and "not even as good" (2006) was erroneous, and they were actually classics that this new film was disgracing by trying to connect itself to them.
So I revisited them on DVD and discovered... no, they're not particularly good. If anything (brace yourself) the newest one might actually be my favorite of the lot, if only for the more interesting characters and better structure for its multiple-timeline structure. Like the 2004 and 2006 entries (and most if not all of the Japanese ones; I've only seen a handful myself), the 2020 film is an ensemble showing different time periods in/around the same location, but new director Nicolas Pesce, for the most part, does a better job than director Takashi Shimizu did with the other US entries. For example, in the 2004 one, the first scene introduces us to Bill Pullman, who almost instantly commits suicide by walking off the balcony of his highrise apartment - and it's literally an hour later before Shimizu gets back to him, at a point where you may have forgotten the actor was in it at all. Had Sarah Michelle Gellar or one of the other characters been actively investigating his death, or even introduced into the story as a result of his demise, it might be different, but no one cares for an hour and by that point, neither did I.
There's none of that in the new film; there are perhaps one or two too many characters, but we never have to wait long to understand why we met them in the first place. After a quick opening bit that establishes the link to the Sarah Michelle Gellar film (in 2004 a case worker is seen leaving the familiar house, discussing how Yoko will be taking over - Yoko being the caregiver that Gellar's character was replacing in turn), we cut to 2006 and meet Andrea Riseborough's Detective Muldoon, a woman whose husband recently died of cancer and is now raising her young son alone in a new town. On her first day she is partnered with Demián Bichir's Detective Goodman, where they find a body in a car, connected to a residence that spooks Goodman when it is mentioned, piquing her interest. So she starts digging, and uncovers the numerous tragedies that occurred in that house over the past couple years - starting with the death of its owner, the case worker from the opening scene.
And so we spend the next 80 minutes cutting between the present day scenes of Muldoon (now possibly cursed herself), and the flashbacks that are usually triggered by her uncovering information about the other awful things that happened there, as opposed to the more random cutting back and forth that occasionally made the other films hard to follow (especially when Shimizu started toying with a light form of time travel, having someone in one timeline "watch" events from another, and even manipulate objects within them). There aren't as many obvious scares as in the previous films, but the tradeoff is that those "slow" parts are actually giving the characters a bit more depth, revealing that all of them are dealing with loss and grief (from real life, not the supernatural death curse) and that the "Ju-on" is perhaps gaining strength from their sorrow. At first I thought the Newton Brothers score was just a nice bonus, but now I realize that there might have been even more of a motivation - the narrative themes here share some similarities with the work of Mike Flanagan, who has hired the brothers for many of his films, which also tend to work better on adults who don't mind a slower paced horror than they're usually offered at the multiplexes.
On that note, it's worth pointing out that Sony allowed the film to have an R rating (the first for a theatrical release here), but it's not just because it had more gore or foul language - it almost seemed like a sort of attempt to keep teens from bothering, as it is clearly aimed at a more adult audience. Many of the characters are "grandparent" age in fact - they've gone from Sarah Michelle Gellar and Amber Tamblyn to Frankie Faison and Lin Shaye. Apart from Riseborough (and her son, obviously), the only other primary character under 40 is Betty Gilpin as one of the realtors for the house who also get cursed (and perhaps her husband, played by John Cho, who is 47 in real life but perhaps meant to be late 30s). Not only are they older, but they're also all dealing with mature problems; in addition to Riseborough's aforementioned struggles, Shaye's character is suffering from dementia and wants to use assisted suicide as an option, while Cho and Gilpin are dealing with a difficult pregnancy the latter isn't even sure she wants to have in the first place. Hardly the kind of "my best friend slept with my boyfriend" nonsense that serves as the primary drama for the usual "January horror movie" protagonists.
So it's a shame that it was beaten up so bad (regular critics weren't much kinder, though a few that got what Pesce and co were going for did appreciate it, and if you'll allow the irony, I'd like to note that it has a better RT score than GRUDGE 2 at least), because I would like to see other fume-running franchises opt to try to appeal to the now older people who made the other ones into hits, as opposed to chasing the same younger audiences who probably won't care anyway. That's what Paramount did with its third RING film a couple years back, and it was a disaster - fans of the others hated it and it certainly didn't make any new devotees. This GRUDGE, on the other hand? I found myself more engaged by its story and characters when watching it again only three months later than I was with revisiting the other films I hadn't seen in well over a decade. If you've been scared off by the reviews, or (more importantly) your indifference to the previous entries, and are in the mood for an adult-leaning version of a typical angry ghost movie, I'd recommend giving it a look. Not like you have much else to do these days, right? (Can that be MY Rotten Tomatoes quote?)