The Eyes Of My Mother director Nicolas Pesce’s version of The Grudge gets at least one thing right about J-horror. The film is soaking wet, drenched in torrential rain and filthy bathwater to complement its ghostly women with long, damp black hair. (Moisture and dank places have long been associated with ghosts in Japan, as epitomized by the urban legend of “Hanako in the toilet.”) Another signature of the wave of Japanese horror films that captured the Western imagination in the late ’90s and early ’00s is sustained, skin-crawling suspense, a trait that’s unfortunately almost entirely missing from Pesce’s reboot of the American remake of Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 film Ju-On: The Grudge.
The major culprit in The Grudge’s crimes against tension is its fractured structure—a nod to the 2004 film, which similarly spread its plot across multiple storylines. Like many such gambits, this one—which jumps back and forth between characters and decades—may have read well on the page. But in practice, it only serves to sabotage the film’s execution; fractured and repetitive, the result has all the terror of a plate of scrambled eggs. We open in 2004, when an American named Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) returns from a business trip to Japan with a curse stowed away in her suitcase. Several murder-suicides later, freshly transferred cop Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) becomes obsessed with the house where all of these very bad things went down, picking up a residual haunting like cat hairs on an un-vacuumed couch as she goes.
But although the film’s storylines are knit together loosely enough to allow suspense and dread to slip through—even its climax is, well, anti-climactic—this Grudge isn’t completely bland. Pesce’s unflinching eye for humans-as-meat makes for a studio horror movie whose morbidity is more visceral than most, peppered with lingering shots of rotting corpses infested with maggots, a pair of disturbingly bloody deaths by suicide, and a body desiccated into jerky, which push the film squarely into R-rated territory. Pesce also has a talent for creating oppressive atmosphere, and lays it on thick with moody lighting and sharp editing that gives the otherwise predictable material a slightly dangerous edge.
The key word there is “slightly,” as every time Pesce seems to be struggling against the narrative restraints of studio filmmaking, the bonds prove unbreakable—with one deliciously mean-spirited exception, which we won’t give away here but was met with audible disapproval at The A.V. Club’s screening of the film. Overall, though, the director and co-writer’s merciless style is muffled by The Grudge’s over-reliance on clichéd jump scares; more damningly, only some of these are effective, even in terms of cheap thrills. This becomes especially true in the film’s second half, when the ghosts become at once more human and less creepy.
The uneven performances further exacerbate the film’s issues: On the one hand, the ever-reliable Lin Shaye is effectively unsettling as an elderly woman whose dementia puts her in close contact with the beyond. On the other, Demián Bichir is badly in need of a coffee as Detective Muldoon’s mumbling, disengaged partner. And while John Cho is a welcome addition to any film, the biting shot that wraps up his storyline doesn’t wholly compensate for its mushy buildup. Combine that with a script that underestimates the audience’s intelligence while doing little to clear up the confusion created by its structure, and you’ve got a movie doomed to suffer under the curse of studio formula—no damp little girls required.