If you've ever watched a horror film, you've seen a jump scare. It's that moment when a character thinks they're safe, only to have a monster appear suddenly behind them. The final coda when it feels like the movie's wrapping up - but the killer comes back for one last jump. There's no jump scare as thrilling and iconic as when the shark pops out of the water while Brody is grumbling and shovelling chum in Steven Spielberg's 'Jaws'.
Although 80s slasher films drove the jump scare into the ground and the technique eventually became a lazy cliché in its own right, it's still one of the most basic building blocks of horror movies. It excels at one thing: catching the audience off-guard and jolting the hell out of them.
Within the first minute of 'The Grudge' from director Nicolas Pesce ('The Eyes of My Mother', 'Piercing'), the audience is presented with a breathing garbage bag as a jump scare. Yes, they literally tried to make a bag of trash scary. You might argue this is emblematic of the film as a whole.
The film opens in 2004, when an American live-in nurse named Fiona Landers returns from a business trip to Tokyo to her family and home at 44 Reyburn Drive in a small town in Pennsylvania. Several murder-suicides later, freshly transferred cop Detective Muldoon's (Andrea Riseborough, 'Mandy') investigation of the charred corpse of Lorna Moody (Jacki Weaver, 'Widows') leads her back to 44 Reyburn Drive and its surviving resident, Faith Matheson (Lin Shaye, 'Ouija: Origin of Evil'). Muldoon becomes obsessed with the house where all of these very bad things went down. She's warned off by Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir, 'The Nun'), whose partner (William Sadler, 'Iron Man 3') attempted suicide while investigating the murder-suicide of the house's previous occupants the Spencers (John Cho, 'Searching', and Betty Gilpin, 'The Hunt').
This new entry into the series is shot in crisp, sombre tones while using extra-gooey practical gore effects to highlight the aftermath of violence. The score (via The Newtown Brothers, 'Doctor Sleep') is atmospheric and the actors all do fine jobs, though the roles are too thin to merit the talent attached. Andrea Riseborough fares the best - her dialogue is forgettable but her haunted, unusual features aren't.
Pesce definitely knows how to make a film look cool and work with actors. He can also transfer distinctly Japanese creepiness to America, having adapted Ryū Murakami's novel 'Piercing'.
Pesce's film operates as both a sequel to series creator Takashi Shimizu's 2004 film starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and as a soft reboot of the American series it spawned. While the curse is still there, the J-horror stylisation is absent - there is no croaking, crawling Kayako Saeki or mewling cat kid Toshio, no strangling tentacles of hair or ghouls hiding in physics-defying places (aside from that laughable garbage bag in the opening scene). Pesce can't seem to figure out how merge a sequel, a reboot and an original work. As a result, this film never comfortably establishes its own identity.
Like C. Robert Cargill and Gary Dauberman, Buhler has a reverse Midas Touch, attached to a hand made entirely of thumbs, when it comes to writing horror movies.
'The Grudge' series work best as fractured anthologies of scares, where the plot is told through a nonlinear sequence of events and several intersecting subplots. The single attempt to break this tradition and follow a standard narrative structure, the straight-to-DVD 'The Grudge 3', was an abject failure. Unfortunately, the main subplot in Pesce's film feels like an unneeded exposition reel that simply introduces the other subplots, each of which could be interesting if they were given more time to develop. Compounding this, the jump scare/loud noise setups are mind-numbingly repetitive. After you've seen the first one, you'll have the rest of the movie figured out.
I looked a little deeper into the production of the film. Pesce was hired for rewrites, based on Jeff Buhler's script, and to direct. I think a lot of the blame could be laid at the feet of story co-writer Buhler, a horror-script specialist whose previous credits include stinkers like 'The Prodigy', 'Pet Sematary' and 'Jacob's Ladder'. Like C. Robert Cargill and Gary Dauberman, Buhler has a reverse Midas Touch, attached to a hand made entirely of thumbs, when it comes to writing horror movies. Every film with his name on it is a bundle of clichés, blaring music and telegraphed frights. Unfortunately, like the haunted 44 Reyburn Drive, people continue entering cinemas to watch these things despite knowing better than to do so... thus, Buhler keeps getting more work and the bad movie curse continues.
Although handsomely shot, with several good actors doing their best and a small handful of unsettling visuals, 'The Grudge' is ultimately a dull, disjointed mess that is riddled with cheap "boo!" moments. I hope Pesce rebounds quickly from this failed effort in franchise-building and gets back to making the kind of idiosyncratic films he's clearly capable of.