Dread it, run from it, destiny still arrives all the same. Like Thanos, there is no escaping The Grudge. That is the narrative’s entire appeal, but if you were not already well-aware of such fruitless escape due to the — count them, one, two, three, four, thirteen! — previous entries in the franchise, then director Nicolas Pesce is here to ram one final nail in your VHS box-lined coffin. The series that spawned from the prototypical J-horror Ju-On back in 2003 runs through all the motions once more, this time populating future-corpses with a prestige cast of actors impossible to dismiss.
What’s bizarre about the climax of this new Grudge is that its punchline acts as a surprise, but only for the uninitiated. No, not the series’ uninitiated, but those who have never ever seen a spook story at all. The final jumpscare is not just telegraphed, it’s baked into the DNA of every horror hound on the planet. Hell, most people in the theater probably projected this ending before they ever sat down in their seat, and that is ultimately what is so damn frustrating about the movie, because, again, that cast!
Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) narrowly avoids losing her mind by burning the subject of her investigation to the ground. Determined that the house at 44 Reyburn Drive is the root of the multiple unsolved murders plaguing her station’s cold case files, she storms behind its walls and soaks its carpets in gasoline. As she does so, she sees the spirits of the Landers family reenact their death throes. Mrs. Landers (Tara Westwood) smashes her husband on the head, and he tumbles down the stairs. She drowns her thrashing, darling daughter in the black muck of the tub, and tears into her own throat, splashing the stained glass windows with arterial red.
Unphased, Muldoon continues her duty. Right before she flicks her lighter, her son (whom she foolishly locked in the back seat of her car while she went Backdraft-ing) stumbles into the foyer quizzically. Pay no attention to me, kiddo, I’m just committing felony arson and ignoring community ghost theater. Muldoon tells the kid to do what they always do when they get scared: close your eyes and count to five. The kid is confused. He’s the evil spirit! Muldoon burns the whole place down. Fool me once.
Phew. Case closed. Uh-uh. The next day it’s time for the kid to go to school. Pack your lunch and give mom a hug, boyo. While they’re embraced, her actual kid walks into the background and alerts his mom that he’s hopping on the bus. Wha? Who’s this brat Muldoon is squeezing on? Gah! She’s been Grudge‘d! The spirt yanks her by the hair and drags her down the hallway screaming. Fool me twice, shame on me. Cut to an exterior shot of her home, the latest infected domicile. Stay out, or you’ll be sorry.
The Grudge is a virus, not a ghost. You can’t reason with it. You can’t redeem it. You can only kill for it and die from it. The Grudge is a curse that attaches to your person the moment you come into contact with it. Once its tendrils have you, it squeezes until your mind is cracked and performing its dark bidding. Finally, with your essence consumed, it waits for the next person to breathe its noxious air.
Nicolas Pesce uses the entire runtime of his film to take you through this arduous, inescapable process. Over several years, we meet more victims. The film opens with Mrs. Landers stepping out of Kayako (Junko Bailey)’s home in Japan (O.G. Ju-On reference!), the creature already planted firmly over her shoulder. She brings the curse back to 44 Reyburn Drive, and it makes quick work of her family. Peter Spencer (John Cho), the poor realtor eager to sell the Landers home, is the next chump poisoned by the viral presence, taking his pregnant wife (Betty Gilpin) with him. The Mathesons (Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison) follow, as well as Detective Wilson (William Sadler) tasked with solving the initial Landers murders.
The Grudge drags with the inevitable. It’s a meat-grinder movie. We get it. There is no hope here. As Detective Muldoon follows in the footsteps of Detective Wilson, we all know her fate even if she does not. Fire ain’t gonna work. Quarantine is the only answer. Wrap the Muldoon household in barbwire and dig a moat around it. Otherwise, anyone, including her cute little kiddo who’ll eventually return from school, that steps upon its flooring will fall victim to its disease.
As Pesce pulls his audience from one horrific wave of killings to the next, convention and franchise rules dictate the climax, and that is the tragic disappointment of the film. The latest Grudge meticulously adheres to the concept and offers zero surprises. A to B to C to Dead.