With cinema screens in January occupied by expanding Oscar bait movies and the most popular of the Christmas blockbuster releases, these weeks are regularly regarded by studios as a dumping ground when misbegotten movie projects can be set loose to quietly die at the box office. For horror fans, however, the first month of the year can be frighteningly fertile territory. The goofily entertaining Escape Room was released in the first week of 2019 while imminently upcoming genre movies include the Kristen Stewart-starring aquatic horror film Underwater (out Jan. 10), director Richard Stanley’s HP Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space (Jan. 24), the latest Turn of the Screw adaptation The Turning (Jan. 24), The Siren (out on DVD, Jan. 28), about a ghost with a penchant for drowning people, and Gretel and Hansel, a new version of the fairy tale with It actress Sophia Lillis and Alice Krige,
First up, though, is The Grudge, a half-sequel to and half-reboot of the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring, Tokyo-set haunted house tale of the same name, itself a remake of the 2002 Japanese horror movie Ju-On: The Grudge. Written and directed by horror up-and-comer Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing) this new movie keeps the same aughts-setting as the Gellar movie — indeed some of the events occur at the same time as the earlier film — but relocates the action to a small town in Pennsylvania. There we are introduced to Andrea Riseborough’s cop and widowed single mother Detective Muldoon who is determined to unravel the mystery of a horribly mutilated corpse found in a car in the middle of a forest. Muldoon’s new partner Goodman (Demián Bichir) attempts to dissuade her from looking into the case, because of the similarity to a previous investigation which still haunts him, but she perseveres. Over time, Muldoon uncovers the spooky truth of what is going on while the audience is treated to series of flashbacks documenting the routinely horrifying fates of several other characters, including a pair of realtors played by John Cho and Betty Gilpin, an older couple portrayed by Lin Shaye and Frankie Faison, and Goodman’s seemingly unhinged former partner (William Sadler).
The Grudge is overly reliant on jump scares and the sheer number of characters involved here means that some are thinly-drawn, though the crackerjack cast of actors breathes at least some life into their respective parts. The real asset here — as well as the movie’s main likely problem for many viewers — is its bleak tone. Pesce’s debut movie, The Eyes of My Mother, is a stylistically brilliant but jaw-droppingly grim affair and he has imported much of that flavor to this project. The effects are gruesome and a lot of the characters are having a terrible time even before things start going bump in the night. The result is, deliberately, much less fun than one might expect from a wide release franchise horror sequel. But those who wish to kick off the year with a merciless slice of supernatural mayhem will not be holding a grudge against the filmmaker for that. B-