Like Halloween, the Ju-On/Grudge franchise has the irksome-to-filmographers habit of not only rebooting but reusing the same title or close variants over and over – whether in Japanese or English. On top of that, it has so many offshoots and tributaries, from the direct-to-video US threequel The Grudge 3 to the crossover Sadako vs Kayako, that it replicates the complex structure of each individual film writ large across the whole saga. This American reboot of a reboot from Sam Raimi’s Ghosthouse outfit makes some inspired choices – signing up writer-director Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing), casting solid talents like Andrea Riseborough, John Cho, Jacki Weaver and Frankie Faison alongside genre regulars Lin Shate and William Sadler. It works by fits and starts, but still feels like an add-on to the series that’s predominantly the work of Takashi Shimizu, not least because the signature spooks Kayako (Junko Bailey) and Toshio feature only in a brief Tokyo-set prologue.
In 2004 – the year is specified for no apparent reason – the curse manifests creepily as the familiar ghosts inhabit rubbish bags outside their famous house. The evil latches on to an American woman Melinda Landers (Zoe Fish) who brings it to a familiar Stephen King-type small town old dark house (very unlike the Japanese dwelling at the heart of the earlier grudges) which visits misfortune on everyone who steps through the front door. In 2006, new cop in town Muldoon (Riseborough) wonders why her partner (Demian Bichir) has never entered the house to which several recent mystery death cases are connected. Riseborough is somone I frequently really like in movies but don’t recognise until she’s named in the end credits – here, she is again completely made over and completely convincing, though perhaps overqualified. As Muldoon realises the grudge is coming for her, she puzzles out backstories involving residents or visitors to the house. The effect is like a cut-up of an Amicus anthology (say, The House That Dripped Blood – which might have influenced Ju-On in the first place) so that three or four stories are told concurrently, which means that each of them has to stop and start, hampering the build-up of scary stuff but also the unfolding personal stories.
Pesce embeds his horrors in the quiet, credibly troubled lives of regular people – the expectant couple (Cho, Betty Gilpin) who are faced with a grim diagnosis about their unborn child, and at the other end of life the grieving husband (Faison) in an awful position because a carer (Jacki Weaver) realises his wife (Shaye) is too far gone in dementia to qualify for ‘assisted dying’ – and also has neat, new spins on ideas of haunting and home (themes in his work). The notion that a man would buy a haunted house in the hope that he and his dying wife would live on as ghosts together is a new one on me, and would make an interesting film in itself – especially in a set-up whereby even natural death seems to turn ghosts sour and malign. The downside is that the payoffs of all the stories are guessably glum, so it’s too easy to see that – whatever fillips of comfort come from actions taken in the last act – this is still going to wind up unhappily for anyone we care to latch onto. In its weight class, this is better than Rings