Twenty years ago, a new wave of Japanese supernatural gothic thrillers brought fresh tropes of dread to a genre that was sorely in need of them. The sinister intersection of technology and the afterlife; the presence of ghosts that looked like rotting versions of demons out of Japanese folklore; the assertion of a feminine rage that burst forth like a scream across time — all of this put J-horror, a genre named (at least in the States) to sound like a category of indie rock, on the cutting edge of 21st-century fright cinema. Yet the movies, for all their shivery viciousness, could be hit-or-miss. “Ju-On (The Grudge)” (2000), one of the most popular, was also one of the most middling — a haunted-house saga no less corny or obvious than “The Amityville Horror.” The American remake, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and released in 2004, was even worse.
Now, just in time for the dumping ground of early January, we have a reboot of the remake. How bad is it? In the listless, threadbare, scare-free new version of “The Grudge,” there’s a house, at 44 Reyburn Drive, that’s been cursed with an ancient spirit of rage, so that it consumes the fate of anyone who sets foot in it.
Here’s what happens to those people. They approach bathtubs full of dirty brackish water, and out pop moldering hands to clasp them. They feel strange fingers in their hair. They’re confronted by kabuki death stares from the beyond that look like they were updated with DNA from the “Conjuring” universe — the faces streaked with blood, the mouths stretched open in obscenely wide Francis Bacon nightmare screams, with flies buzzing around. And that, more or less, is the film’s entire bag of tricks.
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The J-horror mood, of course, is no longer new or adventurous. It long ago infiltrated the megaplex, and was more or less played out by the time the sequel to the American version of “The Ring” arrived in 2005. (It’s a sign of how dramatically some of these movies have aged that though “Ringu” itself is a defining film, the idea of a ghost channeled by videotape, once so singularly creepy, now seems about as terrifying as a horror film about a demonic typewriter.) Yet “The Grudge” plods on as if it were something more than formula gunk, cutting back and forth among the thinly written unfortunates who’ve been touched by the curse of that house.
There’s Fiona (Tara Westwood), who picked up the curse like a virus at a grudge house in Tokyo, then brought it back to where her husband and young daughter were waiting. There’s Faith, the terminally ill lady played by Lin Shaye, who does her grinning-through-gore cackling-harridan number (and, as always, is very good at it), playing opposite Frankie Faison as her put-upon husband. There’s Jacki Weaver, in her Mary Hartman bangs, as the “compassion caregiver” (i.e., assisted suicide enabler) who comes to stay with them. There are the nice married real-estate agents (John Cho and Betty Gilpin) who learn that the baby they’re about to have has a good chance of being born with ALD. (The way this plays out is less scary than boorishly ugly.) And there are the police investigators, played by Andrea Riseborough, all popping-eyed caffeinated alertness, and Demián Bichir, all sleepy-eyed don’t-go-in-that-house moroseness. His mood is contagious — after a while, you really don’t want to go back into that house, the place where terror becomes a rerun.