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The Grudge 'reboot' director teases connections with the original and what's changed

By Jordan Zakarin
The Grudge 2020

All day on Thursday at New York City Comic Con, Nicolas Pesce made sure to clarify the same point over and over again, in a panel presentation, live stage interview, and one-on-one conversation: His new entry into The Grudge franchise, out in early 2020, will not be a reboot or remake, but rather a new chapter in the voluminous horror franchise that began in Japan and features three American movies that were produced in the mid-to-late-aughts.

“While Sarah Michelle Gellar is in Japan in 2004 in that first movie,” Pesce told SYFY WIRE on Friday, referring to the first English-language Grudge movie, “this movie is in America at that exact same time. And if you're familiar with the old movies, you'll see where they overlap.”

A bit of clarification is needed for newcomers: Gellar starred in director Takashi Shimizu’s 2004 film The Grudge, which was commissioned after Shimizu had created and grown a Japanese horror franchise known as Ju-On. The Grudge was a loose remake of a 2002 entry into the franchise, Ju-On: The Grudge, and from there, two more English language sequels were produced, the last in 2009. 

Now, Pesce’s film, which like the initial American trilogy is being produced by Sam Raimi, is poised to tell new, very loosely connected stories without erasing those first three movies. It won’t be the first Grudge movie set in the United States — The Grudge 2 brought the premise to Chicago — but its story runs parallel to the earlier Sarah Michelle Gellar movie, which makes the two sequels somewhat less relevant.

This new version of The Grudge will also distinguish itself from the first dozen movies by making the curse that follows the main characters a bit more western in nature. Pesce’s movie also embraces the franchise’s anthology spirit by weaving together several different story threads, connected by Andrea Riseborough’s Detective Muldoon, a hard-boiled cop and single mother. The film also stars Betty Gilpin as a pregnant mother-to-be, as well as Lin Shaye, an older woman battling dementia. 

Pesce, a horror geek who at 29 has already directed two features (The Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother) was wearing a thin David Lynch Wild at Heart shirt, discussed his plans for The Grudge with SYFY WIRE ahead of his cast’s appearance on the NYCC live stage. 

The Grudge (2020)

How did this project come to you?

I had a meeting with one of the producers on the film, Roy Lee, and we were just nerding out about J-horror, like actual J-horror versus the American remakes of J-horror. And how, particularly with the Ju-On films, they were very restricted when it came to their production value because they made for very low budgets. But as a result, they had this like lo-fi quality that added a charm to the movies that made them scarier. And we were just nerding out about The Grudge, and he was like, "You know, we're trying to figure out how to make a new Grudge movie."

I had all these ideas brewing in my head. I'd always thought the cool thing about the Grudges, because it's an anthology series, to make another one, you don't have to remake, you don't have to sequelize, you don't have to do any of that stuff that I think becomes very choppy waters. There are 13 of these movies if you include the Japanese ones and we're just making a new chapter in the cannon. And so I felt like in a world today where we're remaking everything, here's an awesome opportunity to reinvigorate a franchise without having to stomp on the movies that people love.

But the way the Grudge, the possession, looks and feels is different in the United States — it’s based on what scares you as an individual, right?

I think that people tend to remember Kayako and Toshio. The mother and son ghosts, but if you look at those old movies, there's a lot more in there than just the ghost scares. There are possessions. It manifests itself in a lot of different ways. And so, to me it's kind of like finding that crack in your psyche, and it's going to figure out what's going to f**k with you.

The Grudge to me is not a ghost. The Grudge is a curse that might manifest something that feels like a ghost, but it's sort of unique to each character what their relationship to this curse is. For instance, for Andrea Riseborough's character, so much of her storyline is about her and her son and protecting her son, and the Grudge takes advantage of her relationship with her son. And so, I think it's not quite in the way that It does it where it's whatever you're afraid of is how you see It. [The Grudge] is more the style in which it tortures you is catered to whatever will drive you the craziest.

How did you arrive on that for this one?

That's kind of how I always read the old movies, and in the Japanese leg of the franchise, Kayako and Toshio are only in a couple of them. You get different ghosts in all the other movies that all have slightly different vibes and looks and aesthetics. And I think that to me, I always read it again as it's catering itself to the person that it's driving insane. And so, a Japanese person who is cursed is going to have an association with the tradition of what ghosts to look like in Japanese culture. i.e., Kabuki goes to Kabuki makeup, which is what the old Grudge ghosts were.

Whereas here, a character growing up living in middle America doesn't have the Kabuki context that someone in Japan would. So the Grudge manifests itself differently to that person. But I will say that Kayako is in this movie.

In the first American Grudge movies, there's something, something strange about these Americans who were being haunted by a Japanese thing, a foreign menace. By bringing it to America, this is still based on like a Japanese legend, but you kind of localize it in a different way.

Well in this movie, they brought the curse from Japan. It's literally the Grudge has spread from the one house that you knew it at from the first movie. It's everywhere. It's in a lot of different places now. So it's not necessarily, "Yeah, we're starting the curse fresh in America." It's been brought here by someone who didn't realize what they were bringing here.

There was a fish out of water tension that always felt odd in those original movies. 

To be fair, I think that part of the interesting thing about the Sarah Michelle Gellar Grudge was an element of, here are people who are fish out of water. Admittedly so. And now they're also dealing with this and there is an interesting tension of you don't speak the language, and you're in danger. 

But I think that it's also a factor of, I don't know that you could do that today in the political climate that we're in. Which is why it was really important to me that we don't erase the Japanese leg of this story. That is part of this same world, we're just seeing now how it affects people outside of Japan. And I think that there's 13 Grudge movies, 11 of them have taken place in Japan. I think we've rung that rag a little bit dry.

And so now it's about, to me, the Grudge is essentially a virus. It spreads like an infection, and it's not unique to Japan or America. It can and will happen everywhere. And I think that was a lot of what we were trying to do with this movie is just show how sprawling this thing is. That it's not just confined to this one house in Japan. You might have one of these houses on the street that you live in. 

Another big difference is that this movie will be rated R, while the initial American trilogy was PG-13. How does that change things for you? 

I think that with the R rating came two things. One, obviously we get to be gorier and more f**ked-up with the scares. It's definitely way more intense, like a visceral level than the old movies where. But I think also it allows you to deal with more adult subject matter outside of the scares as well. When you make a PG-13 movie, you're bound to knowing that there is a portion of your audience that are 13-year-olds. And the story that you're going to tell a 13-year-old is different than the story that you're going to tell to a 40-year-old, you know?

I think with the R rating, it gave us the license to be more intense and more adult with the subject matter that's just the backbone of the story. And I think that that's something that more and more horror audiences don't want a wall-to-wall scare-fest. They want some meat and story. And I think that one of my biggest criticisms with a lot of contemporary horror is that there isn't enough story or it's very, very thin to get you going. And then it's just scares. And there's plenty of scares in this movie, but there's also plenty of story. And I think that the R rating afforded us just a better avenue towards that.

The Grudge hits theaters on January 3, 2020.