Along with The Ring franchise, Ju-On (The Grudge) propelled the Japanese horror scene to international audiences in the early 2000s and sparked the Hollywood remake craze that included The Ring, The Grudge, Pulse, and The Eye.
What I love about so many Japanese horror stories, from The Grudge to The Ring, and especially in the work of Junji Ito, is that many of the curses or spirits don’t care if you’re a good or bad person. Unlike so many US horror stories, it’s not about punishing evil deeds; it’s about punishing anything that happens to encounter or get in the way of the supernatural presence. And in the case of The Grudge, all you have to do is step into the house to be marked for death.
When any kind of remake is announced, it’s undoubtedly going to be met with skepticism, but two things immediately gave me hope for The Grudge: the movie is directed by Nicolas Pesce, who helmed the absolutely incredible and shocking The Eyes of My Mother, and it has a really strong cast that includes Andrea Riseborough, William Sadler, Lin Shaye, John Cho, and Demián Bichir.
In June 2018, I had the opportunity to join a small group of journalists on the set of The Grudge in Winnipeg, where we met with the cast and creators of this latest incarnation of the popular horror series.
Andrea Riseborough shared my enthusiasm for Pesce, and took this role for a chance to work with him on creating a complex, realistic leading character:
“At first, I didn't really have an idea of how we were going to rework this franchise [from] its first incarnation. It was so dark and mysterious and kind of underground. It built up momentum and then in its second incarnation, it was completely different. It was Hollywood's version of that.
I met Nick, and it just became clear really quickly. He had no interest in making it a genre film that was stunted by all the trappings of regular genre formula. He just wanted to make a film, and I think that's the greatest strength that some of my favorite, very thrilling, and quite horrific films… like The Shining. We're all here making a “film,” and that was very clear when I first met him. He has a really clear vision; he's a great helmsman. He's very, very kind and very funny and sweet. All those things are really important to me...
...It was [my hope that with] my ideas for the character and his ideas for the character, that we could create somebody who had a real life, could be easily identifiable… So often women in this genre, as in every genre, are portrayed in such an unidentifiable [way]... I knew that [Pesce’s] motivation wasn't sullied by checking boxes... he's very collaborative and cooperative, and I just trusted that he would make a good film that had integrity. And I still do. That hasn't changed, thank goodness.”
Those of you who have seen The Eyes of My Mother know why it’s so exciting to see what Nicolas Pesce will do with this version of The Grudge, especially given the fact that he was given creative freedom and the ability to go with an R-rating from the start. But, we were also curious about his familiarity with The Grudge franchise and Japanese horror:
“I am a big, big fan, especially the original Japanese films, all the Ju-On films. And, as Hollywood started making more and more reboots and remakes, I saw an interesting opportunity with The Grudge franchise, because at least in the Japanese series, the stories are not sequels of each other, but it's an anthology and every movie is a different family, different crime, different stories. And, I thought that there's a great opportunity to not be bound to making a remake or a reboot, but just making a new Grudge film, with a new series of characters, and a new crime.
And what's awesome about the Grudge is it's very rules-based, and there's a couple of key things that every Grudge movie needs. The second you walk in the house, you’re [cursed]. It's kind of chaptered, and the stories are out of order; it's nonlinear, and so we could take all those characteristics that were kind of continuous through all the Grudge films, but make our own story and not ruin Grudge canon. This is just another installment in the Grudge story and the Grudge mythos.”
The world is in a very different place from when The Grudge remake was released in 2004 and Nicolas Pesce talked about keeping the story grounded in real-life horror by tackling contemporary issues:
“I think that now more than ever, we need to see what this sort of strong emotion can do. And I think the movie is very grounded in real life, with real people's problems. It's not a movie that's just about a haunted house. And before all these characters even interact with the Grudge, they're dealing with very real, very contemporary issues. We have a couple that is struggling with potential birth defect in their unborn child. We have an elderly couple that's dealing with late-in-life decisions about assisted suicide. We're dealing with mourning and loss and it's real-life horror. [We’re] showing that the things that real people do is scarier than anything a ghost can do to you.
We've used the supernatural elements to sort of heighten that, but at the end of the day, The Grudge is and always has been caused by human trauma and human struggle. So I think that we are very much not making light of these traumatic and dramatic things. It's about showing you different parts of life that also don't get to end up in movies that often… We wanted to really take advantage of that, and show you how this sort of thing is going to affect different people in different walks of life, and connect on that level as well.”
One of the most impressive parts of my visit to the set was the film’s reliance on practical effects, and it makes me very excited to see the finished film. This film’s practical effects are overseen by FX veteran Toby Lindala, who gave us an extensive showcase of the incredible work that has gone into creating practical versions of characters for death scenes, as well as the movie’s ghosts. I wish I could go into specifics, but to avoid spoilers pre-release, I will say that from death scenes to spirits, it looks like Nicolas Pesce went all-in on creating a memorable practical effects experience for both the audience and actors, to the point where we even saw animatronics on set. Pesce talked about his approach:
“As an audience member watching movies, no matter how good the CG is, there's a quality to it… [where] there's something [about it] you that can tell that that's not there. And to me, the fun of horror movies is the practical effects. And I think that in the original Grudge films, their ghosts are a woman in Kabuki makeup, and she's a contortionist, and she's doing all those things down the stairs.
There's so much more charm and it's so much more effective when the thing is there being lit by the same light that's lighting the actor. And it just feels so much more tactile and whether it's the ghost or the gore, there's nothing looks better than real life. We can do things that look incredibly realistic and I think that it is just a more guttural reaction for the audience. And in terms of the ghosts, I think that so much of our conception of the ghosts and the designing of the ghosts went into thinking about, “how do we do something practically that's just as frightening as something you would do that you would normally [do in VFX]? Let's go there practically and see how far we can push it.”
And when we get into our full-on ghost modes, were dealing with really elaborate animatronic prosthetics; that is something that people don't really do anymore. And to me, my taste in horror lies in the more vintage stuff, and so there are bits and pieces that pay homage to the bigger, slightly more campy stuff of the yesteryear of horror. But, then also stuff that's just brutally realistic and getting to play in that world is much more my taste. It's fun for me to get to play with masks and figure out how to shoot it and make it look as scary as possible rather than, [fixing it] in post. And I think that the end result is hopefully going to be far scarier.”
Cinematographer Zack Galler, who has also worked with Pesce on both of his previous films, also shared Pesce’s preference of practical and talks about their partnership with Toby Lindala (and the MUFX team) on-set:
“When we first talked about doing it practical, it's a double edged sword. You're really excited but at the same time it can be limiting because there's only certain ways you can shoot a lot of makeup effects and prosthetics. But I feel like Toby Lindala… has given us so much more than we’ve asked for. They really are artists and we can treat it as if it was real because of how great their stuff looks. They've been really excellent.
And of course in a movie like this, you want to show stuff of as little as possible just because I think as soon as the viewer sees it, no matter how good the makeup is or how scary it is, it's going to be scarier in their head if they're imagining what they just saw if its for half a second. So Toby has really given us the freedom to choose that and then edit instead of being constrained by how we can only show this much in this thing. They've really done an excellent job. It's really an honor to be working with them.”
Part of the star-filled cast of The Grudge is William Sadler who shares Pesce and Galler’s enthusiasm for the practical effects used in the film:
“[Practical effects is] always easier. It's always more fun. It's always more fun to have the actress step in front of the window than to follow a tennis ball on a stick or something. I'm a big fan of practical, but my career started back far enough when it was all practical stuff, you know? I mean, when you wanted to blow up a plane, you filled a huge model with gasoline and blew it up. I think it's easier for the actors certainly because you don't have to imagine everything.”
During our time on set, filming centered around Andrea Riseborough, William Sadler, and Demián Bichir, all playing detectives who have encountered this supernatural force. But, even though we’re expecting killer effects and a vengeful spirit, Demián Bichir talks about how much this film deals with psychological horrors:
“[I play] Detective Goodman and I'm dealing with this thing called “The Grudge,” because it seems to be affecting everybody ever since we had that case in that house and that address. I somehow knew that I didn't want to go in because I kind of sort of felt that there was something weird, something strange about it. It was only a gut feeling that I followed and I was right. So we deal with that, but at the same time… it's also your own fears and your own demons and your own ghosts and they affect everybody differently. And we all deal with them in many different ways...
To me, the real terror [comes from the fact that] the human brain is still a mystery in many ways. How it plays tricks with you and how your life is defined by the way your brain works. You know what I mean? Psychological terror is one of the heaviest to explore, because mystery is really brutal. How a small little something can create a full different human being and create chaos. Horrible things. So it is a difficult ground to step on… I have a love and respect for real detectives who actually deal with that. I could never... I don't know if I would be able to sleep well at night after seeing a dead body. When it's behind a character, it's using a character as a shield, a project of fictional piece of art, where you can explore many different things and… then to go home and be safe.”
After visiting the set, talking with the cast and creators, and seeing some killer practical effects, I’m really excited to see the finished film when The Grudge hits theaters on January 3rd 2020, and stay tuned for more coverage of The Grudge leading up to its release. To purchase advance tickets, visit: http://bit.ly/TheGrudgeTix