Lin Shaye

The Grudge (2020)

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When an emotional, violent crime is committed, it leaves a stain. That stain grows and festers, affecting all those who encounter it. After a woman returns from a job in Japan, a curse infects her home. It leads to a chain of horrific events and disturbing deaths. A detective will have to investigate to stop the curse and save herself from the ghosts haunting her.

January is generally considered a throw-away month for films released in theaters, especially horror films. The first horror release of January gave some horror fans hope that trend would be broken. The Grudge has a long film history beginning with the 2002 Japanese film, which spawned many sequels, and then the 2004 American remake. Now, writer and director Nicolas Pesce (Piercing, The Eyes of My Mother) has created another addition to this lucrative dynasty. Unfortunately, this latest iteration is riddled with issues. The most obvious issue is the pacing. Much like the film’s source material, the plot jumps back and forth to different periods of time beginning with the woman who brought the curse back from Japan and ending with the detective investigating it all. While audiences have seen this work, even within the frame of The Grudge films, in this version it makes the film feel like it drags. There simply isn’t enough that happens between the time jumps to keep things exciting.

For some reason, whether an artistic choice or a decision made by the producers, the film directly connects to the house fans will know from Japan. That means it also relates back to Kayako. This connection seems unnecessary in the 2020 version of The Grudge. The film ends up being a weird sequel/remake/reboot all in one. This version would have been better served to stand on its own, separate from the Japanese version. It ends up creating more confusion because there isn’t a solid mythology to build from. The first woman carried the curse back from Japan, but then it is only her ghost and the ghosts of her family we see haunting people, not the ghosts from Japan. It begs the question why the curse followed that specific woman and started a new curse in her home, but then the same thing didn’t happen to those cursed in the states. While there are many plots points that are not fully developed and various plot holes, this mythos, or lack thereof, is the most apparent.

Fans of this franchise will likely go into The Grudge expecting plenty of tension and scares. People who know me will likely know I am a huge wimp and get scared easily. If this gives any indication, I was not scared at all during the entire runtime of this film. The film relies too heavily on unearned jump scares that don’t manage to cause much jumping, and it fails to build the tension between scares as well. The Grudge also relies too much on grotesque images to attempt to elicit fear. While these practical effects to create the horrifying ghosts are beautifully done, they also come across as more of a gimmick to achieve an R rating, rather than something vital to the plot.

While the character development is lacking, the most successful aspect of The Grudge is the performances. The standout performance by far is horror fan-favorite Lin Shaye (Insidious, Room For Rent) as Faith Matheson. Faith is a woman whose physical and mental health are on a swift decline. Her interactions with the curse are somewhat unique from others, and Shaye delivers a spine-chilling performance in this role. The other two performances that are enjoyable come from John Cho (Searching, Star Trek) and Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, Oblivian). Both Cho and Riseborough do well in their respective roles, although the characters are not very well written so they come across as flat. They do the best they can with what they are given.

The Grudge lacks a solid mythos to build a terrifying story, resulting in a slow and lackluster start to 2020. Based on Pesce’s body of working leading up to this film, which consists of some great films, one can only assume he was restricted by producers. The film moves along far too slowly, fails to create the scares fans expect, and contains one plot hole after another. My one hope is that this doesn’t keep Pesce from continuing to make the kinds of films we all know he’s capable of.

OVERALL RATING: 3/10

Room for Rent

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A recently widowed woman named Joyce realizes her late husband left her with nearly nothing to live on. To bring in some money she decides to rent out a room to guests as her own little BnB. When one mysterious guest takes up residence, Joyce becomes obsessed with him, leading her down a dangerous path.

Room for Rent is directed by Tommy Stovall (Aaron’s Blood) and it is writer Stuart Flack’s debut film. This thriller is unique in that the entire film centers around an elderly woman. It is very rare, especially in the horror genre, for the protagonist to be a woman of this age. What makes this even better is the filmmakers chose horror legend Lin Shaye to play the lead. The film begins in the moments after Joyce’s husband has died in an accident. In the days after his death, she discovers there is almost no money in their bank account, so she must come up with a way to earn some money. That is when she discovers the glorious world of renting out rooms online a la Air BnB, VRBO, and the like.

As Joyce goes from timid widow to entrepreneur, we also see the arrival of a handsome guest bring out a second sexual awakening in her. She changes from modest, monochromatic clothing to more revealing and brightly colored outfits to try and seduce the new man in her life. It ends up being an interesting character study of this woman, who is much more than she appears to be, as she becomes utterly obsessed with her guest. That being said, her character still is underdeveloped. Joyce’s motivation is unclear throughout the film, although one could assume her ultimate goal is to find someone to love her unconditionally.

While the basic premise of Room for Rent works in many ways, there are still a number of problems with the film. The look into Joyce’s psyche is great, yet underdeveloped. I also believe this is one of an increasingly popular subgenre of horror focusing on Air BnB type rentals and the horrible things that can happen in these places. However, there are just far too many subplot points that are hinted at, but the audience never gets a satisfying payoff. One example is that the renter, Bob, clearly has some very dark and illegal history that has brought him to this place. It is vaguely mentioned throughout the film in a way that implies it is important to the plot, but then his background is never explained and never lives up to that implied importance. This happens quite a bit when it comes to Joyce as well. She is a compulsive liar, but the audience never discovers the truth behind many of her lies. It also feels like the film hints that she may have had something to do with her husband’s death and yet there is no payoff at the end. The filmmakers seemed to have wanted to leave a lot left to the imagination of the audience, but they simply went too vague on many plot points. It unfortunately ends up also affecting the pace of the film, making it feel very slow and meandering with only a few moments of tension thrown in.

If it weren’t for Lin Shaye (Insidious, The Final Wish) in the lead as Joyce, the film wouldn’t have been as enjoyable to watch. Shaye is a force in the horror industry and she is absolutely delightful to watch. Time and time again I have wished to see her as the leading lady in a horror film, so in a way I got my wish with Room for Rent. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to Shaye’s stay power. She gives a fantastic performance and often shines beyond what was written for her, but even her shine can’t completely erase some of the weaker plot points and dialogue. Oliver Rayon (In Transit) and Valeska Miller (First List) deliver passable performances, although I think the issues come more from some of the odd character choices by the filmmakers rather than their portrayals of those characters.

Room for Rent has all the right pieces to be a great thriller, but it fails to deliver on its promise. I wanted to love this film and I definitely tried. The idea of an older woman being the lead is one that many filmmakers shy away from, and I commend these filmmakers for making the attempt. It simply leaves many plot points too vague and doesn’t clearly convey what is driving Joyce with every decision she makes. It makes the film meander and move at too leisurely a pace to create any real tension. Lin Shaye helps to make this film more enjoyable to watch and I know many horror fans have wanted her to be the leading lady of a horror film for years. Yet even Shaye’s star power is dimmed in this otherwise dreary film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Insidious: The Last Key

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Parapsychologist Elise Rainier is back, and this time her newest case will take her to where it all began. A man calls asking for Elise’s help. It turns out the man lives in her childhood house. Elise is forced to remember her tragic past and the horrifying events that lead up to her returning to her hometown. She must solve this case in order to save her family from the demon that ruined their lives.

I want to start by giving some context to the film as it is technically another prequel to the first two installments. This film takes place after Elise has helped Quinn, and before she helps Dalton. The timeline for the Insidious films is as follows: Insidious: Chapter 3, Insidious: The Last Key, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2. That being said, there is a lot of timeline overlap between the films thanks to the Further breaking the rules of time and flashbacks. The best part of this installment is that it finally gives me what I wanted; more of Elise’s backstory. Through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences the audience finally gets to learn about Elise’s childhood and the events that lead her becoming a parapsychologist. It is the strongest aspect of the film, and I wish there was much more of it.

Much of the downside to this film is when we get to the present. The first half of the film deals with more of Elise’s past, but when we see the investigation at her childhood house things begin to spiral downward. The main issue is that the filmmakers attempt to cram too many subplots into one story. There is Elise’s origin, the investigation at her old house, and what happens when she once again enters the Further. While any two of these would work well together, having all three storylines together in a single film is a bit much. As a result, while Elise’s backstory feels more complete, the other two subplots are underdeveloped. It gives the impression that the resolutions come too quickly and too easily. Especially when looking at what happens in the Further, there is virtually no explanation for much of what is shown. What’s even worse is that we never get a true sense of what the ultimate villain is trying to achieve or why. Many of his actions have no purpose, or at least not one that is apparent to audiences. If you look back at the early trailers and some of the promotional stills from the film there are several scenes that were not in the final cut of the film. It makes me wonder what this film could have been and if there was more explanation before the studio got their hands on it.

Along with Elise’s backstory being a strong point for The Last Key, Elise herself is likely the strongest aspect of the entire Insidious franchise. Lin Shaye (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) has been the one constant as Elise throughout the films. She always delivers a strong performance, and the fact that a horror film franchise focuses on a strong elderly woman is absolutely fantastic. Shaye makes the most of this film, despite some of the clunky dialogue, and makes audiences fall in love with her all over again. No matter what, Shaye shines through and commands the screen. As always, Elise has her trusty sidekicks by her side in this installment. There is Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) as Specs and Angus Sampson (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) as Tucker. They bring some heart and comedic relief to the thrills and chills of the film.

The Insidious films are known for having iconic and stylistic demons. The Last Key is no different. The villain, known only as KeyFace, has some disturbing creature design created with prosthetics, which are worn by none other than Javier Botet (Mama, REC). Unfortunately the amazing character design gets lost in the lack of character development. It is unfortunate that Botet’s talent is somewhat wasted in this fantastic design simply because the character is weakly written. Despite that, he is still frightening and he is the focal point for several scares throughout the film. Much like in Chapter 3, The Last Key relies heavily on jump scares and lacks some of the more subtle scares of the first two films. This film succeeds the most in building the anticipation for the jump scares. The filmmakers make you wait and wait, knowing that jump scare is coming, before the scare is finally delivered. Unfortunately, in many cases, the anticipation is more thrilling than the actual scare, but there are still plenty of frightening moments.

Insidious: The Last Key fulfills my wish of learning more about Elise, but it is still probably the weakest installment of the franchise. There are simply too many subplots, not enough development of those subplots and characters, and there are several weak points in the dialogue. Despite that, there are still some positives of the film. Elise has a fascinating backstory that audiences finally get to learn, and Shaye does a fantastic job reprising the role of Elise. While we don’t get enough information about him, the design for KeyFace is still quite iconic and disturbing. I only wish there had been more focus on him as a villain and his motivation. The Last Key completes the story of Elise in the Insidious franchise. It is an important piece of the puzzle worth watching, but I can only hope there is a director’s cut in the future that will give fans something more polished.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10