When a film comes into the world with the kind of uncommonly bad reputation as The Grudge, 2020 edition - simultaneously a remake of and sequel to the 2004 film of the same name, and the 13th feature film in a multi-national horror franchise with at least three different continuities - the obvious first question is whether it earns it. This has been only the 20th film since 1986 to receive a perfect "F" grade from the audience-polling firm CinemaScore: can it really be that terrible?

In a word, no. It's not even the worst American Grudge film: it's certainly no worse than 2006's The Grudge 2, and while I have not yet seen 2009's direct-to-video The Grudge 3, the mere fact that it is a direct-to-video horror movie doesn't leave all that much room for hope. Neither of these represents the kind of high bar that leads a person to say "and, in fact, it's good!", and I'm definitely not making that claim of The Grudge '20. It has exactly the problems that the films of this highly formulaic series have always tended to have, and those would already be enough to fatally hobble it. Worse yet, it has these problems more than a decade after the J-horror remake boom in the United States finally fizzled out and left all of these tropes, which felt so disorienting and fresh at the start of the 21st Century, with a dusty layer of overfamiliarity. There's a fine line between something that's nostalgic, and something that's a clever throwback, and something that's just plain dated, and this Grudge is the last of these: too dated to be interesting, certainly too dated to be in the least bit frightening, though it's good for a few jump scares.

But setting all of that aside, it's something else that's a bit more promising: the best-made of all the American Grudges. This is the third film and first big studio production directed and written by Nicolas Pesce, whose first two movies - 2016's The Eyes of My Mother and 2018's Piercing - are both enthusiastically disturbing, ultra-violent descents into human depravity. The Grudge is neither particularly disturbing nor particularly violent (though it is the first R-rated Grudge movie), and it's so beholden to the norms of its franchise and genre that it feels at best like a one-for-the-studio project, designed to show that the enfant terrible can be a good boy with Sony's money. But if it's journeyman work, at least Pesce proves to be a good journeyman. He's brought along with him Zack Galler, the cinematographer of Piercing, and they've put together a movie that looks better than it needs to, at the very least: the film is dominated by digitally-tweaked color that nudges everything slightly towards bronze-like colors of yellowish green, giving the whole thing an unexpectedly warm cast that cuts against the cool dark lighting and the dampness that's an inherent part of any good Grudge picture. Within that setting, there are a fair number of strong compositions, a few of them designed to maximize horror: a dramatic throat-slitting in silhouette, a barely-glimpsed shot of a man slumped over to drown in a full bathtub, a shot of a woman's back as she mechanically chops with a butcher's knife, holding and holding and holding to make sure we get good and worked up over not seeing what she's actually cutting (especially given that we already basically know).

But the flashy moments aren't nearly as impressive as how well Pesce and Galler use the anamorphic widescreen frame (another Grudge first) to double-up on wide shots and medium shots. The film loves the old horror movie trick of showing a protagonist in the foreground as something menacing happens in the background, but The Grudge uses that trick far better than the usual genre hackwork. For one thing, it doesn't tend to rely on freaked-out stings on the soundtrack to make sure we notice the spooky whatsit (indeed, the score, by The Newton Brothers, generally works to build atmosphere rather than shove us, a pleasant rarity in mainstream horror cinema; not for nothing are they also Mike Flanagan's go-to guys for scoring his films). For another, it's not really the case that what's going on in the background is "scary"; it's more that it's simply something unnoticed and wrong, a reminder that the ghosts of the story exist outside of their desire to plague the living. It's uncanny, that's what it is, and it never gets less uncanny, no matter how many times the filmmakers use it.

So it is, at least, a non-embarrassing work for a strong director. It is rather substantially more embarrassing as a work of storytelling. Like every Grudge movie I've seen (which is by no means all of them), The Grudge '20 takes place in multiple timelines and cross-cuts between them more or less evenly, so we see them developing in tandem, and all arriving at the end point that's been promised by the facts presented at the end of the latest plotline. That one, for the record, centers on Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), a newly-widowed single mother in a small American town, who in 2006 is assigned to investigate a dead body found moldering in a car in the woods. She pretty quickly finds a way to connect this body to a house at 44 Reyburn Dr., which has been the site of a great many apparently unconnected tragedies over the past two years, one of which intimately involved Detective Goodman (Demián Bichir), her mentor or partner or something. One of the things we learn very quickly about The Grudge is that it has a fairly undeveloped sense of how police departments work. At any rate, her investigation turns up several unsavory events: in 2004, a woman named Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood) killed her husband and daughter, and shortly thereafter, the family's married real estate agents, Peter (John Cho) and Nina Spencer (Betty Gilpin) were themselves the victims of a similar tragedy. In 2005, the house was occupied by the Mathesons, William (Frankie Faison) and his wife Faith (Lin Shaye), the latter of whom is deep in the clutches of dementia; William has hoped that a local euthanasia consultant, Lorna Moody (Jackie Weaver), will be able to help his wife die peacefully, and it is obviously not surprising when the answer turns out to be that no, nobody's going to die peacefully in this movie. Goodman and his former partner Wilson (William Sadler) investigated the 2004 Landers killings, and now Wilson lies begging for death in a psychiatric hospital; Goodman is, somehow, the only person who has been in any way associated with 44 Reyburn Dr. who hasn't been tormented by visions of ghosts with rotten flesh and wet, black hair. And this includes Muldoon herself.

The film passes back and forth between its three time periods not quite at random, though it's hardly organic or obvious why the events run in parallel. We see some things that provide answers to questions posed in a later time period; we see answers posed for things to which we already have the answer; and the whole thing is just extremely labored and dull. This cross-cutting has always been the primary weakness of the Grudge series, and while this isn't the worst of it, it's definitely not the best either. It suffers a lot from how obvious the secrets are: the film doesn't try to hide that this is all part of a curse that Fiona brought back with her from Japan, but it does try to hide some other things, and there's just not that many possible directions for this plot to develop, so everything is impossibly easy to guess in advance. As a result, Muldoon's subplot is the only one that doesn't feel like the film is just occupying a holding pattern until the inevitable death scenes, and Muldoon's subplot is already fatally compromised by having the worst dialogue and dumbest plot. For again, this is ultimately a police procedural set in one of the least-convincing police departments you could hope to find, even in a horror movie.

It's a pity, because look back over that cast: that's a stacked ensemble. And they're not even bad! Bichir isn't trying very hard at all, but just about everybody else is (Shaye, who has by far the least to do, makes the most out of her one big scene, and reminds us all how lucky we are to have her as one of our most unexpectedly reliable screen queens in contemporary horror). Riseborough even goes so far as to treat this like a proper story of bereavement and a family trying to find its footing again after a terrible loss, pushing all of her pain and uncertainty to the forefront, and almost managing to make something vaguely human out of the truly insipid dialogue she has been handled in her scenes with her son.

It's not remotely enough, sadly. This material is hard to follow and boring when we can follow it, and having strong performances breathing life into nonsensical haunted house gobbledygook only really serves to make the actors look faintly ridiculous. But if I'm going to have great actors looking faintly ridiculous, or crappy actors look faintly ridiculous; and if I am going to have some nice compositions on top of it; well, the bar for J-horror remakes is low enough that this film crosses it with plenty of room to spare, is all I'm saying, and while I'm sure we'd all be happier with no lousy J-horror remakes here in the third decade of the 21st Century, at least we can make do with ones that aren't the very worst at it.