John Cho is breathing new life into a deadly story.
In the third version of “The Grudge,” the “Harold & Kumar” star is trading in his comedy chops for a new kind of horror rooted in “very real adult grief.”
“It was a drama, a cast of characters that was pretty much over 40, and it’s just so unusual in movies today,” Cho, 47, said of his interest in the film, out Friday. “And I think that’s what attracts me to the horror genre in general late in life — its ability to use the genre to do things that aren’t being done in cinema right now.”
“The Grudge” follows the 2004 film of the same name starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the 2002 Japanese film that inspired it, “Ju-On: The Grudge.”
To prepare for his role, Cho admits he didn’t watch the Gellar films — and in fact has never seen them — but was only advised to check out the “Ju-On” franchise, to which this incarnation is “definitely an homage” and “pretty much directly connect[s].”
Ironically, Cho says he made a point of avoiding horror films for much of his life.
“I never wanted to purposely scare myself,” he said. “That’s why I stayed away from [the horror genre] for a long time, just had no desire to engage, even when my friends, you know as teenagers, were watching ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Halloween,’ I just was not into it.”
The “Searching” star attributes his discomfort with the genre to his “very traumatic experience” of seeing “Death Ship 2” at just 6 years old, during his first trip to the movies.
“We had just moved to the United States from Korea,” he explained, noting that Korea wasn’t showing R-rated movies in those days. “Everything was sort of for general audiences.”
The family quickly learned that American cinemas were very different.
“I was traumatized to see a woman murdered pretty gruesomely within the first couple minutes of the movie. But because we had paid the four bucks for the air conditioning, we did not leave,” Cho recalled, adding with a laugh that his parents just covered his and his brother’s eyes “whenever there was somebody getting killed. Or having sex. There was a lot of both on this death ship.”
In 2017, Cho inched back toward the genre, with a role on the second season of Fox’s anthology series “The Exorcist,” a sequel to the 1973 film of the same name starring Linda Blair.
“One of the drivers [to be in that show] was the fact that Asian-American faces are unusually absent from the horror genre,” Cho explained.
But it was “Get Out,” which premiered earlier in 2017, that truly changed things for the “Star Trek” actor and in fact, altered his “thinking about horror completely.”
“What they were doing made me think about color also in the genre, which I hadn’t thought about, just because I was really disconnected from it,” Cho said of the film, which mixes horror with social commentary on racial dynamics in 21st-century America.
The diversity of the cast was certainly a factor in his taking on “The Grudge,” Cho said, adding that he does “like injecting a face that looks like mine into a genre that has been pretty white, for the most part.”
After “Get Out,” which tipped him off to the “freaking interesting vehicle” that is the genre, Cho explained, “I really just started thinking about horror as it related to my career, and thought, ‘I’d love to do one of these, something like this.’ ”