Ju-on: The Grudge is one of the granddaddies of the J-Horror world. It’s actually the third entry in its own series, but when you think of the story and characters, this 2002 take is the essential version. If you haven’t seen it yet, we’d recommend you give it a rip before continuing on to our spoiler-riddled review.
Reviewed by: Jake
Ju-on: The Grudge follows several different people who come in contact with and are killed by the “Onryō”, or vengeful spirits that were created when a dude flew off the handle and murdered his family. The sheer heinousness of the act created a curse that brought back the murdered family (his wife Kayako and son Toshio) to kill him with paranormal superpowers. Now, anyone who steps foot in their house is damned to be haunted to death by the ghosts AND the curse spreads to anywhere those people eventually die. It’s like a really spooky hanta virus.
The bulk of the movie follows a web of characters who come into contact with Rika, a caregiver who discovers the curse when she enters the house in Tokyo to provide assistance to an elderly woman whose son and daughter in law were killed. People on the case track down a retired detective named Toyama, who tries to burn the house down discovers a group of teenagers as they are being killed by Kayako. Unsurprisingly, because curses are tough as nails in Japan, Toyama is killed. His daughter was one of the teenagers in the house that night but escaped. Eventually she is also killed.
Rika eventually enters the house again in an attempt to save a friend, but she is too late. With the realization that she cannot escape the curse, she is killed by the ghosts as well. And no one lives happily ever after.
What the Movie Does Right
Ju-on is a capital “H” Horror movie. It gets it. There’s no comedic relief in this story and there’s no hope of escape. It’s a one way ticket to terrifying death for basically everyone introduced in the movie. There is an oppressive dread that builds and builds over the course of the film, which is aided by a relative lack of a score that leaves you to stew in the empty rooms of the cursed house along with the ghosts that inhabit the halls. It does an impressive job of violating every safe space you think you could have. When that ghost shows up under the covers of the bed and warps a woman out of existence, you know the gloves are off. There’s literally nothing that can be done to escape it.
There are also an impressive variety of scares on display in the movie. Jump scares are limited to an impressive degree for a movie that packs a wallop in the fear department, but they are used at the right times to help punctuate the tension it builds. There are things that happen off camera that leave the fear to your imagination and there are moments that give you every bit of audio-visual fear you could ask for. The first time you hear that now iconic “death rattle” noise, you’re going to be looking for a change of trousers.
What the Movie Does Wrong
There is an upsetting lack of sense to be made from how this curse works. The rules are supposed to be that it will spread to where those who were killed by it die. If that’s the case, shouldn’t this thing grow exponentially and throw the world into complete disarray? The film clearly shows the curse in action in public settings. A fucking security guard is ostensibly murdered in a public bathroom. Something tells me that a lot of people would die a lot more quickly than the movie lets on.
Another upsetting element of this film comes from some of the effects work. While I think everything in the movie looks interesting, the powder-covered ghosts really look kind of silly. It’s one area where the American remake really benefited through its larger budget (more to come on that next week). The biggest culprit is the cg shadow ghost. That shit has aged so poorly it blows my mind. I did like what they were going for with the flowing hair and its entry is still terrifying in that you are by no means expecting to see something like it in the film, but look at it for a minute and it really starts to become comical.
Finally, listeners to our podcast will hear that I had an incredibly hard time with the basic plot progression of this film. And while I think most of that is because we are imbeciles, the plot progression and time jumps that occur in this film are faulty and convoluted, particularly when added to the fact that you’ll be working harder than normal due to the language barrier. Your mileage may vary on this complaint (Mark thought it was fine), but first time viewers should know that it probably makes more sense upon multiple viewings.
Story: 3.5 - Full disclosure, this was a polarizing category on the podcast. Mark gave the story a 7. The story here is, to me, not all that important. It’s a vengeful spirit story and if you start to unpack things a bit, it raises a lot of questions.
World-Building / Immersion: 4 - I like the world of this haunted house, and I think the movie did a pretty good job of making its setting feel unique and interesting, but it’s always hard for me to be too immersed in a movie that I am reading, and the movie can be a bit confusing at times due to some jumps in the timeline that are difficult to follow.
Scare-Factor: 8 - This movie is eerie, creepy, scary, horror goodness.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7 - I like the visual effects for the most part, with the main exceptions being the powderiness of the ghosts and the cg shadow. The sets and props are very solid though, and the sound effects are top notch. That death rattle is classic.
Overall: 6.5 - This is an important movie in the world of horror and it’s one that genre fans should see, especially if you’ve seen the American remake already.