The Creeping Terror of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)

The Grudge
Lions Gate/courtesy Everett Collection

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Writer and director Takashi Shimizu conceived of a more moody type of horror with Ju-On: The Grudge. He had been perfecting this type of suggested terror with the short films Katasumi and 4444444444 (1998) which debuted on television. More specifically, his direct-to-video productions of Ju-on: The Curse (2000) and Ju-On: The Curse 2 (2000) served as the groundwork for what would become The Grudge.

Though Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) exists as the third film in the Ju-On series, it doesn’t require prior knowledge of the direct-to-video entries. The same format remains of multiple stories of murder and ghosts surrounding the house of Saeki. It’s a wise call considering this would be the first Ju-On entry to grace the big screen rather than the small.

The inciting incident of the story revolves around Takeo Saeki murdering his entire family after discovering his wife’s affair. His wife, Kayako, comes back from the dead in the form of an angered ghost, enacting fatal revenge. Thus is born the house’s curse, one that follows all those who enter and spreads to the next person and house like a virus.

A Creepier Horror

Horror films of the early 2000s were a bit more on the bloody side. Such gory pictures of the era included grotesque shockers like Final Destination as well as updated slashers with grittier gruesomeness for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Freddy vs Jason. Even goofier slasher continuations like Jason X and Halloween: Resurrection still wanted to show all the bloody money shots.

This is why a film like Ju-On: The Grudge felt like a refreshing picture. It wasn’t a picture about showing the best gore or featuring the best kill. It was all about the atmosphere of ghosts and death that are always present but never explicit.

One of the most telling reviews came from Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post. She wrote on the film, stating that it “isn’t particularly scary. No, it’s much harder on you than mere fright: It’s . . . creepy.” She noted that it was a subtle feeling that sticks with you long after the murder of a victim or spotting of the ghost.

Hunter wrote this review in 2004 which perhaps made the film even more exceptional given how American horror had shifted more into the exploitative for more shock than creepiness, with such gore-porn pictures as Saw debuting. Considering Japanese horror was now garnering American remakes (including an American version of The Grudge that very year), there was certainly a need for some films more supernaturally surreal than graphically grim.

Ghosts in the House

The film presents a slower, eerier vibe to lead up to the terror. Consider the sequence where Hitomi (Michelle Ruff) rushes home after seeing Kayako’s ghost at the office. Her home should seem like the place where she would feel safe. But is she?

She unplugs the phone and gets under the covers but she still feels something. The lingering spirits of the dead are not entirely ominous in this scene. Hitomi is in her brightly colored and decently lit room.

She turns on the television and something is wrong. A broadcaster becomes distorted by the screen and the clashing lines soon form a disfigured face. A throaty moan comes through digitally and there’s this chilling sense of something otherworldly coming for poor Hitomi.

The TV shuts off and Hitomi looks around. Nothing is there. She tries to go to sleep but finds a teddy bear in her bed. She then looks under the covers and then, BAM, there is Kayako, looking ghastly in white under the darkness of the bedsheets. There’s a scream, a pull, and a death off-screen (or, rather, under the covers). Nowhere is safe from the curse.

A Mystery Without Answer

There’s a fascination within the picture to try to decipher such darkness. Some horror films have made audiences accustomed to explanations for the rules of the supernatural. Whether it’s a priest in The Exorcist or a supernatural medium in Poltergeist. Such simple explanations are not as present in this film.

It’s what makes the film more remarkable for drawing the eye. Some horror films tend to make the audience shriek and turn away. They’ve already projected the fright or violence in their mind and can’t bear to watch. The Grudge holds your attention because you don’t know what’s coming next and, more importantly, you don’t entirely know why.

Much of this mystery is due to the impressive visual effects. There’s that creepy moment when Toyama (Yoji Tanaka) looks over security camera footage and notices something strange. A shadow can be seen behind a security guard that looks off.

As the footage continues, the shadow exists on its own, walking as a woman in silhouette. Toyama and the audience want to know more about this shadow. Who is this figure cloaked in darkness? The spirit obliges, drawing closer to the camera until it envelopes the lens with darkness. And then the eyes open, revealing someone else watching Toyama. Someone is watching us.

The Terror of Tech

You’ll notice that the two scary scenes mentioned both involve television. It’s a remarkable way to bring about scares with technology that has become so common. There’s perhaps some sense of comfort and closure we get from having the TV on when we’re home alone or observing security footage to identify an aggressor. The Grudge rips away this comfort.

This was a pretty common horror route to pursue during this time. VHS tapes became vessels for curses in Ringu (1998), where the television becomes a portal for a wet ghost to enter our world and steal our souls. Video games were turned into death traps with the surreal eXistenZ (1999) and the sillier Stay Alive (2006). The very tech we take comfort in also became convenient for the supernatural.

Part of what makes The Grudge work so well in this regard are the limitations and mysteries placed within our technology. It’s similar to the way we often treat the darkness of the basement or the shadows under our bed. This film uses both the common frights of a haunted house with the bonus of technology offering no escape from the horrors beyond our realm.

The Simple Scares

Even though The Grudge felt a bit innovative for the decade, there is some simplistic allure for being a horror that relies far more on atmosphere. Outside of the technical innovations, it’s surprising how so many of the frights come from so little. A woman under the covers or a throat noise can strike fear in the victims of this picture.

There’s also an iconography to that simplicity. One of the most memorable aspects that nearly everyone tries to imitate when remembering the film is the sound of the spirits. That unmistakable elongated droning of a throat is so chilling when hearing it creeping in the corners of the darkness. You almost want to try it yourself just to make sure it’s not all that otherworldly.

For some, these scares seem too low-key. There’s no vicious monster with a graphic visage or slasher who pops out to cut your stomach. Instead, the film relies more on your imagination for what might be under the covers or lurking inside your house.

It’s perhaps why the film resonates for those who were not as enticed by the more common horror films of that era. Gore and guts were in no short supply. But films that really get under your skin and make it hard to go to sleep are the truly unique horror pictures, even if only for the easily-frightened.

A Diced-Up Haunting

One of the most striking aspects of Ju-On: The Grudge is the nonlinear storytelling. We don’t follow one story but multiple people who enter a house and succumb to its curse. We don’t fully stay with one or two characters and it feels like they’re pulled into the abyss before we have a chance to get to know them.

In a way, the film plays with the idea of the slasher trope by finding a way to subvert it. Slashers will often pose a series of ducks for our lead killer to pluck off the board. The Grudge does the same but mixes up the players and never gives them a firm hold on the situation. Even the audience feels as though they have little control while watching these characters become swallowed by their fears.

There’s a disorientation that comes with such a staging. While there’s certainly a polarization with such an approach, there’s definitely a certain sense of dread that comes with the loss of control with such a story. It feels like watching a series of haunting that transpire over time with little sense of where they will lead next.

A smaller film might’ve chosen to follow a few characters to focus on exclusively for either the beginning or continuance of a curse. Seeing multiple stories gives off the impression that the curse is something that can’t be stopped and lingers for years. What would’ve taken another horror franchise several films to accomplish, The Grudge does with one.

The American Reaction

Thanks to the success of the American adaptation of Ringu, The Grudge was soon given an American remake by Sony in 2004. Director Takashi Shimizu also returned to direct this English-language version of his work.

Though most of the same story and frights were present, the reactions were mixed to say the least. The negativity mostly came from a desire for both logic and scariness.

Roger Ebert was particularly harsh in his 1-star review of the film. His issues stemmed from being dissatisfied with the nonlinear structure and how the scares were staged: “I’m not sure how most of the scenes fit into the movie. I do, however, understand the underlying premise: There is a haunted house, and everybody who enters it will have unspeakable things happen to them.”

That being said, audiences were certainly interested in more J-horror and flocked to the theater. The box office success for releasing around Halloween proved to exceed expectations for Sony. It was enough attention to warrant the studio pursuing two sequels with The Grudge 2 (2006) and The Grudge 3 (2009), as well as a reboot in 2020.

The Legacy of Ju-On

The Ju-On series would continue in both America and Japan, including a crossover with Ringu in the aptly titled Sadako vs. Kayako (2016). It’s remarkable to see it have such staying power for a film that was met with an underwhelming critical response and accused of not being scary. With so many entries, surely there’s more to it than just watching ghosts kill.

Haunted house movies weren’t as popular during the 2000s and most of them relied on being as bloody and jump-scare laden as possible (House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts). Over time, however, haunted house movies came back in a big way during the 2010s, relying much more on the atmosphere than the special effects.

It could be argued that this shift towards more high-minded horror came out of a desire for counter-content, considering the crowding of such gross-out horror franchises like Saw, Hostel, Cabin Fever, and Wrong Turn. As those series faded, freshly creepy horror pictures about unknown forces cursing homes cropped up more and more with films like The Conjuring, Insidious, and The Woman in Black.

It’s hard to not recognize that The Grudge held a bit of influence in shaping horror that better creeps under the skin rather than rip it off.