Where do film franchises go when they have nowhere left to go? When they have been down the theatrical sequel road, the straight-to-video sequel road, the remake road, the spin-off road, the reboot road, and even down that most desperate crossover-with-another-ailing-franchise road? Why, they become Netflix shows!
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. Maybe the newest new beginning for Ju-On, the J-horror mainstay about ghosts with grudges, will be a return to scary form. We will know when Ju-On: Origins hits the streaming service on July 3. Until then, we will think only happy thoughts and remember the five films out of 13 (yes, 13, not counting shorts) that once made this series great.
5. Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (Japan 2003)
Like sequels will, this follow-up to the series’ first big-screen outing deals in excess and familiarity rather than in innovation and narrative necessity. It still works. Maybe because we have been conditioned to understand that this is how sequels operate. Ju-On: The Grudge 2 has moments of gleefully pompous atrocity that dwarf anything in the rest of the franchise. But while those moments will stick with you forever, the film as a whole leaves less of an impression than its predecessor.
4. The Grudge (USA, Japan 2004)
Can American remakes of international horror hits ever succeed? Apparently they have a chance, if you enlist the original director and let him direct on his home turf, from a script that streamlines the original concept without dumbing it down (too much). Still set in Japan, The Grudge takes a more consumer-friendly version of the old Ju-On plot and throws in a few American characters for international marketability.
Surprisingly, the more conventional aspects of this version (like more or less sticking with one protagonist) prove to be a welcome change of pace for a franchise that was in danger of turning its once fresh idiosyncrasies into worn-out shtick. Only the most orthodox J-horror purists will balk at the result. The Grudge is the Lost in Translation of horror movies. Only better. And a bit more knowledgeable about Japan. Okay, so it’s actually nothing like Lost in Translation. Approach it, and its sequel, with an open mind.
3. The Grudge 2 (USA, Japan 2006)
Not to be confused with Ju-On: The Grudge 2, this sequel to the remake of the first Japanese theatrical movie (though itself not a remake of that film’s sequel) gets points for taking the series into new directions and diving deeper into its mythology without overexplaining or giving up on its general principles, e.g., a delightfully confusing plot with too many characters.
Unfortunately, setting up those new directions sometimes takes a bit longer than befits a proper horror film. Still, hadn’t this original and surprising tale been unfairly shunned by critics, fans and general audiences at the time, it would have made a great jumping point for further, more inventive stories on at least two continents. Instead, the franchise went down the spin-off/reboot/crossover circles of hell afterward.
2. Ju-On: The Curse (Japan 2000)
Not to be confused with Ju-On: The Grudge, its theatrical continuation (often wrongly billed as a remake) that became the international cult sensation. The Curse was shot for the Japanese home video market, on video (in fact, it often looks like it was shot on nothing fancier than VHS), in the most common home video dimensions of the ’90s – the 4:3 aspect ratio known from good, old tube TVs. All this makes the film (technically a video) look more out of time these days than any technicolor epic from the 1930s. Just from watching it, it is hard to tell if any kind of budget went into its production.
None of that matters. Director Takashi Shimizu, the mastermind behind all worthwhile incarnations of Ju-On, doesn’t need elaborate special effects or sumptuous cinematic visuals to scare us. Everything that makes a great Ju-On movie is already here: the creepy ghosts with their cat screams and creaking sounds; the fragmented, jumpy storytelling that defies common expectations of dramatic structure; and the earnest exploration of issues like child abuse and domestic violence. Keep your eyes open (if you dare) for an early appearance of Chiaki Kuriyama, only moments before she hit it big with Battle Royale and Kill Bill.
1. Ju-On: The Grudge (Japan 2002)
The first theatrical film in the series establishes Ju-On as the twisted twin of that other lucrative J-horror franchise, Ring – less polished, less coherent, more violent and certainly much scarier. The episodic structure of the first straight-to-video productions had reportedly been the result of inexperience and monetary restrictions. Here it is clearly artistic intent.
Shimizu ups the gore, but he is still most convincing when he scares us by inaction rather than action. He is a master of drawing out that unbearable moment when we just know something very bad will happen very soon. The characteristic creaking sound has been present in the earlier productions, but it is used most effectively here. It will haunt you in your sleep, probably for the rest of your life.