This specific review series is a continuation of “Compulsive Franchise Disorder — Ju-On/ The Grudge: Part 1 (2000-2009)” and can be considered a sister critique to my coverage of “The Ring (Part 1 and Part 2)”. Part 1 surrounded the rise of the franchise, as it became the second most recognizable brand in J-Horror cinema, before making a successful transition to Hollywood. “The Grudge (2004)” was such a hit that it became a significant part of western pop culture, but the harsh reception towards “The Grudge 2” deflated its mainstream appeal and “The Grudge 3” condemned the franchise to the direct-to-DVD market… Or so we thought…
It turns out there is a fate worse than being released direct-to-DVD — and it’s called not being released at all!
Much like “The Ring”, the brand still was pretty marketable in Japan, so further sequels were developed. But for some reason, they never were given any kind of real distribution in the west. Was interest in the franchise simply that low? I doubt it, because even though “The Grudge 3” wasn’t good, it still sold a lot of DVD’s. Could it have been the name? Westerners know the franchise as “The Grudge“, not “Ju-on“. Could there be a rights issue involved? I suppose its possible that the rights holder to “The Grudge” trademark already saw a Hollywood reboot on the horizon and didn’t want to potentially over-expose the brand, but I don’t know. Maybe the movies just suck, as it wouldn’t be until SHUDDER gained exclusive streaming rights to “Sadako Vs Kayako” that the franchise found any kind of mainstream attention in the west — and that’s probably because it was a cross-over. This did seem to stoke the embers of the franchise though, as since then we’ve gotten a netflix mini-series and a new Hollywood reboot, but let’s figure out what we’ve been missing.
As a reminder — obviously a Japanese production is going to be more concerned with their domestic market. If it seems like I’m focused too much on their impact (or lack of) in the west, it’s because… that’s where I live… I can’t comment too much on how the Japanese public continues to view these films.
Both “Ju-on: Black Ghost” and “Ju-on: White Ghost” were produced to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the franchise, each being a lean one hour long and able to be boxed together for the same DVD release.
JU-ON: BLACK GHOST (2009)
(Written and Directed by Mari Asato)
(Starring Ai Kago, Kōji Seto and Yuri Nakamura)
“Black Ghost” recycles the classic formula, with the story being told in vignettes, shown in anachronistic order, except this time there is a NEW malevolent spirit carrying out their supernatural grudge. I thought this feature was pretty dull, alternating between a rehash of the franchise’s greatest hits and experimenting with new ideas that simply fail to land. Traditionally — “The Grudge” begins with the origins of the specific curse and gradually expands on the lore. “Black Ghost” attempts to be clever by keeping the identity of the ‘grudge bearer’ a secret, building these origins into a twist. I like the idea, but it ends up making the narrative feel more random than it really was, as there just isn’t a lot to glue the vignettes together until late in the movie. “Black Ghost” does make an admirable effort to evoke the feel of its predecessors and… I guess it does have its moments… But I usually found myself thinking that its predecessors pulled off similar “chills” more effectively. This one always seems to show what should be hidden in the shadows… and then hide in the shadows what should be shown… Every time I would start to feel the hair on my neck about to rise, there’d be an awkward special effect or the cast would get a little too campy and that hair would go back down.
Also — Toshio makes a cameo and it is really f@cking stupid.
I really do appreciate the attempt to try something different though and for an anniversary short, the production values were surprisingly polished.Rating: 4.5/10
JU-ON: WHITE GHOST (2009)
(Written and Directed by Ryûta Miyake)
(Starring Akina Minami, Tsuyoshi Muro and Hiroki Suzuki)
“Ju-on: White Ghost” is…shockingly good… so much so that it almost seems wasted as a glorified DVD extra. There are quite a few scary moments that aren’t confined by the shadow of its bigger brethren. They were even inventive enough that some of the creepy imagery or jumps caught me off guard. “White Ghost” is also distressingly gruesome and explores some pretty f@cked up content, even for the franchise. The story is once again told through vignettes and shown in anachronistic order, but the difference between “White Ghost” and “Black Ghost” is that its narrative is much more involving. The characters feel like they have hopes, dreams and the potential for their own arcs, even if they’re mostly going to be cut short by the curse. Their interactions all have intriguing dynamics, whether it’s a sense of warmth amongst each-other or something much… MUCH darker. This is important because it gives us a reason to care for them and I loved, loved, LOVED how not everyone dies (at least that we see). This actually heightened the suspense, because I didn’t automatically view the subjects of the vignettes as inherently doomed, making it easier to empathize with them.
I did have a few issues with “White Ghost“. While I thought the titular white ghost was pretty menacing, I didn’t understand why she was the primary grudge bearer as opposed to… er… other characters who shared her origins. Also — Toshio makes another cameo and it still sucks… Why do the filmmakers keep using him to provide levity? But overall, I was pleasantly surprised with “White Ghost“. It was everything “Black Ghost” was striving to be and I thought it was scarier than most of the canon films.Rating: 7/10
JU-ON: THE BEGINNING OF THE END (2014)
(Directed by Masayuki Ochiai)
(Written by Takashige Ichise and Masayuki Ochiai)
(Starring Nozomi Sasaki, Sho Aoyagi and Reina Triendl)
“Ju-on: The Beginning of the End” was supposed to be the triumphant return of the Saeki family to Japan, following their trip to Hollywood (and the spin-offs which did not feature them), but what they got instead was just another entry in a bloated franchise that ranged from serviceable to subpar, all for the sake of performing moderately well at the box office. “The Beginning of the End” isn’t terrible and as far as domestic reboots go, it has the dubious honor of being better than “Sadako 3D“. The cast is fine and there is production value, even if some of the creative decisions arguably made the movie seem cheaper than it probably was. My problem with “The Beginning of the End” isn’t with any of its actual problems… like how the new origins story of the Saeki family is hokey thanks to some awkward performances and gratuitous shock value… or how some of the gore effects look silly instead of scary… or how wonky the framerate is during the finale… or how they never explained the importance of spirals… or the boring characters… or the use of natural lighting, which lessens the dread and gives the film a boring aesthetic…
Okay, I did take issue with all of those things, but my REAL problem with it is just how the entire movie feels like it’s going through the usual routine.
Once again, the narrative is told through vignettes shown in anachronistic order. Once again, we get the usual assortment of teachers, real estate agents and troublemaking schoolgirls wandering into their eventual deaths. There is another ripped out jaw, another creepy diary detailing Kayako’s madness, another body lurking in the attic, another live eye staring through a journal, more curse induced domestic violence and an almost identical investigation into why everything was happening. We’ve seen all of this before and in some cases, multiple times within the same f@cking franchise. The only difference is that Toshio is now the main antagonist, with Kayako serving in a supporting capacity, which is pretty stupid because Kayako actually has the only genuinely effective scene (her introduction). Toshio hasn’t been creepy for a long time and if anything, looks sillier now that he’s in the spotlight.
“The Beginning of the End” is rarely actively bad and it might even be OK for those who have never seen a “Ju-on” entry before. I’d say from a technical standpoint, it’s mostly adequate, but… I’m just so tired of this formula… I really wish the franchise followed in the footsteps of “White Ghost“, instead of simply reheating the usual cliches. To make matters even more frustrating, “The Beginning of the End” is not really a sequel to the original films, being somewhere between a soft reboot and a full-on remake. So why not just introduce an entirely new curse? Try some new things? Or just be “Ju-on 3” and continue the story instead of recapping it.Rating: 4.5/10
JU-ON: THE FINAL CURSE (2015)
(Directed by Masayuki Ochiai)
(Written by Takashige Ichise and Masayuki Ochiai)
(Starring Airi Taira, Nonoka Ono and Renn Kiriyama)
“Ju-on: The Final Curse” is a worthy sequel… to “Ju-on: The Beginning of the End“… because it’s just as competently boring as that one was, sharing identical weaknesses and “strengths”. It regurgitates more of the classic scares, even the ones that “The Beginning of the End” seemed to think it was above re-using. The narrative is told in the same anachronistic order, through vignettes, with the heroine being the sister of the previous protagonist… which now that I think about it, had already been done in “The Grudge 2” and more recently in “Sadako 3D 2“… The curse escapes the boundaries of the house. Again. There are three schoolgirls who stumble upon the curse. Again. The characters spend all their time discovering what the audience learned many f@cking movies ago. AGAIN.
One ‘episode’ almost becomes compelling because it teases the possibility of the story exploring some new territory… but then it doesn’t… That was highly disappointing for me. The director doesn’t rely so much on natural lighting, taking care to create a more horror friendly aesthetic, yet it doesn’t really help when we’ve experienced these same chills in all the previous movies. I still think “Ju-on: The Final Curse” is technically an adequately made movie, as its predecessor mostly was, but it still succumbs to the same routine. If you liked “The Beginning of the End“, you’ll probably like this one too.Rating: 4.5/10
SADAKO VS KAYAKO (2016)
(Written and Directed by Kôji Shiraishi)
(Starring Mizuki Yamamoto and Masanobu Andô)
I remember renting “The Ring” for my birthday in the early 2000’s, well after it had been released and reshaped the genre. Some friends and I discussed what we would do if we watched the cursed tape. My solution was obvious — On the 7th day, visit the house from “The Grudge” and provoke a battle between the curses. I felt like this was such an ingenious plan that I wrote it down in my notebook of future scripts I would write, only to realize that there was one flaw… How exactly would ‘The Ring girl’ and ‘The Grudge lady’ actually fight? With Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, it makes sense as they are very physical threats, who have been involved in many of battles throughout their respective franchises. We can envision what their showdown would be like, even before we saw it take place in “Freddy Vs Jason“. The same goes for “Alien Vs Predator” or… f@ck me… even “Puppet Master Vs Demonic Toys“, but neither Sadako, Kayako or their Hollywood counterparts have ever fought anybody, as they’re living curses, not monsters. So I dismissed the idea as silly, as all I could come up with was… hair pulling?
Fast forward nearly a decade later, I was shocked to learn that “Sadako Vs Kayako” was actually a thing. My immediate response was “… Does anybody even want this?“, as I had yet to learn that both franchises were still going in Japan. The trailer dropped and I have to admit to feeling some excitement at the sight of Kayako crushing Sadako’s tape, but it looked about as silly as I thought it would be. Even though there wasn’t any hair pulling, there was the almost cartoonish looking visual of Kayako and Sadako charging at their victim, who jumps in the well, causing both to collide into each-other cartoon style. I hadn’t been keeping up with either franchise, so I wasn’t sure if they had descended into self parody, or whether or not this was intended to be goofy. I’m also not an expert on the Japanese box office, nor what constitutes as a financial hit, but “Sadako Vs Kayako” brought in numbers comparable to “Sadako 3D”, for better or worse. The reviews were mixed to lukewarm, but at least it was released in the west through Shrudder. So what do I think of it?
“Sadako Vs Kayako” is pretty silly, even though it never really becomes parody. It’s definitely kind of dumb, filled with characters who make baffling decisions or say ridiculous things. But I was never bored either, probably because I was spending most of the experience laughing at… everything… “Sadako Vs Kayako” isn’t scary, but there are times when it almost does provoke a chill, only to ruin the moment with a hilarious visual or line of dialogue. There are times when the comedy definitely feels intentional though and I can’t really blame the filmmakers, as you can only see a boy meowing like a cat so many times before it starts to look more adorable than terrifying. But the movie also wants to evoke genuine emotions. When the characters cry, I think I was supposed to be sad for them. When they’re afraid, I think I was supposed to fear for them. Complicating matters is the arrival of Keizo (Masanobu Ando) and Tamao (Mai Kikuchi), a pair of eccentric exorcists who are making light of the situation at hand, seemingly being more amused by the curses than scared of them, which makes it harder for audiences to be afraid. I would normally criticize their inclusion for deflating the tension, but because the “scares” themselves were already doing that, I could just sit back and enjoy watching the exorcists take the piss out of everything. BUT COMPLICATING MATTERS EVEN FURTHER is Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro), the heroine of ‘The Grudge’ plot, who conveys fear so convincingly that it almost becomes contagious, making it even harder to tell if this is all supposed to be funny or not. I liked Suzuka a lot more than Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto), who’s presented as so heroic that she becomes kind of dull.
The story changes a lot of the lore surrounding these curses, so it does feel like we’re watching a reboot of both “The Ring” and “The Grudge“, without any real cross-over until the 3rd act. Because “The Ring” franchise seems to be doing better financially, Sadako is the more prominent threat, so if you’re a fan of “The Grudge“, you might be disappointed that Kayako is really just a glorified plot device. I applaud the filmmakers for doing a great job at setting the stage for their showdown, but said showdown sucked. Even though Sadako is the primary antagonist, Kayako is introduced with the most fanfare and much time is spent on building her up. We see Sadako almost immediately, while Kayako is kept off-screen, with only her iconic death rattle signaling her presence. It’s quite effective… but it almost seemed to me that she was completely outmatched. The movie keeps saying that they’re equal, but it’s showing us otherwise, so I was disappointed in the climax… But don’t worry, if you’re like me and laughing at it more than anything else, the actual conclusion is a comedy goldmine. Even I wasn’t expecting… THAT… so I can’t complain too much. No one is going to argue that “Sadako Vs Kayako” is anything special. People have called it ‘mediocre’ and they’re right, because it really is. People have said it’s boring and they’re also right, because most of the screen-time is spent on rebuilding the lore and hyping up a battle that ends up being a letdown. But I thought it was pretty amusing in an ‘unintentionally comedic’ kind of way, except I don’t know if I’m right because that might’ve been the directors plan all along.
At the absolute least, I enjoyed this more than the last few entries of both franchises.Rating: 5/10
Now let us visit Hollywood once more with another entry in the western side of the franchise…
THE GRUDGE (2020)
(Written and Directed by Nicolas Pesce)
(Starring Tara Westwood, Demián Bichir and John Cho)
“The Grudge 4” has been in some form of development ever since “The Grudge 3” was released, although the project went through multiple false starts and the producers seemed unsure whether they wanted to do a sequel or a reboot. You’d think “The Grudge (2020)” would be quietly cancelled following the harsh reception towards “Rings“, as they were both cut from the same cloth and “The Ring” was the more popular and prestigious brand, but… nope! Somehow “Friday the 13th” ended up being the collateral damage of that fallout (grrr). “The Grudge” was given an unceremonious January release and opened to scathing reviews — although it performed OK at the box office. I don’t think anyone really noticed though, as its perceived success or failure never really seemed to make headlines. It left such a soft footprint that I… actually… forgot… this… even happened…
And I kind of wish I never remembered.
“The Grudge (2020)” is pretty terrible, probably the worst of the franchise, but… it’s still a hair better than “Rings“. The filmmakers ultimately decided to go with both the sequel route AND the reboot route, with this being canonically set in “The Grudge (2004)” continuity. The opening scene even takes place in Japan, with Kayako passing on the curse to a hapless American who will inevitably bring it to the states with her, starting off a new curse. I’m not going to be an asshole and point out that “The Grudge 3” already did it first, but the biggest problem with “The Grudge (2020)” is its too detached from the 2004 film to satisfy long term fans… but it’s also dependent on the 2004 film. If you haven’t seen “The Grudge (2004)” or don’t remember much about it, you might find the episodic nature of the story to be disorienting. Some scenes are lifted from the 2004 film and what the f@ck were the filmmakers thinking hinging the finale on a plan that we know is doomed to fail because they already tried it in the 2004 film? One thing I’ve never liked about this franchise is that there’s always been a grim sense of inevitability, where we know the characters stand no chance overcoming this evil. It makes it hard to invest in them, but “The Grudge (2020)” attempts to balance this out by giving everyone tragic backstories. Does this work? Absolutely not. We — the audience — are often told when these characters die in advance, so any attempt at fleshing them out just feels more like padding and “The Grudge (2020)” is already boring. It’s not helped that the acting isn’t very good, with a few performances even standing out as laughably bad.
When not imitating its predecessors, “The Grudge (2020)” provides the same jumps and jolts of any other ghost story. The ghosts lack any distinct features, like Toshio’s creepy meowing or Kayako’s long hair and spider walk. Her death rattle can be heard, but that just draws attention to how less interesting these murder ghosts are. The only thing somewhat unique about it is the R-rating — oh, whoops. “The Grudge 3” already did that too… The kills aren’t even that good! “The Grudge (2004)” was PG-13 and that had more horrifying and memorable scenes of violence. Even “The Grudge 3” had more entertainment value, although if I can say anything in favor of “The Grudge (2020)“… I do think the filmmakers had a genuine vision…. that just didn’t work out… There was a glimmer of inspiration here and there, even if once again it didn’t quite connect — such as Frankie Faison’s monologue about how the haunting gives him hope, which ALMOST works. In contrast, “The Grudge 3” felt like a cynical cash grab, even if it’s not quite as boring… But that’s the problem… “The Grudge (2020)” is just really boring. I appreciate the effort, but that didn’t make it any less boring.Rating: 3.5/10
The series was rebooted for a… er… series… called “Ju-On: Origins“, which appeared on netflix in 2020. Despite the title suggesting that this would be some sort of prequel, “Origins” is a standalone story that has nothing to do with the Saeki family. It follows an unrelated cast of characters who are drawn to an allegedly haunted house, like flies to a web. It makes perfect sense for the saga to translate into a mini-series, as the vignette structuring would be perfect for an episodic format. Unfortunately, while I have no idea whether this drew in good numbers for netflix, the reception was very divisive — which to be fair, is the best this franchise has gotten for awhile. I agreed with a lot of the complaints that the plotting was unusually confusing for a “Ju-on” entry. Characters seem to vanish for such long periods of time that I would actually forget about them. Their arcs often seem to fade away instead of being resolved and there were plenty of baffling creative decisions in regards to the scares. But I also agree with all the praise given towards the genuinely spooky atmosphere and the fact that “Origins“… *sniffles*… defies the formula and tells its own story. It certainly pays respect towards its predecessors, but is determined to forge its own iconic chills. Whether it succeeds or not, of course, is up to you.
I have to admit though… one scene towards the end… really scared the shit out of me. Not only was that a franchise high, but that… really f@cked up reveal of the ‘woman in white’… might be one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in my life. So while I do think “Origins” was a very flawed series, it had enough good stuff to make me happy and I would LOVE for the franchise to follow in its direction.
I have to say though… this was a rough marathon to get through… Watching all of these movies within a relatively short period of time drew attention to how they’re mostly identical, with each being just a little worse than the last. The formula grew stale so quickly, yet the quality never deteriorated to the point where I could feel anything like anger — only an increasing amount of boredom. It’s a shame too, because unlike “The Ring“, I think “The Grudge” had a lot more potential to evolve without losing its spooky appeal. What’s even more frustrating is that “White Ghost” and “Origins” showed that you can do more with the concept, but instead they kept falling back to the same ole shit that had long ceased to be scary.
The behind-the-scenes story surrounding the rise of “Ju-on” is infinitely more compelling than any of the stories on-screen, as there isn’t any film series that began on the home market, rose into a full fledged theatrical release and then onto international popularity. “Ju-on” was never really able to eclipse its bigger brethren “The Ring“, either at the box office or in terms of critical acclaim, but its failures were also not as pronounced. When “Sadako 3D” and “Ju-on: The Beginning of the End” rebooted both of their franchises around the same time, the former was much more financially successful, but the harsher reception meant that “Ju-on: The Final Curse” retained more of its audience than “Sadako 3D 2” did… “The Grudge (2020)” made a lot less money than “Rings“, but I don’t recall seeing any headlines about its disappointing box office intake… and as far as I know, it didn’t kill off an entirely separate franchise (Grrrr). I think “The Ring” had more superior sequels and more interesting misfires, but it also had a lot more really bad entries, whereas”Ju-on” and “The Grudge” only occasionally had a really bad entry.
Both both franchises are alike though in that they’ve become shadows of their former selves. I personally hope they enter a period of hibernation until someone figures out how to breathe new life into them.
We all know that they will be kicked out of bed the moment someone wants to make a quick buck off ’em.