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The Original Grudge Trilogy is an Uneven, But Ambitious Ghost Story

The Grudge trilogy did its best to keep growing its ghost mythology in unexpected ways.

By Matthew Jackson
A collage featuring monsters from The Grudge (2004), Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2006), and The Grudge 3 (2009).

The slew of American remakes of Japanese horror stories that began with The Ring in 2002 is still fascinating in the overall landscape of 21st century horror cinema, even if pretty much everyone agrees that it never got better than that first film. Directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts, The Ring remains a very solid adaptation of a Japanese ghost story that fit seamlessly into American pop culture, and while it's easy to see why it launched a Hollywood adaptation craze, it was also impossible to replicate.

But dismissing the rest of the J-Horror remake cycle as something that could never live up to The Ring is shortsighted. Yes, The Ring is still the accepted masterclass among that crop of films, but there are other stories worth examining there, including one of The Ring's most immediate followers: The Grudge. Based on Takashi Shimizu's Japanese ghost story Ju-On: The Grudge, and featuring Shimizu himself behind the camera as director, the film touched off a five-year franchise that spanned three films (another new entry would follow more than a decade later, in 2020) and made its own cultural impact with its dark specters, specifically a pale little ghost boy who meows at his victims like a cat. 

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In the years since the first Grudge film was released in 2004, most audiences have forgotten the film and its two immediate sequels, particularly in light of The Ring's enduring impact as one of the scariest films of the 2000s. But with both The Grudge 2 and The Grudge 3 streaming on Peacock in time for Halloween, I got curious. Are these films forgettable afterthoughts amid a larger wave of American horror, or is there something interesting lurking in there? What I found was a little surprising, even if the films themselves remain uneven and, in the case of The Grudge 3, still a bit sloppy. 

First, a refresher: The Grudge is a ghost story that posits that violent, rage-filled deaths leave behind a curse in the place where the death occurred. That curse lingers in the place of death, ready to pass itself to the next unfortunate soul who wanders in, breeding discontent, anger, and ultimately more death. Enter American exchange student Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who visits a house containing just such a curse as part of her job as a home health care worker, and finds herself embroiled in a deadly supernatural mystery. 

We all remember that part, right? The hand emerging through Karen's hair while she's in the shower, the little boy with the voice of a cat, the ghostly woman whose broken neck makes her croak like a gurgling pipe? These are the enduring images of The Grudge, and looking back at the film now, it's easy to see why. Shimizu's adaptation of his own Japanese film is a very solid supernatural suspense story with a pair of memorable dark forces at its core, and an ending that's more foreboding than hopeful, even if Karen does make it out in the end. So, where does the story go from there?

An Ambitious Sequel

The Grudge 2 does not have the best reputation. It was viewed almost uniformly upon its release as a letdown, which may help explain why The Grudge 3 became a direct-to-video release a couple of years later. But in retrospect, there's a lot going for this film. Shimizu came back to direct, and writer Stephen Susco returned to script the second installment, which follows Karen's sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) as she investigates the depths of the curse after witnessing her sister's death. Like the original, the film takes a nonlinear approach to the storytelling, giving us parallel narratives of what happens to Aubrey as she investigates the now half-burned house while also following an American family dealing with their own version of the curse in a Chicago apartment building. Because the rules of the original film are laid out so clearly, it's easy to predict what's going to happen to a lot of these people, which may help explain some of the disappointment surrounding it. What's less easy to predict, however, is what happens when the rules start to shift. 

Looking back at The Grudge 2 now, what I love most is Shimizu's efforts to show us how the curse morphs and evolves over time, how it's exacerbated by attempts to shut it down, how it originated, and even how different people lend their own flavors to its dark energy. It's a remarkably ambitious play for a sequel to make, and Shimizu supplements that with some very memorable kills, including one in which the ghost of Kayako (Takako Fuji) rises up out of a tub of photo development chemicals. 

A Trilogy Full of Ideas

By the time things get to The Grudge 3, things are a little more uneven, as the film attempts to chart the course of what happens to that apartment building in Chicago as the curse morphs and spreads again. The kills aren't as solid, and Shimizu's suspenseful camerawork is sorely missed, but even here there's something ambitious to enjoy. In this film, we get to explore what happens when the curse starts to shift into a new form even beyond the place where it dwells and the people it touches. It's a good idea, but the problem is it gets going just as the film is ending, leaving you wanting a deeper dive that never comes. 

Still, there's a lot to sink your teeth into in these films, reputation aside. The Grudge trilogy might be a relic of a bygone trend in American horror, but these films did have plenty to offer, and those offerings are still out there waiting for you, like a ghost in the dark.

The Grudge 2 and The Grudge 3 are now streaming on Peacock.