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‘Ju-On: Origins’ Is the Horror Series Netflix Needed

The extension of the ‘Grudge’ universe is terrifying, and shows that the streamer might be able to corner another genre

Netflix/Ringer illustration

For a streaming company that likes to jump on trends, Netflix has somewhat dropped the ball in the horror department. A legitimately good original horror series didn’t arrive on the platform until 2018 with The Haunting of Hill House, the loose, 10-part adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel from emerging auteur Mike Flanagan. Despite premiering on the same weekend as Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s highly anticipated Amazon Prime anthology series The Romanoffs, Haunting of Hill House became a hit for Netflix, and generated buzz on social media and sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

Flanagan is an exciting horror director who doesn’t miss the mark—there’s even a lot to admire from his Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, which managed to please both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick loyalists. And for all there was to like about Haunting of Hill House as a harrowing tale of familial trauma, it was also scary as shit. As Adam Nayman outlined for The Ringer after the show’s debut, Haunting of Hill House’s eighth episode was responsible for one of the most effective jump scares in years. If you’ve watched the series, we’ll just refer to it as “the one in the car.”

Even though that jump scare actually made me scream at the top of my lungs and create a not-so-great feeling I would rather not replicate—the cat was not pleased, either—such is the power of mining effective scares. (I was begrudgingly impressed once my heart rate went down.) None other than Quentin Tarantino will go to bat for Haunting of Hill House as his favorite Netflix show; I might not go that far, but it’s definitely in the top tier. Yet I can’t think of a single Netflix series that has delivered on the horror front since Haunting of Hill House, and that represents a disappointing blind spot in the streamer’s expansive catalog of original programming. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has more in common with Riverdale than Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Kingdom is more like if Game of Thrones became zombified; Dark is for viewers who believe Westworld isn’t convoluted enough. These shows don’t exactly make you fly off your seat on the couch. Frankly, it wouldn’t have been all that surprising if Netflix didn’t deliver another promising horror series until Haunting of Hill House’s follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor. (Here’s hoping the Haunting anthology will work like a high-grade American Horror Story.)

Thankfully, though, the streamer got a helpful assist from a familiar source: the Japanese Ju-On franchise—or, as it’s better known stateside, The Grudge. The Grudge franchise has seen better days—the latest American film under the umbrella arrived in January 2020 and was so poorly received it earned the rare distinction of an F grade from audiences via CinemaScore. The franchise hasn’t done much better in Japan, unless the prospect of Kayako (the vengeful ghost who could really use a brush) squaring off with Sadako (the creepy girl from The Ring) is the kind of wish fulfillment you’ve craved since Freddy Krueger fought Jason Voorhees. I am really not kidding: There is a movie in which the evil entities of The Grudge and The Ring franchises fight each other.

It wouldn’t take much for Netflix’s Ju-On: Origins, which premiered on Friday, to clear the very low bar set by recent Grudge productions, and the series does have a few key differences working in its favor. For one, this is a show: As the trailer boasts, Ju-On: Origins is the first time the franchise is getting the television treatment. (It is also the first horror series from Netflix’s Japanese production wing.) Secondly, as the title would imply, the series is a prequel leading up to the events of the original film—adding more context to why one unassuming Japanese home is a hotbed for vengeful spirits cursing its ill-fated inhabitants. Cycles of death repeat themselves in The Grudge; this is how they begin.

As is customary for a Grudge entry, Ju-On: Origins juggles several different timelines, including a paranormal researcher (played by Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) hoping to find the home in Tokyo off very sparse information, and the inciting incident that gets this whole cursed house thing going in the first place. (If you know your Grudge history, you won’t be shocked to learn that the incident involves a husband killing his wife because of an affair; I won’t spoil any more details.)

But what is especially interesting about this extension of the franchise is how the house itself seems to invite further suffering, in a way that connects the show as much to Haunting of Hill House as the rest of The Grudge. A sexual assault perpetrated by some high schoolers breaking into the property opens the second episode—a harrowing event that creates a domino effect for further abuse, pain, and death for the characters. If there is an early through line to Netflix’s slate of original horror programming, it’d have to be cursed homes and shared trauma.

Even Haunting of Hill House ultimately landed on a wistful note by the end of the series, but Ju-On: Origins is uncompromisingly bleak over its six brisk, 30-odd minute episodes. The show is constantly an exercise in brutality, even on the margins of its story: One of my favorite little details are news reports of horrific real-life events playing in the background of several scenes across many timelines, including 1986’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995. Incorporating these actual events creates this pervading sense of dread in the micro and macro; death and grief are inescapable forces that take many forms.

Usually, though, that form in Ju-On: Origins is a scary-ass woman with messy hair and ragged clothing. That is where all Grudge roads lead, and redundancy aside, there’s a reason the haunting visage of Kayako and other vengeful spirits in her image have endured for decades. What helps in this particular series is the restraint: The ghost sightings don’t take up much screen time, which itself creates more suspense and a feedback loop of anxiety. And when the spirits do manifest—like one unfortunate encounter in a closet—Ju-On: Origins is unforgettably horrifying.

Ju-On: Origins may not reach the highs of Haunting of Hill House, but the series is a worthy salve for anyone looking to get spooked before Haunting of Bly Manor hits Netflix later in the year. The bar might’ve been low, as a Netflix original horror series and an extension of The Grudge franchise, but Ju-On: Origins cleared it nonetheless. And as someone who just moved into a new place, I certainly can appreciate the terror derived from settling into new surroundings—and not knowing what might be lurking around the corner.