Few horror franchises have been as resilient as “Ju-On,” which faded in popularity stateside, at least until the release earlier this year of Nicolas Pesce’s take on “The Grudge,” but has been persistent in its home country of Japan. From 2000 to 2020, there were a stunning 13 films in this series that originated as a pair of short films by director Takashi Shimizu, including the four American versions and the guilty pleasure that is the crossover film “Sadako vs. Kayako.” The story of “Ju-On” by this point is so dense that it would be impossible to cover it here, but the basic premise has remained relatively consistent—an act of violence so horrific that it created a haunting. The idea of brutal violence cursing a place or person now comes to Netflix in the form of a 6-episode prequel series called “Ju-On: Origins,” and it proves that there’s still some life in this concept.
The “Ju-On” films have always been episodic, often tying in various people who happened upon its severely haunted house and jumping around in time to put the pieces together. So a series of half-hour episodes fits the franchise's structure, and it’s nice to see the creators keeping it relatively tight in terms of running time. There's no way this concept could sustain a 10-episode, hour-long episode season. However, it must be said that the team behind “Origins” don’t employ much of an episodic structure at all. So you could look at this as a short TV season or a long “Ju-On” movie with credit breaks placed within it. Take your pick.
“Origins” starts with the story of a journalist who is collecting stories of the supernatural and encounters an actress with quite a tale. Her boyfriend went to the infamous house and may have brought back a haunting. They hear footsteps in the middle of the night and other strange sounds. After tragedy strikes the actress, the writer becomes obsessed with trying to find the house that may have cursed her.
Meanwhile, a teenager is taken to the house by a few classmates and brutally assaulted and raped there. Potential viewers should be warned that “Origins” is one of the darkest shows you could watch on Netflix or any streaming service. The violent rape isn’t even the most gruesome thing to happen in this relatively short running time. The creators of “Origins” employ real-world horror like child murder and vicious assault more than they do supernatural events. It’s not a series big on jump scares (but there are a few) as much as maintaining an unwavering eye on extreme violence. It wants to unsettle you when there are no ghosts anywhere to be seen, even if a powerful curse is the reason for much of the violence on screen. At just around three hours total, the extreme nature of “Origins” will be too much for some viewers, especially a sequence involving a pregnant woman and a sharp knife.
To this viewer, the violence in “Ju-On: Origins” feels like a more daring creative choice than just another offering with ghostly figures. The creators of this show take the original concept—that violence unleashes supernatural forces—and weave it through a story that incorporates multiple characters and subplots. Imagery like long black hair came to define this franchise, but “Origins” works by returning it to its roots (pun only slightly intended), reminding fans that this is a series about the horrors that men inflict on women and children more than anything else. It drags sometimes and I’m not sure I could tell you how it fits together in terms of plot, but you could claim both those things about most of the 13 films in this series, even the good ones. The best thing I could say about “Ju-On: Origins” is that it reminded me why this franchise just won’t die, while pointing to what it could look like for the next two decades.
Whole season screened for review.