‘The Grudge’ Explained: The Ghost That Never Forgives

The Grudge (2020) Analysis
Horrifying moment from The Grudge (2020)

The Ju-on, or Grudge curse, is a Japanese urban legend that says when someone dies an excruciatingly violent death, they will haunt the house where their murder occurred and inflict mental and physical torture on anyone who dares to enter it.

According to the title credits of The Grudge (2020): “WHEN SOMEONE DIES IN THE GRIP OF A POWERFUL RAGE, A CURSE IS BORN. IT GATHERS IN THE PLACE OF DEATH, BUT CANNOT BE CONTAINED ONCE YOU ENCOUNTER IT, IT WILL NEVER LET YOU GO.”

The film was one of the first to be released in 2020—on January 3—and grossed $50 million by April 2020 despite a chorus of negative reviews.

The film’s director Nicolas Pesce describes it as a “sidequel,” meaning it takes elements from a film that’s already been made and changes around the locations and principal characters significantly. Therefore, it is neither a remake of the four Japanese Grudge movies that have already been made nor of the three American remakes and sequels made in the early 2000s that have followed the main premise of the Japanese series. In this analysis, we’ll look at the symbolism of The Grudge and present an analysis of its meaning as well as excerpts from critical reviews.

Origin of the Sidequel

The Ju-on “Curse-Grudge” movie franchise was created by Japanese filmmaker Takashi Shimizu. It launched in Japan in 1998 with two short films, 4444444444 and Katsumi. The curse revolves around a house in Tokyo where a jealous husband murders his wife, their son, the man he suspects of his wife having an affair with, and the family’s pet cat. His wife returns as a vengeful ghost.

The short film 4444444444 by Takashi Shimizu

To date there have been a total of nine Japanese productions revolving around this theme. The 2020 American version is the fourth English-language film in the series. Others were The Grudge (2004), The Grudge II (2006), and The Grudge III (2009).

Whereas this movie was originally intended to be a sequel—AKA The Grudge IV—a revolving series of screenwriters and scripts led to director Nicolas Pesce being tasked with making the final rewrite. Instead of a sequel or a remake, he calls his version a “sidequel”—it’s using the same basic premise and occurring during the same time frame as the originals, but with completely different characters and locales. Pesce has said that if he gets a chance to make a sequel of this film, he’d like the curse to spread to places such as Australia and Africa.

Movie Poster

Official movie poster for The Grudge

Unlike the film itself, the poster is rendered in stark black and white. It depicts the scene where Peter Spencer is showering, only to suddenly have a vengeful ghost’s fingers emerge from his skull to grab his head. Very creepy!

Trailers

Two official trailers were released for The Grudge. Scenes featured in these trailers that didn’t make the final movie edit include Fiona’s ghost sneaking under Burke’s bed, sawing off Sam’s head, and crawling across a wall behind Muldoon, as well as hair emerging from the bathtub drain—which was a familiar trope in the Japanese series of Grudge films.

The above trailer was released in October 2019. It makes Peter Spencer a central character, showing him walking into the Grudge house, then getting grabbed by something in the tub. The short clip contains a lot of corpses and blood for a trailer and ands with shower scene where fingers emerge from Peter’s head to grab him.

The “red band trailer”—a term for trailers that contain mature subject matter and are intended only for adult audiences—was released in December 2019. Three minutes long, the first two minutes are entirely wrapped up in Detective Muldoon’s first terrifying encounter with Mrs. Matheson’s ghost and Mr. Matheson’s corpse. The final minute includes a quick-edit montage of gore scenes as well as the scene where fingers rise up from Peter Spencer’s head while he’s showering.

Cast

Andrea Riseborough plays Detective Muldoon, a single mother and grieving widow of a husband she lost only months ago to cancer.

Demián Bichir is Detective Goodman, a grizzled policeman who wants no part of any case involving 44 Reyburn Avenue, because everyone he knew who dared to enter that house lost their minds and/or lives in the process.

John Cho is Peter Spencer, a real-estate agent who tries to sell 44 Reyburn Avenue but falls victim to its curse instead. Betty Gilpin is Nina Spencer, pregnant wife of Peter and also his partner in a real-estate agency. Lin Shaye is Faith Matheson, an elderly woman suffering from dementia. She praised director Nicolas Pesce’s flexibility:

I mean, he’s a real visionary. I had a phenomenal time working with him. He was very open to my ideas, which he told me he never is. He said, I don’t usually let actors do what they want. He said, But in your case, there were no rules. I was inspired. The ideas I came up with were inspired by what he was creating. And he acknowledged that and allowed it.

Frankie Faison is William Matheson, Faith’s husband of 50 years who holds out hope that the very presence of the house’s ghosts signify that he will be with his wife in the afterlife.

Jacki Weaver is Lorna Moody, an assisted-suicide specialist whom William Matheson employs to help his wife ease into the next life.

William Sadler is Detective Wilson, who loses his mind after entering 44 Reyburn Avenue, attempts suicide and fails, and is committed to an asylum, where he gouges out his own eyes in a vain attempt to stop seeing the ghosts of the cursed house.

Other key people include the following. John J. Hansen is Burke, Detective Muldoon’s son. Tara Westwood is Fiona Landers, who carries the curse back with her from Japan. David Lawrence Brown is Sam Landers, who gets murdered by Fiona and becomes one of the house’s ghosts. Zoe Fish is Melinda Landers, a little girl who suffers the same fate as her father Sam.

Plot

American caregiver Fiona Landers realizes the home she’s been working at in Tokyo is cursed and decides to head back to the USA. As she’s leaving the premises, a hand emerges from a trash bag and grabs her ankle, signifying that even flying across the globe will not rescue her from the house’s curse.

Instead, she brings the curse home with her to her family’s house at 44 Reyburn Drive in a small Pennsylvania town. Soon she, her husband, and her daughter are all dead.

The next year, the house is inhabited by an interracial elderly couple named the Mathesons. The wife is suffering from dementia, and the husband solicits the services of an assisted-suicide expert named Lorna Moody to help her promptly and gently enter the next lifetime. Soon the wife murders the husband and scares the suicide expert out of the house, where she is eventually terrified by Mr. Matheson’s ghost, leading her to screech off the and into the woods, where she dies after running into a tree.

The house at 44 Reyburn Drive is put up for sale by the Spencers, a married pair of real-estate agents who’ve just been informed that the pregnant Mrs. Spencer is carrying a child that will likely be born severely disabled. While visiting the cursed house, Peter Spencer—unaware of the house’s history and that the Landers have all been murdered—finds the ghost of little Melinda Landers, whom he mistakes for a living girl. Melinda starts inexplicably bleeding from her nostrils, leading Peter to seek her parents and stay at the house overnight waiting for their arrival. Unfortunately, like everyone who enters the house, Peter, his wife, and his unborn child all die violent deaths.

In 2006, after losing her husband to cancer, Detective Muldoon arrives in the small town with her small son Burke. She is paired up with Detective Goodman, and on their first call they find the charred body of Lorna Moody. When Goodman is informed that Moody was somehow tied to 44 Reyburn Drive, he quickly walks away, visibly upset. He tells Muldoon to ignore the case.

Instead, she digs deeper, visiting Goodman’s ex-partner, Detective Wilson, who is in a mental hospital with a deeply scarred face after events at 44 Reyburn Avenue caused him to attempt suicide. He warns her not to go into the house, because if she does, the curse will extend to her as well. After she leaves, Wilson attempts gouging his own eyes out to make the terrifying visions stop. She ignores his advice and enters the house, telling her son Burke to stay outside in the car. He wanders into the house, anyway. She douses the floor in gasoline and sets the house ablaze, confident she’s killed the ghost and broken the curse.

The final scene shows her back at home, hugging Burke before he goes to school. But as she hugs him, she realizes the real Burke has already left. The fake “Burke” transforms into the ghost and begins battering her. It’s unclear whether she lives or dies. What is clear is that the curse has now infected Detective Muldoon’s house as well.

Analysis

In common usage, saying that someone “holds a grudge” is an insult that implies the person simply can’t overcome emotional trauma and move on with their lives. 

In the Grudge series, the core story is of a ghost that is violently murdered in such agonizing circumstances they stick around forever and never let go. Since they were killed with no mercy, they show no forgiveness for anyone who dares disrupt their tranquility by invading the house where they were so brutally slain.

On a very superficial level, The Grudge can be seen as an indictment of those who are unable to forgive.

But on a much deeper level, it can be viewed as a metaphor for trauma and the cycle of abuse—particularly the idea that it is not so easily overcome and that it continues to infect everyone it touches, even for generations or possibly forever. 

Fun Facts/Trivia

  • The number “4” in Japanese is a homophone for the character Shi, which means death. The original Ju-on short film in 1998 was called 4444444444. This trope surfaces in the 2020 version of The Grudge in the form of the cursed house being at 44 Reyburn Drive.
  • The scene in which Faith Matheson plays peek-a-boo with Melinda’s ghost is an homage to a demented elderly man named Saito who played peek-a-boo with Toshio in Ju-on: The Grudge (2002).
  • The posters for the theatrical release that were displayed outside theaters were festooned with black hair extensions.
  • The scene where ghosts stalk Detective Muldoon at the police station is an homage to Ju-on: The Grudge Wii Game.
  • The curse is referred to at one point in the film as a “Ju-on,” which was the name of the Japanese horror series that led to this film and the American versions.

Critical Response

Initial reviews were uniformly poor across Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and PostTrack, but arguably the worst was CinemaScore, which gave the film an “F” grade—making it one of only 20 films ever to score that low.

Some sample reviews:

 “Can you recommend a horror movie based on its impressive meanness? Meet Nicolas Pesce’s new and improved take on ‘The Grudge,’ which is often as nasty as you want it to be, its cheesy jump-scares and generic packaging be damned.” —Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com

 “Some fans of the franchise may be aggrieved that [Pesce] does little with the original Japanese ghosts, but in his version, the curse is what’s important. It is rage against dying, against an unfair universe, and so it is self-propagating. It may not always make sense, but if you want the supernatural as a series of checkboxes, then you have the increasingly absurd Conjuring franchise. If your stomach is a little hardier, then Pesce’s The Grudge is a more fittingly disturbing extension of an erratic franchise. His ghosts are not just unquiet: They are disquieting.” —Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle

“While the film works well enough as a standalone yarn it’s certainly more for the hardcore franchise fans who will more easily connect the dots and voraciously consume the various winks-and-nods scattered throughout. But for Average Joe, The Grudge will play as just another genre filler film, with some slick moviemaking holding it up, that wants to be creepier and needs to be more creative than it is.”  —Martin Liebman, Blu-ray.com

“Nicolas Pesce took a giant swing and missed when he decided to helm another installment in the long-running Grudge series of films.  Unfortunately, this rendition of the haunted house tale does very little to mystify and terror audiences as Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 classic, Ju-On: The Grudge did so many years ago. The film does nothing new to reinvent the horror space in any meaningful way, instead, it utilizes the same old tired and overused tropes of the 2010s we have all grown accustomed to; ominous noises, character investigation, music sting, jump scare, rinse and repeat. The Grudge (2020) is a dime a dozen, it is no exception to the rule, it is the rule.” —Ethan Westerfield, Movie Quotes and More

“There was no reason to remake The Grudge.” —Hope Madden, UK Film Review

Where to Watch

The Grudge is currently not available on Netflix or Hulu. It is streaming on Vudu and Amazon Prime for $2.99; it’s on YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play for $3.99. The Blu-ray can be purchased for $19.99 and the DVD for $13.95.