Reviewed By: Jason Oliver
In 1998 Hideo Nakata’s RINGU, based on the 1991 novel of the same name, launched a legitimate film movement in New Asian Horror. It brought worldwide attention to Japanese horror (J-horror) films in the United States and one would argue that much of what we see coming out of studios like Blumhouse are still following the J-horror formula today. Ringu spawned several sequels, spin-offs, and even a TV series in Japan. It was remade to great effect in the U.S. in 2002 by director Gore Verbinski, which also gave way to two sequels. Even the original novel was the first in a trilogy followed by 3 more Ringu related novels, all written by Koji Suzuki. In short, this is a multimedia, multi-national, horror franchise. But much like a Friday the 13th IX, X, remake, etc is anyone asking for more of these movies? Didn’t we reach peak RINGU in 2016 with the ridiculous SADAKO vs KAYAKO (Ring vs The Grudge), a movie that started as an April Fools Day joke, but ended up being all too real?
Opening the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival, SADAKO answers that question in several ways. First, for Nakata, it’s a return to the film franchise and phenomenon he started over two decades ago. This will be enough to peak the interest of many fans. It’s also an adaptation of Suzuki’s most recent RINGU novel, TIDE, so the assumption is that SADAKO has the potential to re-capture the magic of the impressive early J-horror entries. It has a very strong first act, introducing a human child character that may be the reincarnation of RINGU’s ghost child also named Sadako. For the sake of the uninitiated, “sadako” is a term now for a creepy vengeful child ghost, killed by a parent, probably a girl, with long black hair that she can’t keep out of her face, with a proclivity for climbing out of wells and infecting media technology with death curses. Got it? Good. Named in the film as Sadako, her psychic mother, fearing the worst about her little girl, locks her in a closet and attempts to set them both on fire. The O.G. RINGU ghost Sadako we all know and love, breaks out of her seaside cavern prison, presumably to collect a new soul or save human Sadako. I think. Either way, human Sadako shows some telekinetic talent, escapes her closet prison, mom gets set on fire, dies, and takes 4 other apartment tenants with her. Human Sadako then wanders the streets in her nightgown. For extra creepiness, Sadako can see visions of the deaths of people in the specific geographical space where they met their end. Sadako is picked up by the police and taken to the psychological ward of the local hospital.
After a strong start, the movie begins to lose momentum. Some scares do follow, but they feel conventional and unearned. Beginning with a fun premise of CARRIE meets SIXTH SENSE meets RINGU we end up with THE EXORCIST 2. The story’s mystery plods along and we’re never aware of what is at stake. Pieces fit together a bit too easily and others are discarded or used ineffectively.
One of the largest problems is a lack of a “ticking clock”. What makes the original RINGU so compelling is the idea that you only have 7 days to live after being cursed. To survive, you must pass the curse to someone else by making a copy of the VHS tape and make someone watch it. SADAKO has nothing nearly as interesting as that. The only gimmick here pertains to a character, Kazuma, whose sister happens to be a clinical psychologist at the hospital where human Sadako is admitted. He visits the first scene’s burned out apartment, captures something creepy on video tape, uploads it to his Youtube style channel ala Logan Paul, then disappears. The rest of the movie is Kazuma’s sister, Mayu, moving from plot point to plot point unraveling the secrets of an unsatisfying, nonsensical, and bewildering curse while the odd jump scare reminds us this is a horror movie. To also remind us that this is a RINGU movie, Nakata shows another scene of the RINGU ghost Sadako climbing out of a well then out of a television nearly scaring someone to death. Sigh.
The shame is that this entry could have gone somewhere interesting with a new take on an old idea. The RINGU curse has often been described as a virus in many of the entries. This idea would have played well in SADAKO had Kazuma’s video actually gone “viral” and infected everyone who watched it with a curse. It’s somewhat implied that the video is dangerous and much is made of it being taken down, but there doesn’t seem to be any ill-effect for viewers of the clip. Perhaps the ending alludes to this idea, but what fun it would have been to see the curse infect Japan on a large scale and then slowly throughout the world. This was the movie I was hoping to see. Maybe I will in the next one. You know there will be a next one.