Over twenty years ago, director Hideo Nakata unleashed the ghostly Sadako on the world with Ringu, frightening an entire generation with her cursed tape. Now, he’s back with Sadako, showing for the first time in North America today at Fantasia 2019…
…The last we saw of Sadako, she was matching scary faces with Kayako in Sadako vs. Kayako, Japan’s answer to Freddy vs. Jason. Having been away from the franchise since the American remake of The Ring Two in 2005, there is something truly special about Nakata returning for what is essentially a soft reboot on the Ringu series, or at least that’s how I interpreted it. The Ringu timeline isn’t exactly straightforward. Written by Noriaki Sugihara (Sadako 2 3D), Sadako revolves around a mysterious girl (Himeka Himejima) who survives a fire set by her mother, a woman who believes the child is the reincarnation of Sadako. Taken in at a hospital, the girl forms a bond with new doctor, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda). But there is something not right about the girl, and when Mayu’s Youtuber brother, Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu) disappears while investigating the girl’s burnt home, it’s up to Mayu to find him and stop the new curse of Sadako, which has gone viral with Kazuma’s video.
That synopsis probably sounds a bit muddled, and that’s no accident. Typical to Japanese horror cinema, Sadako is more of an unnerving dream than it is an old-fashioned haunt. The film opens with a deeply unsettling scene in which our mystery girl’s mother attempts to burn them to death, and from there, it never feels as if we have actually awoken from the nightmare. Watching Sadako is like drifting through a bad dream that shocks and scares as much as it disorients you. Ripe with mystery and the unknown, there is a lot to digest when it comes to the odd new history surrounding Sadako, and the plot with Kazuma is its own circle of confusion that feels as if it’s missing a piece or two. But weird is the name of the game when it comes to the Sadako saga, and weird is what we get in mounds of long, black-haired droves.
Arguably the star of the film and not in it nearly enough, Nakata has found the perfect young girl to take over the role of Sadako in Himejima. Kind of like the kid from The Sixth Sense but with supernatural powers, the tiny actress packs a wallop of a sinister punch with that classic “don’t fuck with me” stare through strands of impossibly long, dark hair. Himejima crawls through your TV and into the role of Sadako with such ease, I expect we’ll be seeing much more of her and the creepy presence she brings in future entries to come. As for the rest of the cast, Ikeda has a sweetness about her that works well in connecting with the young girl through their shared experience of loneliness as children, while Shimizu lights up the screen as the adorable though pathetic Kazuma, a guy who just wants to make a few bucks by selling his soul and making himself look like an asshole on YouTube. Though he himself isn’t present for much of the film, Nakata incorporates Kazuma’s videos all throughout, giving light to the disturbing notion of how social media drives our lives, and is the perfect access to our souls for a malevolent spirit like Sadako.
Shot with a style in which the camera barely ever moves, Nakata keeps us in a constant state of uneasiness. When you’re nervous, you want to pace around to release that energy, so by remaining perfectly still, Sadako slowly creeps under your skin and has you looking over every character’s shoulders for the next glimpse of the titular ghost. Warm oranges and soft blues give the film an otherworldly feeling that work to enhance the eeriness of images like a creepy doll stuck to the middle of a turnstile in the girl’s room, or phantasmic puddles that drip from ceilings.
To be clear though, Sadako is not the powerhouse fright fest that Ringu is. Part of that is because, with a franchise full of iconic elements, Nakata brings a lot of the same old tricks, without adding much outside of a new cursed video which contains a pile of ravenous, naked young men that will haunt me for days to come. Sadako spends a lot of time taking us back through familiar history with the title character, which will likely frustrate fans of the franchise who don’t need the constant reminders. From Sadako’s mop of hair slithering out from nowhere and the black and white visuals of cursed images, fans of the franchise get a lot of the same with this film. Which isn’t to say that the scares aren’t effective, most are, just that Sadako doesn’t reinvent the supernatural wheel. Surprisingly though, no one ever says “seven days”. The new Sadako is a kid after all, so I’m guessing she doesn’t have the patience to wait a whole week.
What really hurts the film though is the conflicting plot-points of the mystery girl and Kazuma. Sadako tries to focus on both mysteries, splitting Mayu’s attention as well as ours and ultimately weakening both stories. Of course, both meet in the end, but by having Mayu spend so little personal time with both the young girl and Kazuma, the emotional impact meant to be felt here is as empty as the darkness of that well Sadako was thrown down all those years ago.
Sadako is a by the numbers horror sequel that isn’t going to surprise you, no matter how many times it yells “boo”. Still, complimented by a spooky soundtrack, eerie coastal shrines and the wonderfully effective Himejima taking over for our favorite Japanese vengeance spirit, Sadako is a fun, traditional ghost story and a solid return to the franchise for Nakata.
By Matt Konopka