Studio: Kadokawa Pictures
Director: Hideo Nakata
Writer: Noriaki Sugihara
Producer: Shigeo Minakami, Reiko Imayasu, Kimio Hara
Stars: Elaiza Ikeda, Takashi Tsukamoto, Hiroya Shimizu, Renn Kiriyama, Rie Tomosaka, Hitomi Sato, Himeka Himejima
A psychologist connects her missing brother to the strange case of a mysterious little girl believed to be Sadako reincarnated.
What’s a sound strategy for rejuvenating a flagging fright film franchise that’s a dozen movies deep and creatively harangued by several decades’ worth of conflicting continuities? One suggestion would be to strip a movie’s mythology down to bare essentials while enlisting guidance from the property’s original cinematic mastermind. It worked for “Halloween,” so it tracks that “The Ring” would put similar shots in its venerable veins via “Sadako.”
To pick up the pieces of poorly conceived claptrap concerning a druid cult, a curveball involving a karate-kicking rapper, and a rock star’s polarizing reboot, Michael Myers went back to basics in 2018. By bringing John Carpenter along for the ride, “Halloween” (review here) renewed relations with fans and earned both commercial and critical success in the process.
Across the Pacific, “Ringu” faced not entirely dissimilar circumstances. Although its crossover with “Ju-On: The Grudge” had the pulpy pop of a midnight monster rally, “Sadako vs. Kayako” (review here) didn’t reflect the sincere stakes of its proper predecessors. Over on the American arm, “Rings” (review here) performed so poorly, its disappointing numbers killed Paramount’s overall interest in horror, reportedly making collateral damage out of “Friday the 13th’s” development pipeline.
Simply put, “Ringu” had run a weird course now in need of a new direction. Or rather, like “Halloween,” it needed redirection routing back to its roots.
Re-enter Hideo Nakata. Elbowing out 1995’s overlooked tele-movie “Ring: Kanzenban” (review here), it was Nakata who helped usher in the J-horror boom by directing “Ringu,” the hit feature film adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s novel. Nakata returned for “Ringu 2” the following year. But as “The Ring” grew into a many-headed multimedia beast, Nakata’s involvement was limited to the American sequel “The Ring Two” in 2005 and the series hadn’t seen him since. Following 14 more years of new sequels of varying quality, timing appeared optimal to return to the well, pun intended, to see if one of the franchise fathers could recapture the original movie’s macabre magic.
Screenwriter Noriaki Sugihara taps into the imagination of “Ringu’s” other chief architect for this installment’s story. “Sadako,” which is not to be confused with 2012’s “Sadako 3D,” purports to be based on “Tide,” the sixth book in Koji Suzuki’s bestselling “Ringu” series. Judging by Wikipedia’s summary, “Sadako” and “Tide” seem to share only broad strokes. None of the novel’s characters carry over. Neither do major events. The movie apparently retains only the idea of Sadako’s extended origin and some knock-on details, essentially un-complicating “Sadako” to go its own way with somewhat streamlined fiction.
Several women feature at “Sadako’s” center. First is a mysterious little girl who remains unnamed for the 99-minute runtime. Padlocked in a closet, the girl’s mother believes her to be Sadako reincarnated. Desperate to destroy Sadako’s spirit, the woman prepares to immolate the girl until supernatural intervention turns the tables into an altogether different tragedy.
Police admit the girl to a local hospital where psychologist Mayu witnesses an unexpected display of the girl’s telekinetic power. Meanwhile, Mayu learns her brother Kazuma dropped out of school to try his hand at social media stardom. With his subscriber base dwindling, Kazuma’s web marketing strategist suggests appeasing his audience by exploring a haunted location. Kazuma chooses the building that the girl’s mother set on fire and he soon vanishes after posting an unsettling video.
As Mayu begins experiencing strange visions, she comes to suspect her brother’s disappearance and the mysterious girl’s unknown origin are connected. The deeper Mayu digs, the closer she comes to discovering the truth about Sadako’s birth, as well as the resurrected curse threatening to kill her family.
Producers are presumably happy considering they got precisely what should have been predicted from giving “The Ring’s” reins back to Hideo Nakata. Whether you’ll feel the same way depends on how up you are for a déjà vu detour back to the familiar feel of the first “Ringu” feature.
Nakata applies his turn-of-this-century touch to give “Sadako” a faint throwback tone. Cellphones are used incidentally. Social media gets loosely integrated into plotting, although a side arc involving a viral YouTube video fades into irrelevancy instead of replacing the cursed VHS tape like some might anticipate. Yet outside of modern inclusions, “Sadako” plays like a pretty traditional vengeful ghost yarn that feels stylistically aligned with J-horror’s heyday.
This means you can expect typical trademarks like a ghostly girl, online research revealing bits of backstory, eyes widened by nightmarish apparitions, culture-specific superstitions, and of course, a longhaired woman crawling out of a television. On an aesthetic level, “Sadako” opts for a skeletal piano score, a lightly bleached color palette, and soap opera characterizations. At times, these instruments combine to play a concert according to made-for-TV notations. But the slowly smoldering suspense stays true to a 1990s tempo that synchs “Sadako’s” horror hallmarks with “Ringu’s.”
“Sadako” progresses too leisurely to quicken pulses of audiences anxious for action. Its paranormal PG-13 spooks aren’t primed to impress viewers who respond to more visceral violence either. The filmmakers set out for something technologically straightforward, narratively efficient, and relatively low risk. In returning to proven formula, Hideo Nakata and company deliver a thriller that’s classically creepy, if a bit basic. Considering the hills and valleys this series has seen over 20 years, staying safe may have been the smartest move to make.
NOTE: There is a brief post-credits sting.
Review Score: 65