In the middle of the night, something stirred me from my sleep. A noise perhaps? I couldn’t say. All I remember is turning, bleary-eyed to see what the disruption might be and seeing a stranger sitting on my bed beside me. Long dark hair covered her face, but I was certain she was staring at me. I jumped up with a gasp loud enough to wake my husband. But as he turned toward me, she vanished! Or—more accurately—my husband dropping the knee he’d had bent up in slumber. And as my eyes adjusted, I realized there was no J-horror nightmare in my room, just my atrocious night vision combining with the spooky fragments of Sadako (and my husband’s knee) to give me a scare. The rest of the night, I tossed with fitful visions of this vicious ghoul snatching at my heels. Which was strange, because for all the nightmares Ringu’s ghost inspired the night after I saw her new movie, Sadako felt like a total snooze.
Director Hideo Nakata could be considered the father of Sadako. Sure, she was the central villain of Koji Suzuki’s Ring novels. But it was Nakata’s Ringu that made her an international horror icon the moment she stepped out of that well and crawled through the TV screen. Nakata would go on to guide his creepy daughter through Ringu 2, then jump over to her American sister Samara for the spinoff sequel The Ring Two. Now, 20 years after Nakata walked away from the Japanese franchise, he’s returned with Sadako. It’s a new chapter that brings fresh blood but little in the way of innovation.
Let me put it this way: If America remakes this one, it’d star Logan Paul. The central story is about a kind-hearted psychologist Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda) who is caring for a young girl who survived a horrible tragedy but remembers nothing of what happened or who she is. However, Mayu’s work/plot is interrupted by her goofball brother, aspiring Youtube star Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu). When his dumb stunts aren’t enough to make him a viral sensation, he decides to invade one of the “creepiest places in Tokyo,” the burnt out remains of a house fire that killed five. Showing zero respect for the dead or anything really, Kazuma stomps into a crime scene and incurs the wrath of Sadako’s curse. When Kazuma vanishes, his sister must unravel the mystery of the strange girl spotted in his brother’s last video. And of course, this will tie back to the little amnesiac who wears long white dresses with her long dark hair.
The curse spreading through Youtube instead of VHS tapes is the only noteworthy update on the Ringu mythos. And frankly, it’s been done by other movies by now and will be done by more. But at least Sadako knows well enough not to make the jackass Youtuber its protagonist. With his juvenile pranks, Kazuma wears out his welcome almost immediately. So, there’s a twisted pleasure to thinking such macabre prank videos might incur grisly recompense. (Maybe a remake with Logan Paul wouldn’t be such a terrible idea…) But Mayu isn’t all that interesting either. She only has two emotions: brow-furrowed concern or wide-eyed terror. When she’s listening to one after another after another after another exposition dump from a fleeting character with vague Sadako connections, she is concerned. When she’s witnessing the grisly girl terrorizing a victim or siccing her minions of undead children on a new conquest, she’s scared. But neither gives her complexity. Mayu seems to only exist to be nice and confounded. And as this is a sequel in a very well known horror series of books, TV episodes, and films, her ignorance is actually annoying. I began to wish she’d get out of the way so Sadako could give me more scares. But even she flatlines here.
A sluggish pace through a plot that feels achingly familiar might have been saved if Nakata shook me with fresh frights. But Sadako feels very been there, seen that. Video is freeze-framed to reveal hidden, morbid imagery. A girl with long dark hair and a white dress is spotted where she shouldn’t be. Her physicality is eerie as if the footage of her is being shown in reverse (again). Her hair snakes out from under beds. Her eyes bulge to spook us with their intensity. And of course, she’ll crawl out of a well and out of a TV. This happened so early in Sadako that I assumed Nakata had something really spectacular planned for his climax. But nope.
Sadako plays like a greatest hits album where “Bohemian Rhapsody” is track three for no apparent reason. It’s still a great song. But what’s your climax now? For Sadako, it’s nothing near as frightening or satisfying. The film staggers through a final fight and a tedious epilogue then ends with a scare that is only shocking in its tameness.
So why the nightmares?
Sadako the film is not scary. Sadako the character still is. Put her in a movie with a bland protagonist, a predictable plot, surround her with forgettable characters and a cringe-worthy Youtuber, trot out the same old scares from 20 years before, and even if the movie is a bore, she still winds her way into your head. Or more specifically, that image of her coming out of the TV does, because that breaks the contract of horror movies. Audiences watch them with the understanding that whatever horrible, bloody, terrifying things will go on in them will stay on their side of the screen. It’s okay as long as it’s not in my yard. I can shut the TV off and walk away. But when Sadako clawed her way out of that screen, she scoffed at our comfort, our rules, and our pitiful safeguards. She escaped the world of fantasy and entered our minds, turning dreams into nightmares, and twisting knees into ghost girls ready to menace. How to top that iconic horror moment has been something these movies and their imitators have been trying to figure out for decades now. And sadly, this movie that bears her name doesn’t do it, and so it does Sadako no justice.
Sadako made its North American Premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Header Image Source: Fantasia