Twenty years after Hideo Nakata introduced us to one of the most frightening contemporary horror characters in Ringu (1998), he returns to direct the latest installment in the franchise, Sadako, which opened this year’s Fantasia Festival. Ringu launched the now-familiar curse of Sadako; the ghost of a vengeful teenage psychic who was murdered and thrown into a well. She psionically created a cursed videotape for revenge and murders those who watch it, unless they are able to make a copy and show it to someone else.
The impact Ringu had on J-Horror was huge and influenced the entire genre for over a decade, giving us films such as Ju-On (1998), Dark Water (2002) and One Missed Call (2003). The image of the yūrei continued into Western Culture as American remakes of all these films exist. While Sadako is an average return to a prominent franchise, it’s unfortunately not as scary or as powerful as its predecessors.
The film follows a young girl (Himeka Himejima) with amnesia who is admitted to a hospital’s psych wing and put under the care of psychologist Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda). Raised in secrecy and often kept in a dark closet, the girl managed to survive a fire started by her mother, Hatsuko Sofue (Rie Tomosaka), who believed her daughter to be a reincarnation of Sadako due to her psychic abilities. (Carrie vibes, anyone?) Meanwhile, Mayu’s brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), who makes online videos, attempts to create another viral video by visiting the burned ruins of the girl’s apartment complex. It’s here that he accidentally reawakens the forgotten curse of Sadako.
As the Ringu franchise spans from 1998 to 2019, we get to see how Sadako’s videotape curse has evolved with technology. Here, it’s more modern than ever as we explore the curse coming back through Kazuma who is essentially a YouTuber desperate for more and more views. Social media has always had its downsides, but it’s scary to face the reality that a digital curse can be widespread so instantly – which is exactly what Sadako wants. Kazuma’s video is one of the scariest aspects of Sadako. Inside the desolate, eerie ruins, he comes across some chilling cryptic imagery, including warnings written all over the walls and a hidden room full of talismans. It’s a scene reminiscent of found footage films like The Blair Witch Project (1999). The way its put together evokes a sense of fear that the rest of the film struggles with as we start to see more of Sadako.
While the story starts off well, it stagnates occasionally during the film’s latter half. However, its characters, their impressive acting and the unfolding mystery are interesting enough to keep you engaged – especially the growing bond between Mayu and the girl. When it comes to Sadako herself, she and her legend are pretty lifeless in this film compared to what has come before. There’s still discussion of the curse’s origin, but the impact feels somewhat underwhelming. Previous films have tried to humanize Sadako and create sympathy for her unfortunate fate, but here she is simply just evil. Considering it’s the seventh film in the franchise, it needed to do more to challenge our expectations. Since we’ve become so familiar with Sadako and her curse over the past twenty years, the usual scares just aren’t as effective as they used to be. They become repetitive and it’s a shame that this is the case considering the return of the original director.
Though expectations of new scares fell flat, there’s still some striking imagery thanks to the wonderful cinematography. The score is also a nice surprise, but it’s nowhere near as good as the ones for Suspiria or The Exorcist which the film’s press release boldly compares it to. Overall, Sadako is still a decent watch for a new entry in a long-standing horror franchise, but it will definitely be favored more by returning fans who simply can’t get enough of the iconic J-Horror imagery.