SADAKO VS. KAYAKO Review: Two-For-One Fun

THE RING and THE GRUDGE get the shared universe treatment.

If The Ring vs The Grudge sounds like an April Fool’s Day joke, that’s because it is, or at least it started out as one back in 2015, a ludicrous franchise-on-franchise crossover in the vein of Alien vs. Predator, or Japan’s own Mothra vs. Godzilla, among others. Fast-forward to a few months later and Sadako vs. Kayako was given the official green light. The rest is history as they say, and the result is a damn good time.

It’s hard to keep count of exactly which Ringu and Ju-On films are considered canon for this hybrid, but between all the Japanese, American and Korean adaptations, even a passing familiarity with their lore is enough of a prerequisite. Tape, phone call, seven days, swamp-girl crawls out of your TV. Cursed home, ghost boy, mother who makes clicking noise as she-spider-walks and murders you. Watch the tape, you die. Enter the house, you die. There’s pretty much no escaping either of these scenarios, but what happens when you put them in close proximity?

That’s the question Sadako vs. Kayako tries to answer in its final act, but the first hour of its 98-minute runtime is dedicated to parallel Ring and Grudge films on an unavoidable collision course. On the Grudge side of things, demure, socially awkward high school student Suzuka moves next door to the Saeki mansion. The young boys she spots going in don’t seem to come out, and she even dreams of wandering the halls of the creepy rundown residence. The film has no pretense of steady revelation; twelve adaptations deep and the Ju-On lore is only new to our main characters. We, on the other hand, get to witness meowing ghost-child Toshio gleefully murdering kids his age, and it’s an absolute riot! A simultaneous build of tension and viscerally enjoyable thrills that add up to a self-aware J-horror romp, though admittedly, one not nearly as self-aware as its counterpart.

Where the Grudge half of the film is relatively straightforward, its Ring segments walk both sides of the line between chilling and hilarious. And yet, the product as a whole manages to balance these two distinctly disparate approaches without ever feeling jarring. In essence, its part Grudge sequel, part Ring metafiction, and entirely, entirely silly in the best way possible. Opening with a Sadako victim, as these things often do, the mysterious videotape finds its way to best friends Yuri and Natsume. In this world, the videotape is one of several myths they learn about in college (another one being “Hanako of the Toilet”) and when they discover the true nature of the tape they’ve just witnessed, they approach their Urban Legends professor for help. Only he’s… a bit of a Sadako obsessive.

See, where anyone else would try to rid the girls of the Ringu curse, the professor welcomes it with open arms. The mysterious video is one he’s been searching for his whole life, and he wants nothing more than to see Sadako before he dies! Where Hollywood is busy making another entirely serious Ring sequel, Japanese filmmakers are choosing to treat it like the post-Scary Movie memetic reference point it undoubtedly is. As you might be aware, Ring lore includes rules about how the curse can skip people depending on who shows whom the video and who else makes a copy of it, but the film decides to circumvent those mechanics via plot convenience and opts for all-out exorcism.

From that point on the self-aware tonal tightrope gives way and the film makes a very intentional descent into self-parody. Two supernatural experts enter the fray out of nowhere, seeming both like series regulars from forgotten installments, as well as characters who stepped out of a TV themselves. Only where Sadako emerges from her cursed well video, these two definitely hopped over from a ghost hunter anime. Masanobu Ando’s leather-clad bad boy waves his hands in swift, ritualistic motions that feel made up on the spot, while a ten-year-old blind girl guides him via her psychic abilities. No intro. No explanation. Just a quick-fix way for characters familiar with both stories to pull the threads together.

On the other hand, that’s also about as good as the film ever gets. While there’s joy to be mined from the sheer idea of Sadako and Kayako fighting (our anime exorcists go to cartoonish lengths to make the curses cross streams), the battle teased by its title is less Freddy vs. Jason and more Batman v Superman, fizzling out without really delivering the goods. But while it’s a film that ends in an unsatisfying climax (feeling like it’s saving the good stuff for some hypothetical sequel), its buildup is the kind of horror-comedy foreplay that feels worth it regardless.

Sadako vs. Kayako no doubt coasts on its recognizable IP (like any such franchise-building endeavor, it even has a neat post-credits stinger), but its real strength lies in how well it spins its multiple plates, oscillating effortlessly between brutal decapitations at the hands of young Toshio and Looney Tunes-esque violence inflicted on Sadako’s victims, with connective tissue made out of personal tales of friendship and fitting in. It may not entirely make good on its promise of an inter-franchise J-horror slugfest, but what it does make good on is a uniquely enjoyable experience, one best had alongside other horror aficionados.

If it’s good enough for a midnight screening at Fantastic Fest, it’s good enough for you to check out on Shudder.