Fantasia 2019 Review: SADAKO Should Have Stayed In The Well

Sadako must be tired by now. SADAKO definitely is.

Ringu kickstarted a brief, enormous surge in Japanese horror films when it came out. Imitators flooded the market; American remakes were churned out; a number of genuinely great movies poked their heads above the masses. But Ringu came out twenty years ago - nearly as long as the gap between the original Star Wars and The Phantom Menace - and its impact on horror and pop culture has since swung back in the opposite direction. After so many imitations, the “creepy girl with hair over her face” genre is played-out to the point of becoming a joke. Sadako, the once-terrifying ghostly antagonist of the original Ringu, just isn’t scary anymore.

It’s into this environment that Ringu director Hideo Nakata returns with a new sequel to his most famous film. The hype surrounding it suggests it heralds the return of J-horror, but that's hype. Sadly, Sadako doesn’t really bring J-horror back as much as it reheats it in a different decade. Displaying a shocking lack of new ideas, it’s a sorry film that doesn’t tell an interesting story or even deliver many scares.

Appropriately set twenty years after the Ringu, Sadako follows a hospital psychologist whose newest charge, a young girl who survived her mother’s attempt at arson, may or may not be the reincarnation of Sadako. There’s also a cave on a remote Japanese island that contains the spirit of Sadako. And Sadako herself pops up in various places from time to time. It’s not particularly consistent. Most of the story involves our heroine doing research on information the audience already knows, as she seeks out the truth behind Sadako - and the location of her missing YouTuber brother. 

There are moments, here and there, when Sadako seems ready to take off. Ideas flare briefly, story threads show promise, and performances perk up - but these moments are fleeting. Most egregious of the lot is the YouTuber character, who promptly disappears from the film, becoming a mere MacGuffin for the other characters to find. You’d think streaming video would present a way to update and expand the core conceit of Ringu. You’d think that - but Nakata wouldn’t.

Outside of those flashes of inspiration, Sadako draws from a well that’s truly dried up. Maybe the film would have felt fresher fifteen years ago; maybe not. It’s hard to say. Today, though, seeing Nakata falling back on the same tired J-horror scares is frankly embarrassing; seeing him blandly and inconsistently remix the series’ mythology, seemingly for its own sake, is dull. Every new revelation about Sadako is treated as if it’s something new and shocking to the audience, but for fans, it's mostly old news. The premiere audience was inert for the duration, except for occasional laughter at the sheer risibility of the material. 

Adding to all this conceptual drudgery, Sadako just looks cheap. Everything’s shot digitally today, of course, but Sadako looks really digital, the cinematography lacking drama and the production design lacking flair. The sole new(ish) repeated image meant to terrify the audience is...a skull sitting on some rocks. Whether going through the motions of well-worn J-horror scares, or exploring the confused and uninteresting new material, everything looks as hastily thrown-together as the story feels.

The most accurately cutting thing one could possibly say about Sadako is that the scene where she crawls out of the TV is the best scene in the movie. That was a good scene twenty years ago, and it’s still good today. But the fact that Nakata had to directly rip off his own two-decade-old idea to bring some energy to this movie is a testament to just how boring Sadako is. Perhaps, if Nakata hadn’t felt compelled to do another sequel, he could have made something more original with the new ideas in there. But that’s not the movie he made. The movie he made is Sadako, and if he's this bored of The Ring, it stands to reason we should be too.