Joshua Reviews Hideo Nakata’s Sadako [Fantasia International Film Festival 2019]

“© 2019 “Sadako” Film Partners”

Now 20+ years on into its tenure as one of Japan’s great horror franchises, the terrifying world created in 1998’s incomparable Ringu has seen itself be remade in the US, fall victim to the 3D trend and even spawn a mash up “Vs.”-type film which pitted Ringu’s legendary big bad against the same from the Ju-On series entitled Sadako vs. Kayako.

And now it’s time for a reboot, of sorts. Seeing original director Hideo Nakata once again jump into the director’s chair, Sadako is the latest attempt to not only breathe life back into the stagnant universe but to update the major threat for a generation incapable of turning away from their screens.

It’s just too bad that what actually makes it to screen is a bloated, lifeless horror film that lacks the original’s haunting moodiness as well as anything resembling interesting themes or ideas.

Taking its name from the legendary long-haired villain of the series, Sadako is an interesting-sounding attempt at rebooting the beloved series. Introducing viewers to a counselor named Mayu Akigawa, Sadako finds the capable Mayu tasked with not just trying to find her recently-missing YouTuber brother Kazuma but also unpack the backstory of a mysterious young girl with amnesia who arrives at her hospital after surviving a horrible fire with potentially supernatural origins. The issues are connected, however, as it’s revealed that Kazuma was last seen entering the smoldering remains of the house the mysterious child came from, as it’s believed to be the first act made by a reincarnated Sadako.

The film starts off well enough, with a lush score and some genuinely terrifying images. There’s no doubt as to the state of Sadako in this universe, as we watch in horror as the monster is not just reborn but lashes out with fiery vengeance. Music is the film’s strongest aspect, as this has a score that’s both beautifully melodic while also assaultive in a manner that plays up the film’s horror as much as it does the supernatural melodrama. It’s also quite well shot. Nakata’s clearly a talented filmmaker, as many of the images here have solid composition and the photography is intriguing enough to keep one’s attention for the 100-minute runtime.

However, it’s in service of a film that’s both not just slight but it seems to have little ambition beyond even that. One of the film’s main threads involves a YouTube star attempting to make his name by documenting the return of Sadako, yet little to nothing is actually said either textually or subtextually about the rise of web-based videos or how a spreading of something as sinister as the iconic Sadako video could be apocalyptic. Playing as just another entry in this 21-year long franchise, Sadako has little on its mind more than staging some tired and lazy jump scares and knitting a web of horror that falls apart at the very first tug. Films like Pulse from director Kiyoshi Kurosawa feel even more timely 18 years after it debuted, and seeing how dull and lifeless Sadako is despite its intriguing premise is a genuine disappointment. Scares are light and the themes are thin, so watch at your own peril.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.