A VHS image of a girl with long black hair, wearing a white dress and crawling out of a well was where horror started for me − I usually try to avoid personal anecdotes in my reviews but this one seems too important to ignore. When I saw Gore Verbinski’s American take on the J-Horror classic at age nine something was simultaneously awoken in me and completely terrified; that an image as simple as a white dress and the sound of static from a TV could conjure such paralyzing fear that the sound of the DVD menu on my copy of The Ring still gives me chills.
Now, before you start dragging a nine-year-old for watching the English language remake first, let’s decide to see it as a starting point; a metaphorical horror cliff from which to dive off. The Ring is what I owe my love of horror to, and discovering Hideo Nakata’s original Ringu (adapted from the Kôji Suzuki novel) many years later in my teens was an equally important moment for me to begin to engage with world cinema. But I caught The Ring at precisely the right moment; on the precipice of the transfer to DVD. VHS tapes could still be scary, after all, there was a pile of them sat in just about every living room in the country. Nakata’s film in the 90s exploited a cultural cornerstone for all that it was worth and feels specific to that generation that first encountered it. But now with its VHS curse format outdated, Nakata is using his latest addition to the franchise, Sadako, which premiered at Fantasia Festival, to rejuvenate the Ringu series for Gen Z.
A ‘rejuvenation’ is perhaps too positive of a word, after all, it is a word that implies that something has been added to improve existing elements. For Nakata however, it seems that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies here instead. Rummaging through his bag of tricks he pulls out all the finest moments of his other Ringu films, dropping them throughout the course of the film as tasty little morsels for existing fans, who will be given nothing more than scraps for the rest of the duration. It often seems like Nakata is less interested in rejuvenating the franchise for a tech-savvy audience than he is with rekindling nostalgia for his – and the subgenres’ – past success.
Even the evidently terrible American 2017 addition Rings hinted at a progression in the series when it ended with the cursed video going viral online, as opposed to its traditional VHS format, this was also a major part of Sadako 3D. Sadako poises itself as this natural progression, and quite frankly, the video going viral is much more of a threat to the masses than a tape found in an old VCR, which would have been a ridiculously wild ride. Instead, Sadako shoes-in a YouTuber character for youth-appeal who acts as the catalyst to delve back into Sadako’s story.
Kazuma Akikawa (Hiroya Shimizu) is desperate to rack up views on his YouTube channel, even going so far as to Google ‘Top 10 creepiest places Tokyo’ to find a potential location for his first-ever ‘Urban Exploration’ video. He settles on a recent crime scene; a burned-down apartment complex being investigated for arson. Coincidentally enough, his psychologist sister Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda) has become embroiled with that same case, recently taking into her care the only survivor of the fire: an amnesiac little girl whose real name we never learn.
One thing we do learn about the little girl is that her mother would call her ‘Sadako’ and kept her locked in a cupboard, the same cupboard that Kazuma explores the charred remains of before he is mysteriously declared missing. The film then follows Mayu’s investigation into both the little girl and her brother’s whereabouts, uncovering information about Sadako and her life that most of the audience will already know and be clawing endlessly to move on from. On one hand, it’s pleasing that Nakata never falters from Sadako canon but on the other, it is entirely boring that a new dimension to this tormented character hasn’t been toyed with.
It is not only the backstory that lacks vitality but also the horror itself, of which Nakata was previously considered a master. Iconic moments where Sadako crawls out of a TV or when her matted black hair wraps around body parts in the shower play out well as cheeky nods to films past but then they become the sole bare bones of the film’s scares. With the mindset that the audience will be made up of majority returning fans, even these moments lose their menace due to expectation.
There are some moments in the film’s final scenes that gain momentum, a seaside cave guarded by an older lady being the film’s climax and most impressive moment in terms of set, scale and scares. These scenes seem to get back to the heart of J-Horror’s penchant for ghouls and the psychological but there’s still a sense that the story has become outdated; too digital-looking and too predictable.
J-Horror is nonetheless an important movement for horror fans to delve into and Nakata’s legacy remains untainted by this bad pick of the bunch. But reflecting on the film overall, Sadako is a tired regurgitation of the glory days of J-horror that relies too much on its audience’s nostalgia to coast by. In repeating its own success stories, it acts as less than a call to a new generation to get involved than to inform us all that it has nothing more to say.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here