Synopsis: The horror stories have gone on to be urban legends. You might know some of them . . . The slit mouthed girl, Hanako of the Toilet, Red Coat, the boy under the bed. Not familiar with those? Well, they are Japanese specials. At least two of which appeared in the delightful anime Haunted Junction (1997). What about these? The cursed video cassette? Once you see it, you receive a phone call from a spirit named Sadako (Nanami Elly) telling you that you will die in a few days? What about the cursed house, a place where someone died in a state of rage and fury? Once you enter that house, you become the next victim? Yeah, those sound a little more familiar. But they are so 1990s to early 2000s. They don’t have much sway now, do they?
Actually, they do. When Natsumi (Satsukawa Aimi) accidentally watches a video cassette in an old third hand video player, she gets the mysterious phone call and finds herself in line for a gruesome death in only two days. Likewise, there’s a house in Takagi Suzuka’s (Tamashiro Tina) neighborhood that’s reputed to be that house, a place where a husband stabbed his wife Kayako (Endo Runa) to death, drowned their son Toshio (Shibamoto Rintaro), and then killed himself. It’s a house that local lads will dare each other to enter, and a place where they will sometimes vanish. The house is playing a siren song for Suzuka. Add in a folklore professor Morishige (Komoto Masahiro) who really, really wants to meet the cursed video girl, selfless Yuri (Yamamoto Mizuki) who only wants to help her friend Natsumi, an exorcist in over her head and you have a strange little horror movie. When the overconfident sorcerer Tokiwa Keizo (Ando Masanobu) and his blind ally Tamao (Kikuchi Mai) show up, they might have the solution to both of these curses. Pit one fiend against the other to see which curse is stronger. With luck, they will both use each other up instead of destroying their cursed prey. Luck, coincidence, fate and a sinister supernatural presence all combine in writer/director Shiraishi Koji’s ghastly monster mash up, Sadako Vs. Kayako (2016).
This feels a bit like coming home again. When Trista and I kicked off our Alamo Cinema Massacre column for the dearly missed Cinema Knife Fight website, we were the art house horror reviewers, the folks who were especially versed in Asian horror and tackled reviewing such flicks as The Wailing (2016), Train to Busan (2016) and Creepy (2016). Long before that, we were big fans of Japanese cinema particularly the spooky, scary sorts before J-horror made it easier to access some of that stuff. We have enjoyed Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2002) before they were remade in the states as The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004) respectively. Years ago, a good friend of ours made a wonderful present for us by dismembering a Barbie doll and creating a bloody shroud to create a creaky J-horror ghost (thanks again, Haz!).
Well, those two wonderful and unusual creepfests have now come together in the tradition of Universal monster movies like House of Frankenstein (1944). Taking the names of the ghostly girls at the center of each, Sadako of Ringu and Kayako of Ju-On are still killing folks a couple of decades later, and it’s up to some modern exorcists and sorcerers to try and put a stop to it.
That premise alone is a winner for me. It makes me grin, but I have always had a love for stories that cross different mythologies over in unexpected ways. I suppose this comes from days I spent versed or immersed in Marvel Comics, days when science fiction, fantasy, Norse mythology, Greek Mythology, cosmic horror, and folks in tights with exceptional paranormal powers would mashup together in any given issue. Mutants and super soldiers and mystical arts, oh my. Later, when I got into the monster flicks and saw that it received handling in a more or less straight (as in House of Frankenstein) manner as well as with comedic flourishes (as in 1948’s Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein), I was even more charmed.
Sadako Vs. Kayako kicks off with a death and a videotape. Then, it gives us that creepy house and its first victims (well, first in this feature anyway). Then, it gives us a folklore classroom setting right out of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) to establishes some of the rules from these different legends. It’s a way for the unversed to get their feet wet, but it’s also a way for the filmmakers to change things up a bit.
For example, the cursed video tape is a little faster-acting now, giving you only 2 days until you die. Sure, in the original Ringu it was 7 days, but a ghost’s got to move a little faster in the Internet Age to keep attention.
The film is more than a mashup of legends. It’s also got a sense of humor about itself. The folklore professor is also a self-published author hawking his book—”Want to know why I’m so keen on meeting Sadako?” he asks his students, “Well, the answer is in this book!” A trio of bully kids extract vengeance on a runt through use of the cursed house, only to have the kid throw rocks at them and have them blindly chase him in. There’s some subtle jabs at the different franchises, some poking at the legends themselves, and some splatstick (to coin the Sam Raimi school) involving that aforementioned exorcist. Some of the humor works, some does not. Perhaps the least effective comedy is that employed by the sorcerer and his blind sidekick. They are a little too smarmy for my taste, a little too jaded to land the jokes they tell; of course, they are often having fun at victims’ expenses, which strikes me as a little too mean-spirited.
Likewise, the horror takes on a few shapes. There’s the creeping dread of the encroaching supernatural death countdown. Likewise, there are some of the expected haunting tropes: Hair found in places it should not be, shapes moving from shadows, figures that sit looking away from us that we really don’t want to turn our way, unnatural violations of personal space (e.g., in bed and in the shower) and dream sequences. There’s a lovely use of sound in the feature, from the dry throat rattle of The Grudge ghosts to a pounding noise on the new, improved cursed video—gone are the mystic clues to Sadako’s origin that sent characters island hopping in the original Ringu, replaced with a single setup of a decayed corridor, a steel door, and the thing that emerges from it. There’s some wonderfully grotesque interruptions of ritual behaviors. Some of these moments work, some are telegraphed a little too much, and some rely on cheesy jump scares such as a cat leaping out from around the corner.
However, I am a sucker for horror movies. I am happy to invest my interest when the movie gives me something to invest it in, and I too jump like a child and giggle at my own silliness. I don’t require titillation every five minutes. In fact, I often enjoy slow pictures a bit more than hectic ones. For me, a horror movie’s effectiveness is measured less while watching or immediately after as it is at around 2AM, when I have to get up to use the restroom. I am not so macho to say that I am immune to getting freaked out when I am half-asleep, and I sometimes run back to bed when I am done with my business and the subsequent wash up. I love scary movies, and I have the head space that recalls them at the least appropriate moments. Did this movie succeed on that scale? Alas, no. But I enjoyed watching it.
Sadako vs. Kayako is an odd little piece, a return to some movies that I loved. It changes things up, blends some elements together, revisits some locations in new ways (a well is important later on, but not in the way audiences versed in Ringu might expect), and it got me with jump scares a couple of times. The film might have started out as a joke, but the finished feature is a watchable return to creepy Japanese horror that makes me bob my head and say, “Why don’t I watch more of this sort of stuff?” The ending in which the title characters clash over their victims is perhaps too brief but memorable. The title really does not define the movie well so much as play on an April Fool’s Day prank that turned into an actual picture. However, I enjoyed the movie for what it was: A return home of sorts to newish spins on two horror features I enjoyed almost twenty years ago.
Many of the best horror films are not U.S. productions, these days. They are Mexican, Korean, Spanish, Canadian and Japanese. Unfortunately, many of these countries’ releases are subtitled, and that turns off quite a few viewers. Personally, I cannot understand the complaint about having to read when they want to watch a movie. Instead, I am happy to have the chance to see something unusual, something creative, something that takes my expectations and uses them against me or sets them on their ear. Sadako vs. Kayako might not be a breath of completely fresh genre air, but I found it to be an engaging exploration of urban legends remade for the modern day. I would have liked to see more done with some subplots and elements—converting the cursed video to DVD or leaking the data onto the Internet lends itself to an apocalyptic sort of vision that made a flick like Kairo (2001)/Pulse (2006) so chilling. However, the movie has its own premise to explore and along the way it raises quite a few new ideas, some it uses, some it leaves for future storytellers to make use of, and all of them food for thought for audiences member like me.
Have you tried out Shudder, yet? If you like horror and suspense-thrillers, the service is pretty great. Trista and I signed up in the middle of December and we have already seen enough quality material to justify an annual subscription. YMMV, but why not give it a trial? Use the code HORRORHOUND once you have signed up to increase your 7-day trial to a 30-day free trial.
Next week, we return to Mexican horror and fantasy with a film that revels in the power of storytelling: 2017’s Tigers Are Not Afraid. Writer/director Issa Lopez spins a dark, powerful ghost story about the drug wars and their effects on a barrio. Five children must survive in an all but abandoned world, staying one step ahead of the Huacas, a cartel that kidnaps and murders at random. However, one of their number has a handful of wishes that might well be real, giving them an edge. The wishes do not come without a price, however. Tigers Are Not Afraid is available in a streaming editions. It is also available as a Shudder exclusive.
“Movie Mondays: Sadako Vs. Kayako” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image are taken from IMDB.
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