Written by: Yoshinobu Fujioka & Tsutomu Hanabusa (screenplay), Kôji Suzuki (novel)
Directed by: Tsutomu Hanabusa
Starring: Satomi Ishihara, Kôji Seto, and Tsutomu Takahashi
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Ringu cast such a long shadow that it’s almost difficult to believe that the original franchise has actually been dormant for over a decade since Ringu 0 sealed Sadako’s fate. It goes without saying that every horror series leaves the lid cracked, though, and it’s tough to keep a vengeful teenage girl’s spirit down for too long, so Sadako Yamamura—the OG Modern Asian Ghost Girl—has been dutifully resurrected for another sequel, Sadako 3D. Previous attempts to follow up Ringu proved to be difficult, but Rasen and Ringu 2 at least felt like earnest attempts. The same cannot be said of Sadako, a film that feels like the kind of Ringu-inspired knock-offs from a decade ago, right down to the over-reliance on jump scares and dodgy CGI.
Several years after the events of the first film, Sadako has taken the logical step of going viral. Students whisper about a cursed tape that’s circulating around the internet, and a rash of bizarre deaths have befuddled authorities. When one of Akane Ayukawa’s (Satomi Ishihara) students apparently falls victim to the video, the teacher begins to investigate the phenomenon alongside her boyfriend Takanori (Koji Seto). Their trail leads them not to Sadako herself but rather Kashiwada Seiji (Yusuke Yamamoto), an online artist who crafted the video before his own mysterious death in an effort to resurrect the spirit of the undead girl.
I’ve already discussed the difficulty in following up a film like Ringu since the previous attempts made it so obvious, but it bears repeating here. Sadako might be the most misguided effort so far since it leaves you wondering why anyone would bother to dust off the franchise for this outing. Like its predecessors, it thankfully doesn’t just completely ape the winning formula of Ringu, as it takes the mythology in yet another direction; however, that direction is a decidedly baffling one since the franchise elements seem to be a tacked on afterthought. All of it feels familiar enough, and it might even be apt to say that Sadako transposes the formula a bit due to the obvious parallels: there are still people attempting to discover the origins of a cursed tape, only Sadako herself seems to be more of a pawn. By easily losing that angle altogether (or just changing the resurrected spirit’s name), you could easily write off the film as a garden variety Ring rip-off. It doesn’t feel like it’s reinvigorating the franchise—it’s just leeching off of it and essentially serving as a sequel-in-name only (the infamous video itself is never even glimpsed).
If you think this is just fanboy venting, rest assured that Sadako is also an objectively bad, tedious film. Rather than proceed with a brooding sense of dread, Sadako opts to roar out of the gate with an unrelenting parade of obnoxious jolts and empty jump scares, many of which are aided by cartoonish CGI effects (even Sadako emerging from computer monitors—which happens at least a few times—looks worse than it did 13 years ago). The film isn’t working from a script so much as a laundry list of repetitive shocks and 3D gags, with the latter being especially obvious even in 2D since the film stops at nothing to fling digital junk in the audience’s face at nearly every turn. It reaches its nadir once the screenplay finally runs out of gas and confines Akane to a decrepit basement and puts her on the run from a horde of computer-generated spider walkers. That cheapness runs throughout Sadako, as the film is a shockingly ugly, over-lit digital nightmare that’s difficult to watch; as a Ring film, it’s even worse, as its sunny, flat aesthetics are a stark contrast to the dark, textured canvas that’s defined this series.
There are certainly some thematic connections with the franchise, especially when the film reveals Akane to be a sort of kindred spirit for Sadako, as she also endured a troubled childhood where she struggled with her own psychic abilities. Even this sort of feels like lip service, though, and it’s played in such obvious, cornball fashion that it’s not nearly effective enough to carry the film. Both Ishihara and Seto are serviceable in the lead roles, but, like the rest of the cast, they’re essentially just there to shuttle viewers from one shrill moment to the next. For a film with so many subplots (there’s also a bit involving one of Akane’s students in a mental institution that serves as another hollow echo), Sadako is a remarkably empty, repetitive chore. Maybe Ringu really was just lightning in a bottle, and a thirteen year layoff didn’t recapture it.
Sadako isn’t just a missed opportunity to restore some luster to the Ringu franchise—it’s a botched attempt that squanders whatever cool ideas that would make this film worth watching. If nothing else, it could have taken the franchise into slasher territory, as Sadako is no longer content to give her victims a heart attack. Now, she forces them into comparatively elaborate suicides: people fling themselves out of windows or walk into oncoming traffic, all set-pieces that could have been elevated to the elaborate levels of the death sequences in Final Destination or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Instead, even these are low-rent and uninspired, much like the rest of the film, which stands as a fascinating paradox: what starts as an obvious but alluring idea (Sadako going viral) gets lost in an overly complex plot that still manages to be a lazy, by the numbers retreat into Pavlovian familiarity.
About thirteen months after its theatrical release in Japan, Sadako has come to U.S. home video thanks to Well Go. Both DVD and Blu-ray 3D configurations will be available on June 4th, and the former is a no-frills release that only features a handful of trailers as extras. The presentation is solid at least, though the 5.1 surround track is among the most aggressively loud I’ve heard in quite a while, which speaks to the film’s blunt force trauma approach. Sadako doesn’t try to earn any of its scares but instead bludgeons audiences into submission. I had all but tapped out about an hour in, at which point I felt like I was on the defensive with each jump scare; essentially the film’s most “effective” element could easily be slayed by a mute button. Speaking of paradoxes: the DVD’s tagline promises that this is the “terrifying conclusion,” but the film also ends with the hint that the Ringu saga isn’t over yet. I can’t decide which one I’d rather believe. On the one hand, Sadako deserves to go out with a better effort, but, on the other, I’m afraid it might only get worse. Trash it!
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