Ringu, the franchise that spawned The Ring and delivered Japanese horror to American audiences, is back with an origin story of Sadako, the girl in the well. A dizzying world of psychics, ritual sacrifice, child abuse, and telepathy, Sadako, which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia Fest, never finds solid ground by which to expand the franchise. Losing several of the key elements that made the original films terrifying and thrilling, original series creator Hideo Nakata only finds a few more ideas to mine in this anticipated sequel.
Sadako opens with graffiti-covered walls of a burned-out tenement building. Images of demons, warn those who enter to leave or suffer the consequences. Traveling back through time, the camera swerves through the building until it lands in a closet. Through the slats in the double doors, a woman can be seen dousing gasoline across her apartment, before setting it on fire. Her daughter, whom she believes in the reincarnation of Sadako, lives locked up like Harry Potter
The atrocious act doesn’t live up to the gore or creep factor to which fans of the franchise have become accustomed to. Inspired by supernatural thrillers of the ‘80s, Sadako’s trail of amazing ideas never amounts to an enjoyable viewing experience. The idea of the tape ending up on video sharing websites with the ability to curse thousands of people at the same time could be an opportunity to explore how viral videos impact pop culture and affect the individuals featured in them. Nakata bypasses the thought experiment to focus on the story of a headstrong little brother and a duty-bound older sister.
Older sis Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda) is a doctor struggling to keep her dropout brother Kazuma Akikawa (Hiroya Shimizu), who dreams of being a social media influencer, from throwing his life away. Desperate to revive his failing channel, Kazuma decides to stop doing hidden camera pranks, and evolves into a murderino who explores “haunted” spaces. But after visiting the burned-out apartment, Kazuma disappears without a trace, and rumors that he’s been cursed. The police take the video of illegal activity off the website, but Kazuma’s followers are already swarming to prove his disappearance was a hoax.
After a glacial first act, taking far too much time to introduce characters, Nakata conjures some visual intensity as Sadako shifts to the perspective of Kazuma’s filmed, selfie journey. The film keeps the handheld cell phone look throughout the entire scene, replicating the experience of watching an influencer on Instagram. But when Nakata cuts back to his sister in a well-lit room, the immersive experience becomes all the fun of watching someone else watch a Youtube video. The lack of black and white flickering screen that accompanied the end of every original possessed VHS tape in past films left me feeling bereft.
The visuals only get worse from there. When Sadako finally makes an appearance, she emerges from the well completely dry, losing the cool dripping wet cadaver feel she gave off in previous films. The contorted stuttered steps are less rigid, therefore more human, and less terrifying. She doesn’t even kill her first victim, simply terrifies her and then leaves. This could be the smallest body count in franchise history. Five people die in the fire, but truly that has nothing to do with Sadako. Two other people find their lives cut tragically short, but not directly via the video.
The films biggest sin is how little it the lore is kept intact, with the ticking clock of the previous films removed for logic’s sake. At one point, Mayu gets a random vision of Sofue revealing to her daughter that she is a harbinger of death. Only instead of Sadako shivering alone in a closet, it’s Sofue who trembles as she hears the news. How did this happen? Is the mother channeling Mayu’s thoughts from beyond the grave? Is the little girl feeding her thoughts? Has Sadako learned a new trick? The film never makes sense of it.
The sense of urgency once provided by the tapes has been replaced by an arbitrary belief that the full moon Mayu saw in a vision foretells of the time when Kazuma will die. With mentions of psychics and prophecy, this glaring omission hurts the magical laws of the film. Without knowing how or why the events of Sadako’s past took place, or how they’re connecting to current events there’s a hefty slogging through disjointed events.
With the lowest body count in Ringu franchise history, virtually no jump scares, a weak demonic presence, and a storyline that does little to enhance the original storyline Sadako is a movie that escaped from the D-movie horror section of a long-shuttered video rental store. But there’s still hope for this franchise; just look at how The Conjuring series persists as one of the best horror anthologies even with bumps in the road. The world could use more Sadako, but it doesn’t exist in this movie.