'Sadako' Review: A Serviceable Chiller for the YouTube Generation (Fantasia 2019)

Hideo Nakata's latest addition to the franchise he made famous is just another day at the office.

Sadako
C)2019 CHIWAWA Chang PRODUCTION COMMIIEE(TOEI VIDEO, VAP, KADOKAWA, GEEK PIKTURES, TOEI ADVERTISING)

The original Ring movie, released in 1998, saw director Hideo Nakata set out to tell an old fashioned ghost story for the modern age. In the film, a cursed videotape projects horrifying images of a silky-haired ghost girl who then brings death to those foolish enough to watch it. To this day, it remains an excellent throwback to old school chillers with a modernized technophobic twist.

Ring’s basic lore and its spooky star, Sadako, are now pretty universally known in pop culture circles. And while the franchise has branched off into separate timelines and produced global remakes since Nakata’s original movie, most people are familiar with the rules established in his iteration of the story. In the 21 years that have passed since the 1998 film, Ring movies have been ever-present on our screens in one form or another. Sadako, however, sees Nakata return to the director’s chair for a continuation/soft reboot of his original series, which he last visited with the 1999 sequel Ring 2.

In this one, the curse is updated for the age of the internet and Sadako is out to claim abandoned children for her tomb. We follow a psychologist, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda), who sets out to find her brother, Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), an online star who ends up missing shortly after making a YouTube video at a crime scene. Additionally, it just so happens that one of Mayu’s patients is a little girl who’s linked to Sadako and the crime her brother exploits for YouTube hits. Perhaps calling her brother a “star” is a stretch. He’s someone who dropped out of school after making a video that went viral. Since then, though, his views have been decreasing and his quest to reclaim his former glory is what leads to he and his sister getting caught in Sadako’s web. As is the case with the rest of the series, technology plays a part in causing terror and repercussions.

Much like the original film explored the themes of loneliness and the downside of technology, Sadako focuses on the desperate lengths people go to for attention and fame on social media. Kazuma is reminiscent of Logan Paul, a misguided person who uploaded a video of a dead body to his YouTube channel back in 2018. Like Paul, Kazuma is also a YouTuber whose videos appeal mainly to children, but he’s also willing to take advantage of inappropriate situations to boost his profile. It’s a strange connection to make, sure, but I stand by it.

In theory, this is what a 2019 Ring sequel should focus on. Paul, and others like him, are the products of an online culture that’s obsessed with achieving widespread gratification — sometimes at the expense of what’s sensible for their own good. Making a horror movie that serves as a cautionary tale about this element of a culture spawned by the internet is an interesting idea. Unfortunately, Sadako doesn’t explore these notions with any real bite or focus. Ring made televisions scary. Sadako doesn’t do the same for the internet. In that sense, it’s a missed opportunity.

That said, the film is still worthwhile despite these under-cooked thematic elements. As a supernatural mystery, it’s perfectly fine. Like the original film and its sequel, this one operates as a procedural that centers around a female protagonist who feels isolated. The performances are strong across the board, and Sadako’s fascination with abandoned kids complements ideas that are synonymous with the franchise. Furthermore, some viewers might enjoy how her backstory is expanded upon; exploring her history is a focus of the series, and this movie continues that trend.

That said, for a Nakata movie it’s business as usual. Those who are familiar with this series — and the director’s oeuvre — might not gain much from his latest offering, as it’s a retread of themes and characteristics he’s already synonymous with. Basically, Sadako is more of the same old song and dance, minus the tangible feeling of oppressive dread that’s present in his best efforts. Still, Nakata has been in the game long enough to know how to at least deliver some passable entertainment. The director’s craftsmanship isn’t an issue here, and that’s what saves Sadako from being an unnecessary sequel to a franchise that failed to generate much excitement after the original movie. Maybe he is going through the motions with Sadako, but the film ticks all the boxes it’s supposed to.

At this point, a Ring sequel that’s enjoyable is all we can ask for. It’s difficult to add fresh ideas to a series that has established rules which leave little room to experiment with. Once the mystery has been removed, the journey loses its main appeal. I doubt any horror aficionado will outright dislike Sadako, but I only recommend seeing the movie if you’re still on board with the saga after all these years.

Kieran is a Daily Curator for the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.