In terms of genre cycles, J-horror seems about ready for a revival. Hideo Nakata‘s Ringu (1998) was a horror game-changer that helped launch a flurry of atmospheric, slow-burn paranormal horrors built around striking visuals and oppressive dread. When the trend hit North American shores with Gore Verbinski‘s remake The Ring (2002), it likewise spawned a series of imitators, making Nakata’s vision one of the most internationally influential creative precursors to early-21st-century horror. But since then, the subgenre has all but died out on an international scale, leaving it primed for a comeback.
With 2019’s Sadako, Nakata returns to the Ring films for the first time in over a decade, a potential return-to-form for the long-languishing franchise and its now-title-character, with the filmmaker who helped write the rulebook (Nakata also directed Ringu 2 and Dark Water) back at the helm. Unfortunately, Sadako is another underwhelming recent entry that trades in signature scares (that no longer pack much of a punch) and buries the good moments in routine, dragging narrative that glimpses interesting updates to the themes and mythology, but always veers in the direction of the familiar instead.
Sadako looks to bring the curse to the internet age with the overlapping stories of a psychologist, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda); her brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu); an internet-famous doofus who stages viral stunts, including those that (like many controversial real-life YouTubers) disrespect and capitalize on real-life tragedy; and a mysterious young girl in Mayu’s care, who survived a murder attempt by her own mother and who may or may not be the reincarnation of Sadako herself.
While Mayu is a fairly standard version of the traditional J-horror lead — a smart and inquisitive young woman caught up in Sadako’s curse by professional or personal (often both) tragedies — her brother and her patient offer interesting opportunities to take the franchise in new directions. The girl, who essentially functions as a conduit for Sadako, could be the entryway to a necessary evolution in the mythology, while Kazuma’s story gets so very close to saying something of merit about internet culture before leaving it at the baseline observation that exploitation and egoism are Not Good. Instead, Sadako re-treads the well-known origins of the curse, taking us back to where it all began without enough payoff or revelation to make it worth the trip back to ground zero.
Perhaps most disappointing of all, Sadako is just not very scary. I’ll never forget how traumatized I was by that early wave of J-horror and the visceral impact of Nakata’s chilling imagery. By now, the visual language of that iconic imagery is so well-known, it’s become a cliche — once you’ve seen something dead-on parodied in Scary Movie spoof, it’s hard to mine much horror out of the same bag of tricks. Sadako’s stringy black hair, her ghoulish figure lurking in the corner of the frame, her water-logged pale fingers poking through a TV screen before she creeps and crawls her way out, and the contorted death masks of her horror-stricken victims — the iconography is undeniably, but it’s also a token that’s been exchanged too many times, the impact of the finer details and once-impressive craft dulled by overuse.