Sadako vs Kayako Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Shudder
Directed by Kôji Shiraishi
Written by Takashi Shimizu (characters), Kôji Suzuki (characters)
2016, 98 minutes, Not yet rated.
Released exclusively on Shudder on 26th January 2017
Mizuki Yamamoto as Yuri Kurahashi
Tina Tamashiro as Suzuka Takagi
Ami Satsukawa as Natsumi
Misato Tanaka as Ayako Takagi
Japanese horror icons Sadako and Kayako step into the ring for a no-holds-barred grudge match, competing for the souls of their would-be victims. With two parties cursed by the respective ghouls, a pair of funky exorcists has the smart idea of pitting the two entities against each other. Like Freddy vs Jason, but without the wrestling moves.
Two things have carried over from Freddy vs Jason though; firstly and most importantly, an unabashed love for and celebration of its two franchises. The other thing: a sense of comedy, both intended and not. Both of these elements will keep audiences rolling in the aisles, even when the two monsters aren’t on screen. Originating as an April’s Fool prank before finally being announced as a real thing, Sadako vs Kayako is pure fan service, and throws everything it has into giving its audience what they want. Namely, a fight between the long-haired dead girl from The Ring and the long haired dead girl from The Grudge, with some humans caught in the middle to scream and die.
Any slow-burn storytelling from previous entries is swiftly nipped in the bud, the first three-quarters of the film playing out the plot of The Ring and The Grudge at the same time, only abridged. In one corner, two students discover Sadako’s haunted videotape in an antique VHS player, following a lecture on urban legends. Foolishly watching the thing, the pair come to realise that they’ve incurred the curse upon themselves – the (literal) deadline here cut to two days from the traditional seven, keeping things brief and (relatively) condensed. In the other corner, a young woman finds herself drawn to the haunted house in her neighbourhood, thereby crossing paths with the dreaded Kayako and her death grudge. Pottering between the storylines, much of Sadako vs Kayako serves as a Best Of compilation from the two franchises, with all of the contorted death grimaces, scary gurgling and black haired mayhem (so much black hair!) we have come to expect from The Ring and The Grudge by now.
A host of interesting, amusing peripheral characters save us from the relative cliché of the lead victims. A college professor constantly trying to shift his book on Sadako represents the fanboy in the audience, thrilled to discover that her videotape is real, even as he becomes cursed by it himself. Hands down the best characters, however, are its exorcists, self-consciously ‘cool’ punk Keizo and his sidekick Tamao, a ten-year-old blind girl. Their plan is stupid – ‘my curse will fight your curse’ is an actual thing someone says – no-one stopping to consider that once the fight is done, you’re still left with the victor to deal with, effectively the more dangerous of the two, and still wanting her spoils. Sadly, the plan does not kick off with anyone tricking Kayako into watching Sadako’s videotape, which I would very much have enjoyed. And nor does it culminate with the ghoulish girls realising that their mothers are both called Martha or something, and uniting to fight a common enemy. Still, they’re all great characters, and I could quite happily watch any number of movies about Keizo and Tamao, like a Japanese version of The Conjuring series.
It’s obvious that this is not a film to be taken entirely seriously though, with an emphasis more on thrills than scares, and a wry vein of humour running throughout. This, combined with the unintended elements of humour – its heroines are surely too serious and po-faced to be in on the joke, and much is lost in the subtitles’ translation – make the film feel a lot like the extended joke it really is.
Still, the two spooks remain as unsettling as they ever were, the film packing in the best of the imagery from both franchises, reprising the series’ iconic shots and jump-scares. There’s an undeniable chill to Kayako’s guttural clicking, and the weird kid’s spooky mewling as he crouches on the floor. Some of it falls flat through repetition (Sadako emerging from the TV hasn’t been scary since the first film) but even if it never truly terrifies, its horror element always works well, being mildly gorier than either series has been before, and beautifully captured by the top-notch visuals.
And the main event? Unlike other ‘vs’ movies, there’s no drive to make one threat seem more benign or powerful than the other. Both Sadako and Kayako are as malicious, scary and dangerous as they have ever been, and the characters’ pitting the two against each other could ultimately turn out to be the worst decision of all. Sadako may be the better known of the two, but they’re evenly matched, and their battle is satisfying if short, resulting in a great bit of weirdness during the final round. For all of its faults and its bouts of cliché and repetition, Sadako vs Kayako is a blast; supernatural J-horror has always bored me a little (I’m more of a Battle Royale or Takashi Miike guy) but this crossover is great fun and the best either series has been since their first instalments.
Like Freddy vs Jason before it, this is a thing that I’m astonished actually exists, but am extremely grateful it does.