Just a few minutes into Hideo Nakata’s Sadako, which made its world premiere opening the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal this week, I found myself struck by how surreal it was to be watching a series-creating director’s return to a two-decade-old franchise—one that has expanded across ten or so sequels in the time since his kick-off.
This is something that kept hitting me in various ways and for various reasons all throughout my viewing of the film. It would be like if John Carpenter had directed Halloween last year, I thought to myself, searching for some basis of comparison that actually existed. The best I could come up with was Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), which saw the A Nightmare on Elm Street director’s return to the series exactly ten years after his original for what would be the seventh installment in the franchise. It’s not a perfect comparison in literally any way, but it’ll do. Follow me.
It seems to me that when a director is making a return such as Craven/Nakata have, it must be approached with a lot of the same considerations that a new director would approach a remake or reboot of something beloved. You can be Fede Álvarez with Evil Dead and successfully pay tribute to and capitalize on the nostalgia of the original while still doing something new. You can follow Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria and make something semi-related but extremely distantly. You can be John Erick Dowdle’s Quarantine—a really solid, virtually shot-for-shot remake of [REC]. I mean, you can even (but please fucking don’t) be the trash fire that is 2019’s Child’s Play.
Basically, what I’m saying is: how much you choose to consider the fandom surrounding the original piece and whether or not and to what extent you try and service that fandom is up to you. And any choice you make is going to be risky.
With New Nightmare, Craven leaned all the way into the nostalgia of the first film, finding a way to do something new and interesting within those boundaries while leveraging all of the original players—even himself. It was so successful because of just how self-referential it actually was and because Craven chose a side and committed completely.
Hideo Nakata’s Sadako is different because it doesn’t commit to either side. In the beginning, Sadako feels as if it’s looking to be a solid, new, and modern installment of a 20-year-old franchise—the 2018 Halloween approach, if you will. This portion of the movie, in my opinion, was full of the best bits.
In the first 12 minutes, Nakata gives us some tasty horror sequences, which was a super welcome modernization. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen Ringu, I’ll remind you that the horror sequence everyone remembers—the one with the well and the crawling out of the television—is remembered because it’s essentially the only one and it doesn’t happen until seconds before the credits roll. This film is different, in that Nakata really makes an effort to pack in more scares. Whether not they’re effective is something I’ll get to later.
We also immediately get a markedly different-feeling storyline. Instead of opening with a video, we open with a child (Himeka Himejima) in a closet who is kind of a reincarnation of Sadako, or at least that’s what her mother told her before burning their house down with both of them in it. (The kid didn’t die, so she was probably right.)
The beginning of the film focuses a lot on the child and the captivating mind control tricks that she keeps doing at the hospital she’s staying at post-fire. It also seems that she can conjure (I guess?) the evil Sadako to come around and do her bidding, too, which was… weird and under-explained, but cool I guess.
At the hospital, the kid’s connected to our heroine, a doctor named Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda). Mayu’s brother, Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), is also a player in the story. Trying to make it as a YouTuber, he goes to film a vlog at reincarnated Sadako’s burned out apartment and predictably gets tied up with the evil spirit.
All of this is the fixins of a new and interesting plot, which is why it’s kind of startling and also a bit of a shame when, about halfway to two-thirds into the movie, it seems to just revert back to the Ringu storyline almost to a T.
For example, nowhere in the above have I mentioned a video, but it pops back up in the latter half in a weird way that feels very shoehorned, despite the fact that the video was the catalyst of the original story. In 2019, the video has been changed and modified because of being passed around online over the years (…?), and then also seems to supernaturally change in real-time if someone who has seen it once watches it again (…?). Why, though? I don’t know!
Additionally, there’s almost nothing keeping Mayu from being a near-exact reincarnation of Ringu’s Reiko. They have different professions and different names—two things that have almost no impact on their characters—and that’s about it. They both go on almost the exact same journey of discovering who Sadako is and what’s going on, are both helped along by a male companion, and while Ringu reaches its climax in the water at the bottom of a well, Sadako reaches its climax in the water inside of a cave (that easily could’ve been a well).
All of this weird zigzagging between a new story with fresh ideas and straight repeats of and throwbacks to the first movie is what makes those very welcome horror sequences I mentioned much less effective than they could’ve been. Though Nakata is bringing back our titular antagonist more regularly and aggressively and in much the same way as she appeared in Ringu, it’s under circumstances that are far more convoluted and confusing and unclear—all adjectives that apply to this script and not to Ringu’s very simple one. So while the frequency of the scare is welcome, I spent too much time wondering about why it was happening and what the rules were to actually enjoy it.
It’s my posit that if Nakata had been a bit more like Craven and had picked a proper side, whether leaning into the nostalgia or doing something new, Sadako would’ve been a much better, more effective film overall. That said, I do think that it has enough good in it for me to recommend it to fans of the series. The callbacks are there, and though the execution is kind of disjointed on a whole, I think fans of Nakata are going to have a lot of fun seeing him flex his horror style in more of an overt way than he has in the past.