'Sadako vs. Kayako': Frightfest Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Toronto-bound ghoul-on-ghoul grudge match is less than the sum of its parts.

The ghostly monsters from the 'Ring' and 'Grudge' movies go up against each other in this crossover marriage of two long-running Japanese horror franchises.

When there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? How about a horror-obsessed college professor, a priestess with paranormal powers and a sassy pair of renegade psychic ghostbusters? Such is the novel solution in this first crossover mix of the two biggest horror franchises in Japanese cinema history, the Ring and Grudge movies, which climaxes with an explosive showdown between two iconic female folk devils.

It was perhaps inevitable that these two long-running J-horror legends would eventually merge. Launched in 1998, the Ring cycle has so far generated six Japanese movies and two successful U.S. remakes, with a third due in October. Arriving on cinema screens in 2002, the Grudge family now includes 11 domestic sister films and three American cousins. Originally hailed as innovative and stylistically bold, both series have suffered flagging fortunes in recent years, so a joint effort might have provided just the cheeky novelty appeal to revamp the brands critically and commercially.

Sadly, Sadako vs. Kayako is not the sharp-witted game-changer it could have been. New to both franchises, director Koji Shiraishi’s film was first mooted as an apparent April Fool’s Day joke last year, so when the real movie was confirmed we might reasonably have expected a more audience-nudging, tongue-in-cheek makeover in the Scream tradition. But Shiraishi delivers a workmanlike return to basics, a series of supernatural slayings in Tokyo sprinkled with a few in-jokes for genre devotees. In the pantheon of horror crossover classics, it is a cut above Freddie vs. Jason, though not much scarier than Kramer vs. Kramer. Already released domestically, this routine fan-pleaser had its U.K. premiere last week at Frightfest in London ahead of its North American debut next month at TIFF.

The familiar backstory is initially laid out in two parallel threads. University students Yuri Kurahashi (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi Ueno (Aimi Satsukawa) stumble across the fabled videotape haunted by the vengeful long-haired spirit of Sadako Yamamura (Elly Nanami), killing everybody who watches it within two days (accelerated from the original seven). After watching the tape, Natsumi receives the usually ghostly visitation and cryptic warning call from Sadako, sending the girls into a desperate race against time to try and break the curse. They seek help from their professor Morishige (Masahiro Komoto), an expert on urban legends, who leads them to an attempted exorcism ceremony that descends into neck-twisting, face-squashing, limb-snapping carnage.

Meanwhile, psychically gifted teenage schoolgirl Suzuka Takagi (Tina Tamashiro) arrives in the northern Tokyo suburb of Naemi, settling with her parents next door to the abandoned Saeki house from the Grudge films. After a gang of pre-teen boys disappear into the house, Suzuka unwisely goes looking for them, arousing the murderous attentions of contorted, mouth-clicking ghoul Kayako Saeki (Runa Endo) and her shape-shifting, tongue-wagging son Toshio (Rintaro Shibamoto). Before long, the blood-soaked bodies begin piling up again.

These two plotlines only intersect way too late in the film after Yuri and Suzuka encounter a pair of psychic ghoul-hunters, Keizo Tokiwa (Masanobu Ando) and his blind young sidekick Tamao (Mai Kikuchi), who hatch a scheme to bring the two spirits together for a supernatural death match at the Saeki house. This untested experiment will apparently cancel out the curses of both and render them harmless. Like, obviously. What could possibly go wrong?

Keizo and Tamao are great additions to the J-horror universe, like a pair of anime characters reimagined by Quentin Tarantino, but too much of this franchise-squelching mashup feels disappointingly uninspired. Seemingly torn between aiming for self-referential humor or sense-jolting shock, Shiraishi ultimately delivers too little of either. The CG visuals looks cheap, the characters are thinly sketched cartoons and the plot is laughably absurd, even by paranormal pulp-horror rules. After more than a dozen movies milking these modern folk myths, maybe a fresh angle is too much to expect, but Sadako vs. Kayako really should have been much more schlocky fun than this.

Venue: Frightfest, London
Production companies: Kadokawa Daiei, NBCUniversal
Cast: Mizuki Yamamoto, Tina Tamashiro, Aimi Satsukawa, Misato Tanaka, Masahiro Komoto, Masanobu Ando
Director: Koji Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Takashi Shimizu, Koji Suzuki
Producers: Reiko Imayasu, Toshinori Yamaguchi, Mikihiko Hirata
Cinematographer: Hidetoshi Shinomiya
Music: Koji Endo

Not rated, 98 minutes