Friday, July 12, 2019

Fantasia 2019: 'Sadako' Movie Review

big eyed woman and a ghost
(C)2019 "Sadako" Film Partners

In 1998, with Ringu, Hideo Nakata helped kick off an American obsession with Japanese horror that continued to wield a heavy influence through the 2000s. Now, two decades, multiple sequels and remakes, and countless knock-offs down the line, the director returns to that well yet again. The latest chapter, Sadako, maintains the standard creepy, atmospheric vibe at the same time it updates the franchise mythology for a YouTube, anything-for-clicks generation. I mean, it’s hard to make a killer VHS tape scary in a day and age when no one even has a VCR, right?

After surviving a fire, a young girl (Himejima Himeka), raised in secret and who may be the reincarnation of Sadako, the well-crawling antagonist of the saga, winds up in the care of psychiatrist Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda). At the same time Mayu digs into this child’s mysterious past, her no-account YouTuber brother, Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), in an eternal quest for views and ratings, inadvertently kicks off a new curse when he catches a glimpse of a vengeance-minded ghost on camera. 

an annoying youtuber gets annoying
(C)2019 "Sadako" Film Partners

For those familiar with Ringu and the subsequent films, Sadako doesn’t break any new ground. That said, it’s a solid piece of moody horror, creeping dread, and while it hearkens back to the earlier installments, it shifts and updates things enough to maintain a fresh outlook so it never becomes stale. 

As usual, Nakata’s trademark tension and ominous atmosphere take precedence over gore and jump scares. A classic, almost Halloween-esque theme gives the film a classic throwback feel. It even touches on similar thematic concerns as previous chapters, like the reluctance of motherhood and a dread of spreading technology—it never dives into these in as much depth or with as much impact, but they’re present and accounted for. 

a woman and a young girl hide
(C)2019 "Sadako" Film Partners
Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Sadako bounces along at a brisk clip. Nakata knows what kind of story he’s telling and when to embellish and when to move on. He never dallies where he doesn’t need to, and effortlessly builds a taut mood and escalates the pressure. The result is a tight, compact, spooky time. 

Sadako has all the unnerving, unsettling flair you’d expect from a story about a creepy child, a psych ward, cave-based shrines, and haunted video snippets. Ikeda delivers a strong performance as she tries to find her brother, save the little girl, and break the curse. Full of moments and flourishes sure to make fans squeal with glee, Nakato shows he’s still a master craftsman. 

Already out in Japan, Sadako held its North American premiere last night as the opening film at Fantasia 2019.

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