It’s hard not to sound like a spoilsport when you pronounce a monster movie mash-up between two J-horror villains a disappointment. Unfortunately that’s exactly what Sadako vs. Kayako is, especially when you start to consider what might have been.
The plot reads like an attempt to introduce the mythology of two different horror franchises to newcomers. And make no mistake: this is a film for newbs. Anyone who has seen Ringu, Ju-On or either of the North American remakes will find Sadako vs Kayako covering a lot of familiar territory, which makes the 98 minute run-time feel extra-long.
Sadako vs. Kayako is split in two parallel storylines. In the dominant Ringu storyline, university student Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) accidentally curses her friend Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) when the latter girl watches a burnt videocassette discovered in a used VCR they buy at a second-hand store. Natsumi receives a familiar ghostly phone call warning that she has only two days to live (scaled back from the seven of the original). A cursory investigation reveals that the video is no joke; Sadako (Elly Nanami) is coming for her. Natsumi’s impending death prompts the pair to enlist the help of their anthropology professor Morishige (Masahiro Komoto). If audiences want a sense of what tone Sadako vs Kayako is aiming for, they need look no further than Morishige, who manages to strike the perfect semi-parodic tone. His unabashed enthusiasm for urban legends (and Sadako, in particular) is infectious and extremely amusing. It’s a shame, then, that the character is short lived, meeting an unexpected end when a farce of an exorcism by Shinto priestess Horyu goes horribly (and hilariously) wrong.
The other, blander storyline is the Ju-On side of the equation. High-school student Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro) moves in next door to an abandoned house with a reputation for killing all who set foot inside. Suzuka never really develops as a character: she learns the legend of the house, has bad dreams and ultimately, because the story dictates it, enters the house in search of a missing local boy. In doing so she curses herself to Kayako (Rina Endo)’s wrath. Unfortunately this is all fairly predictable and, lacking a Morishige character or bizarre developments such as the failed exorcism, Suzuka’s storyline grinds the film’s momentum to a stop whenever we cut back to her.
Connecting the two storylines are shaman ghost hunters Kyozo (Masanobu Ando) and his blind sidekick Tamao (Maiko Kikuchi). The pair feel like transplants from a completely different film – they’re over the top one-dimensional caricatures that are fun, but immediately defuse the film of tension or horror whenever they are on screen. The pair deduce that the only way to break both curses is to pit the vengeful spirits against each other (Kayako won’t relent after someone enters her house and Sadako intervenes early if someone threatens her kill).
The biggest flaw of Sadako vs. Kayako is that it takes far, far too long to get the titular to face off. The other famous “versus” entry in horror, Freddy vs. Jason understood that its audience had little interest in plot or (human) character, dedicating nearly its entire third act to the battle of the franchises (even then, if my memory serves, fans complained that it took too long to get to the good stuff). Here the showdown is nearly non-existent: Sadako and Kayako tousle for a few minutes of relatively fun action before the film ends on an abrupt, misguided cliffhanger that clearly hopes will be taken up in a sequel.
Were the rest of the film more fun, this might be excusable, but the script is laden with other problems. While Yuri is a decent final girl, the majority of the characters are not particularly entertaining, especially Suzuka – tiresome – and Natsumi – a whiner. There are murders throughout, but they clearly exist to ensure the audience doesn’t get restless (in fairness the confluence of boring characters and sporadic deaths has been an issue of both franchises. Characters are introduced solely to be killed off and delay the meeting of protagonist and villain). Even the narrative hoops required to bring the two franchises together doesn’t hold up under scrutiny!
Director Kôji Shiraishi does an adequate job of keeping things moving along, echoing the same vibe as the original franchises, even if there is more energy (and enthusiasm?) for the Sadako portions of the film. The performance of both ghosts are spot-on, as are the sound effects (particularly Kayako’s trademark jaw-clacking sounds and thumping hand movements). While the use of CGI adds extra flair to Sadako’s hair extensions, the final climatic sequence suffers from unconvincing effects that leave a bad taste in the mouth to go along with the cheap cliffhanger. Unfortunately the humour and parody never quite overcome the feeling that fans of both franchises have already seen most of this tale. It’s the parts that we were most excited for – the battle promised by the versus of the title – that was given short shrift instead. Too bad.