Sadako Vs. Kayako Review [TIFF 2016]
Since Horrorwood still hasn’t graced us with a Freddy Vs. Jason sequel – or a Freddy Vs. Jason Vs. Ash production while we’re at it – Japan stepped up and delivered their own legendary horror throwdown. Sadako vs. Kayako pits The Ring demon Sadako against The Gruge baddie Kayako (and her ghost child Toshi), in their native forms. American audiences may know Sadako as “Samara,” but that doesn’t mean you’ll be lost throughout Kôji Shiraishi’s supernatural heavyweight bout. Those with a palate for J-Horror will be more in-tune with Shiraishi’s darkly humorous ghost story, as two of the meanest undead ladies in all of cinema collide for a joyride through laugh-along horror fun – intentional, or not.
Mizuki Yamamoto stars as a college schoolgirl named Yuri, who accidentally stumbles upon the famed “Cursed Tape” with her friend Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa). Unfortunately, their discovery comes after watching the tape, but only Natsumi is doomed because Yuri answered a text message instead of fixating on the television screen. This brings them to Professor Morishige (Masahiro Kômoto), who wrote the book on Sadako’s “Cursed Tape” (literally, which he reminds everyone of). Together, with the help of Spiritual Medium Kyozo (Masanobu Andô) and his blind little helper Tamao (Maiko Kikuchi), they try to break Sadako’s curse before it’s too late – but the only way to do so is by enlisting the help of Kayako and her ghost child Toshi, another legendary curse.
Admittedly, this reviewer was drawn to the campy charms of Sadako vs. Kayako. There are a few chilling scenes where Toshi appears with his cat noises and flailing tongue (like a high schooler practicing French kisses), but this crazed horror exploitation flick is at its best when offering absolutely zero explanation for rather meaningful plot advancements. At a major climactic crux, two characters are informed that one must be sacrificed in order to complete an already explained plan that contained absolutely ZERO talk of martyrdom. It’s almost like an “Oh shit! Forgot to mention one of you has to die” moment that sounds like a scripted hiccup, but works well comedically considering all the other equally blunt reveals peppered throughout Yuri’s nightmare.
Much like similar spiritual fare from Japan’s cinematic region, Sadako vs. Kayako is less about gore than it is spooks. That doesn’t mean special effects are lost, though – when people wander into Kayako’s “Death House,” they’re snatched away in gruesome fashion (stretched-out elastic body parts, appendage removal). This plays into atmosphere-driven tension where noises and pale-painted devils are cause for alarm, as Sadako’s gangly form gently sways before her paralyzed victims. Shiraishi establishes his icons as forces to be feared, not to be overshadowed by bloody, grotesque slasher kills that might otherwise become the film’s focus.
That said, all of Shiraishi’s cheesiness and otherwise endearing fun does leave a little lacking in the horror department, as the actual fight between Sadako and Kayako isn’t exactly the fireworks display we’d hoped for. When they finally face off (this comes rather late in the film), a few punches are thrown (Kayako gets Sadako’s tape/Sadako wrangles Kayako with her hair), but it all runs by at pretty rapid pace. Tamao narrates everything from the sidelines, which can be summed up into “They’re fighting! They’re in a well! Oh no, this isn’t good!” – of course I’m leaving out most of the surprises – but even at that, and while the whole “vs.” angle achieves success, there’s no doubt you’ll be left feeling like a battle of this magnitude could have flashed a bit more horror pizzazz.
Either way, there’s still plenty of imported fun to be had between Sadako and Kayako’s competition. If anything, we’re treated to a new film from both franchises playing in synchrony, capped off by an inevitable meeting of two horrific minds. Sadako vs. Kayako doesn’t redefine horror history, but it’s good enough to beg the question of why other franchises aren’t meeting in such headlining face-offs. You’ll laugh more than expected, and be chilled on a base-enough level, resulting in a solid first acquisition for team Shudder!
Sadako vs. Kayako skips a bit in the scare department, but an inherent campiness makes this battle more fun than scripting lets on.