Monday 29 August 2016

Sadako VS Kayako

Ringside Grudge Match

Sadako VS Kayako
2016 Japan Directed by Kôji Shiraishi
First European Screening at London FrightFest
6pm 27th August 2016

I’ve been a fan of the Ringu (Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) movies since they first came out in UK cinemas at the tail end of the 1990s. When I first heard of the incredibly silly idea of a movie pitting the two ghostly apparitions from these two J-horror franchises against each other, I was very much into the idea in the same spirit as, say, I love all those old Gojira (aka Godzilla) VS “insert appropriately bizarrely named kaiju eiga monster here” movies. If I was going to see something this ludicrous put on screen then, frankly, it’s the Japanese who I want to see doing this stuff.

What I didn’t realise at the time is just how many Ringu and Ju-On films have been made in the series over the years. I’ve seen maybe five Ringu movies, which includes the Chinese Ring Virus remake and also the actual book based sequel Spiral (which is a bizarre oddity in terms of both timing and cast and I’m really not going to go into an explanation of why that is here... I’ll eventually rewatch all these movies for this blog in the next 30 or so years, I reckon... so I’ll get into it then). I’ve also seen the first two Ju-On movies. What I haven’t seen is the abominable US remakes of these franchises... another of which will be upon us very soon with the movie Rings, apparently.  Nobody, really, does J-Horror like... well, like the Japanese, obviously, so I really am not, at this point, interested in the US remakes (unless somebody would like to jump on here in the comments section and persuade me otherwise).

I also didn’t realise the movies had kept on going with various entries in either cycle coming out over the years (I believe the latest Ringu reboots in Japan were more based on the Sadako character as she appears in the books?). What I do know is, in a nice bit of symmetry, that this is the twelfth movie in each of the franchises’ history. So that’s pretty mind blowing and I really blame the UK and US marketers and distributors of such things for these not being on my radar quicker. Still, a line about uploading the viral movie from the Ringu series onto the internet in this movie makes me realise that this is not a continuation of the last two although, that being said, there are also some differences in the manifestation of Sadako in this that I can only assume are a hangover from the previous few films.

What I will say is that I had an absolute blast with this movie. The idea of two or more monsters from separate horror franchises pitted against each other is at least as old as the 1940s Universal pictures monster mash ups which I loved so much since seeing them as a kid (Frankenstein VS The Wolfman, House Of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein etc), probably older, and it’s a tradition which has continued into many horror franchises to this day and also, just lately of course, superhero movies too. The fact that this ludicrous idea of two of the most terrifying Japanese creations in modern cinematic history having a pop at each other came from fan pressure is interesting too. The company had put out an April Fool’s joke that they would be making a movie about the two characters fighting and... the fan response was so strong that they actually decided to go ahead and make the thing. So that’s really cool.

If you’re not familiar with the basic premise of the two characters, this is it in a nutshell...

In the Ringu films, a cursed video tape is the cause of problems. When you watch the short, surreal movie, a phone call will ring you and Sadako will tell you that you have two days to live. After two days, the movie will then start playing on your TV and this time, after she crawls out of the well and comes towards the camera, she actually crawls out of your TV, fixes you with her evil eye, barely glimpsed out of the profusion of hair which covers her face, and you die of fear. The only way to stop it is to make ‘a copy’ of the tape (something the writers of Sadako VS Kayako seem to have forgotten or are deliberately ignoring) and then pass it onto somebody to watch it before your time is up. Thus spreading the curse like a virus while increasing the number of copies of the tape in existence.

In the Ju-On films, a house is haunted by the ghost of a cat, the little boy and the mother who were horrible murdered by the husband/father. The cat sounds that the little grey boy Toshio make and the death rattle clicking sound the crawling, awkwardly moving mother Kayako emit are eerie and disturbing. Once the ‘grudge’ has touched you, after you enter the house, it will haunt you and beckon you to return to your death.

Now the idea of teaming these two up in a grudge match, if you will, is admittedly kinda cheesy and, to be honest, this film really is a lot of cheesy fun with lines like “My curse must fight with your curse” and the sometimes inappropriately deadpan delivery of various bits of bad news such as “Your parents will not return” (because they both just died horribly), did raise some chuckles from the audience, myself included. However, at the same time, the director manages to balance the laughs by treating the two subjects very seriously and getting a lot of the look and feel of the characters just right. Sadako is still a mess of straight hair and makes an imposing figure on screen when she is unleashed. Kayako and Toshio are, perhaps, even more imposing in their ability to make you feel uneasy and so the really fine line which the director might have crossed to turn this into an out and out comedy is deftly navigated and he really does a service to the fans of both characters.

He’s also added a fair few supporting characters, most notable of which for me are a magically powered exorcist and his blind, pre-teen sidekick, who also happens to be a psychic medium of some kind. Both are quite deadpan in their line delivery, completely ridiculous and help lift the movie when you think it’s shot all of its bullets out in the last third of the movie. There are also some surprises in the film in the number of deaths and just who it is who happens to get killed at any given moment. There’s one character, for example, who you know has two days to live and you assume they will continue to be an ally of the young ladies who have got themselves into so much trouble by watching the cursed video but, in an amazing exorcism sequence, the body count goes off the chart and this character I’m thinking of also has a vaguely comical but surprising death... when you just don’t expect it to be coming yet. So that was cool.

There are some nice compositions and lighting schemes in the movie... and that’s especially true of the first post-title sequence, after the names Sadako and Kayako have appeared in nicely animated type, enhanced with bloody effects and sounds. There is so much vertical segmenting in this early scene of a social worker visiting a house that there is one shot in this beautifully crafted design where there must have been as many as 20 to 30 elongated rectangles in the perspective of the shot from different layers in the background... the social worker beautifully framed in one set of vertically slashed sections. Excellent stuff. This opening sequence is also a bit of a surprise moment because of the environment she’s in, as you are expecting to see the victim of one of the two major entities that give the film its name... only to realise it’s the one you were least expecting to be making an appearance here.

And, yeah, I did have a blast with this movie, even if the writers did make me feel old by having their young protagonists treat VHS video tape as some kind of ancient relic from the dark ages. It’s not exactly a scary movie in any way, shape or form. More of a ‘comfort horror movie’ to be sure. But the strength of the writing and the film’s ability to surprise me, even to the extent of the ending of the movie, which I really didn’t see coming, certainly kept me entertained throughout. All of the actors and actresses in the movie, all of whom I thought I knew from other movies but, almost all of whom I didn’t, are all very strong here too. They are, for the most part, playing typical J-horror stereotypes but that’s fine, it’s just what you need for a movie of this kind and I can only commend the actors, writer, director and everyone else involved with making a really cool and slick product.

And about those surprises. If you get a chance to see this movie, make sure you stick around for a post credit scene at the very end of the film. A lot of people at the screening were out of their chairs and off to the next movie as the credits rolled but there’s a cool Easter egg at the end here. Now, admittedly, if you didn’t sleep through the entire movie, you will have already seen a version of this post credit scene in the last ten minutes of the film. However, the way in which it is reiterated in this last little add on is just how you want to see it and fans of the Ringu franchise, in particular, will want to witness it restated in just this fashion, I’m sure. 

All said and done, Sadako VS Kayako is a huge slice of J-horror fun. It’s fairly Ringcentric, which kinda makes sense as that’s got more potential to riff plot spins on, and if I was being extra critical, I’d say some of the manifestations of Sadako, in terms of both timing and her ability to keep popping up well before the two days are expired, are just a little bit of a cheat to try and get some extra scare scenes in. That being said, there are a number of Ju-On scenes which are pretty great, including a crowd pleasing sequence where some school bullies are lured into the house, and there’s enough respect payed to both the separate franchises that fans of just either one shouldn’t be disappointed.

I saw this movie at this year's FrightFest on the earliest of its two screenings and it was the first time the movie had been seen outside of Japan. In an introduction by one of the organisers, we were told that this movie was, in fact, due to get a commercial release over here later in the year (which, had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have pulled out all the stops to secure a ticket). However, they also said that was all up in the air now because the movie was being distributed over here by Metrodome. If you’ve had your ear to the ground on film news you will have heard that the firm went bankrupt a week or so ago so... not sure that this film will get a release over here now. We shall see. All I know for sure is, this movie is bound to be in my top ten for the year and, if you’re a fan of either of the two franchises in the title (and more than likely, if you are, then you already love both), then you really shouldn’t miss this great little movie. So much fun.

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