Sadako v Kayako (The Ring v The Grudge) won't win over the uninitiated, but fans of both franchises should have a good time with this crossover.
When university student Natsumi Ueno (Aimi Satsukawa) needs to transfer her parents' wedding video from VHS to DVD as an anniversary present, she enlists the help of her technologically savvy friend Yuri Kurahashi (Mizuki Yamamoto). The two girls find an old tape player at a shop, and when they bring it home, they discover that a tape is inside the VCR. Watching it out of curiosity, Natsumi is horrified to learn that the tape in question is the infamous "Cursed Video," and she is marked by the demon Sadako, who (according to the legend) will kill whoever watches the tape in two days. Natsumi and Yuri go to their college professor Morishige (Masahiro Komoto), who has a great interest in the history of Sadako, to see if there's a way to save Natsumi's life.
Meanwhile, Suzuka Takagi (Tina Tamashiro) moves to a new neighborhood with her family. She is drawn to the mysterious house next door, which is locked up and abandoned. Suzuka learns at school that this house is haunted, after a murder-suicide took place there. Whoever enters the home is killed by Kayako. However, Kayako may be the key to freeing Natsumi from Sadako's curse, setting the stage for a collision course of epic proportions.
Released in Japan last year, Sadako v Kayako is a horror mash-up movie that combines the mythologies of The Ring and The Grudge (two J-horror properties that achieved widespread popularity in the early 2000s), wondering what would happen if the two forces met. Originally announced as an April Fools' joke in 2015, the hope was that it could be a fun treat for fans of the genre, serving up enough scares along the way. On that front, the team is mostly successful. Sadako v Kayako (The Ring v The Grudge) won't win over the uninitiated, but fans of both franchises should have a good time with this crossover.
The movie is written and directed by Kōji Shiraishi, best known for directing several Japanese horror films, including The Curse. From a technical standpoint, he proves to be the right man for the job. Shiraishi is able to craft a number of spooky and creepy set pieces, including one standout sequence involving four young boys making their way through the haunted house. Most of these instances will leave viewers on the edge of their seats, but it's worth noting that they're played mostly for the pulpy fun of embracing an absurd premise, rather than the gritty, grounded terror of the original films Sadako v Kayako follows. Still, they're very much effective and some audience members will be scared by what they see.
Where Shiraishi struggles is the screenplay, as he fails to find a proper balance between the Ring and Grudge subplots of the film. Most of the time is spent with Yuri and Natsumi learning about the Cursed Video, and the Kayako aspects come across as a disassociated sidebar until the third act. Unfortunately, when the two parallel storylines finally do intertwine, the end result is more anticlimactic than compelling. After an intriguing (and admittedly bonkers) set-up, Sadako v Kayako fizzles out, and the finale is decidedly not what longtime fans hoped for when the film was first revealed. It also doesn't help matters that both demons are simply one-note killers, stripping their showdown of any gravitas that'd be there if they were more interesting characters. The film mainly exists to play out an amusing "what if?" scenario than anything else.
Performance wise, the leads do a fairly good job, particularly Satsukawa, who convincingly sells the desperation of Natsumi as she looks for a way to stop the curse (and descends further into madness). Perhaps the biggest standout is Masanobu Ando as Keizo, a man with psychic powers who comes to the aid of Yuri and Natsumi. Ando does an entertaining riff on a classic horror movie archetype, playing the part with a magnetic confidence. He has a great dynamic with Mai Kikuchi, who portrays Keizo's blind assistant, the young child Tamao. The two are entertaining to watch as they plot ways to help their clients. For many, they will be the best characters in the film and deserve their own spinoff. That said, none of the roles here have all that much depth; the greatest victim in that regard is Tamashiro, who doesn't have much to do except react to exposition and look frightened when approached by demons. Granted, Sadako v Kayako isn't meant to be a character study, so the thin writing doesn't hurt it too much. Still, that makes it hard to recommend to those who aren't horror fans.
For whatever shortcomings the script has, Shiraishi deserves credit for finding the right approach. Sadako v Kayako never falls into the trap of becoming overly self-serious and operates mostly as a breezy ride for its short running time. That's not to say it ever turns into a comedy, but the filmmakers keep their tongues in cheek, knowing what they're working with is silly at the outset. And while established fans will get the most out of it, Shiraishi does make an attempt to appeal to the newcomers, offering truncated origin stories for its two entities to bring everyone up to speed. This makes the movie more accessible, as it is somewhat welcoming to casual audiences who only have passing knowledge of the previous movies. It's something of a sequel, but works as a standalone entity.
In the end, Sadako v Kayako makes for a superficially entertaining horror film, though it ultimately is a mixed bag. For long stretches, it feels like it's two separate movies combined into one production, and all the build-up amounts to minimal payoff that will leave some feeling disappointed. For people who know what they're getting into, it's worth a watch. If nothing else, it's a good primer for Rings, which hits theaters next week.