Way, way too far into the tongue-in-cheek Japanese horror mash-up Sadako vs. Kayako, a young woman doomed to die from watching the VHS from The Ring turns to another woman who’s been marked for death by the ghouls from The Grudge. “My curse and your curse will fight,” she says, so gravely serious that the silliness transcends the horrific and achieves high comedy. “It’s the only thing that will save our lives.”
Self-awareness is key in a versus movie as admirably opportunistic as Sadako vs. Kayako. In 1998, director Hideo Nakata scored a horror hit with Ringu (The Ring), the first of 12 films that would eventually spin off from Koji Suzuki’s source novels in three countries (yet another Ring sequel is set to continue the American franchise next year). Meanwhile, horror fans saw 11 Grudge movies—including three American installments—death rattle their way into cinemas following the success of Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 original Ju-On (The Grudge).
But both franchises had long run thin on new ways to make their signature scares feel fresh. After two-dozen go-rounds, what could possibly reinvigorate the crown jewels of J-horror? The answer: Return the favor from all the imitators and remakers by taking the most Hollywood of cues from the likes of Freddy vs. Jason and Alien vs. Predator, villain-on-villain face-offs that unapologetically crashed disparate movie worlds together to entice audiences with One Last Reason to watch obsolete icons fight each other to the death.
Making its West Coast premiere with the receptive crowd at L.A.’s Beyond Fest, Sadako vs. Kayako is a decent midnight movie for those already intimate with J-horror’s reigning queens of death. Pop culture is so steeped in Ring and Grudge lore, even the characters in the movie are on a first-name basis with Sadako (Elly Nanami) and Kayako (Runa Endo). University students and BFFs Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) learn about both spooks in a class with their urban legend-obsessed Professor Morishige (Masahiro Komoto), but it’s not until they buy a dusty old VCR from a secondhand store—and watch the creepy VHS tape stuck inside from its recently departed last owner—that they start to believe the tales of the Cursed Videotape.
Meanwhile, across town, a teenage girl named Suzuka has just moved into a new neighborhood with her parents. The house next door is so legendarily haunted, the locals casually whisper, anyone who enters its doors gets cursed before they can make it past the foyer. Suzuka’s classmates warn her not to go inside. Of course it’s haunted, they say: “It’s famous.” She’s the only one who suspects the Grudge curse when four schoolboys make the mistake of wandering their way in only to come face to face with the ghastly mewing Toshio.
Unfortunately for the audience, it takes an eternity to get to the titular face-off as director Koji Shiraishi tracks Yuri and Natsumi’s desperate quest to reverse the Ring curse (now accelerated from a week to a much more economical two-day death sentence). The fanatically academic Morishige can’t reason it out, and attempts by a psychic priestess to drive Sadako out only build to comically gory Exorcist-esque carnage. Thankfully, two new characters arrive in time to juice up the momentum and shove Sadako toward her reckoning with Kayako.
Keizo (Masanobu Ando) is a cocky demon hunter for hire and Tamao (Mai Kikuchi) is his sidekick, a pint-size blind girl with extrasensory powers and a sardonic bite. Theirs is a winking self-confident swagger that one imagines could revive these franchises if some visionary studio exec gave them their own spinoff sequels, wandering the moviescape for J-horror icons to vanquish, rolling their eyes at the desperate plebes who hire them to help break their curses. If only Sadako vs. Kayako were really about them.
In its best moments, Sadako vs. Kayako is a movie mash-up that knows it’s the last gasp of a done-to-death genre and goes for broke anyway, leaving creepy clumps of long black hair in its wake. The scares that were chilling the first time we saw them are no longer exactly scary or new; Toshio’s feral antics, for example, are more reminiscent of the Grudge parody in Scary Movie 4 than his first truly disturbing screen debut. At least there’s fun in the recognition: in hearing the throat-clicking rattle of Kayako creepy-crawling toward her prey, of whipping to the startling sight of Toshio’s open-mouth stare, and even the meta-horror with which characters know to expect a phone call of doom as soon as they finish watching Sadako’s tape.
There’s also an unintentional and unexplored poetry in pitting Sadako, who lurks inside that possessed VHS because someone threw her down a well, against Kayako, who’s just trying to haunt the house she and her son were murdered in. Japan’s two biggest horror franchise villains are so evenly matched, so similarly fueled by wrathful supernatural vengeance, they really ought to be besties. There’s something striking about the fact that Sadako and Kayako are wraiths embodying righteous female rage pushed to the brink—and that Japanese audiences have thrilled along to their unsettling exploits for a decade and a half.
But Sadako vs. Kayako lacks pretty much any depth—one element that might have made such a thin and familiar plot compelling. Tighter visual effects, better pacing, and a stronger script would’ve done the trick, too.
By the time Sadako finally starts battling Kayako, thanks to one of Keizo and Tamao’s Scooby-Doo schemes, we’ve been so starved for action even the most gimmicky gags feel downright exhilarating—and that’s all before the film goes back to the well, literally. There’s the notion that anyone who ignored the warnings of two decades’ worth of Ringu and Grudge curses got what they deserved for their folly. The same could be said for watching Sadako vs. Kayako: We might be seeing new layers of humor in J-horror’s biggest series, but too much remains yawningly the same.