It would be amusing if it weren’t so infuriating that even as Hollywood studios still question the viability of a female-led franchise, Japan has created two all-powerful women so instantly iconic in pop-culture that they’ve graduated to that stage in a series where they get a versus movie. Sadako (Elly Nanami), of the cursed videotape in the Ringu films; and Kayako (Rina Endo), croaking mother of mewling cat-boy-ghost Toshio, who inhabits the house of the Ju-on/Grudge movies, are finally ready for the ultimate hair versus hair match in Sadako vs. Kayako. It no longer seems like a coincidence that both their franchises have names one might normally associate with pro-wrestling main events.
Unfortunately, the hype is better than the final fight. If you were hoping these ghosts would actually go at it longer than Batman and Superman or nu-Godzilla and the MUTOs did, you need to be let down easy right now. As with those two features, it’s more about the build-up than the destination. En route to the spirit smackdown, we get perfectly serviceable Ring and Grudge sequels between which director Kôji Shiraishi cuts back and forth until they finally merge. Enabling newcomers to either series to get oriented quickly, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on preexisting baggage; both curses are now urban legends frequently discussed by students who have also managed to change the rules via collective unconscious. Sadako now only gives you two days before death, and the previous “out” of showing her cursed video to somebody else no longer works. Kayako and Toshio never gave anybody an out… and still don’t.
Sadako also demonstrates new powers akin to those of the Evil Dead when anyone dares try to lift her curse from doomed victims; this widens the potential scope of the horror while also making us wish Ash Williams would show up to give them a real fight. Instead, we get a brash, obnoxious exorcist (Masanobu Andô) accompanied by a blind young girl sidekick (Maiko Kikuchi) who’s just flat-out rude. He’s able to ward off spirits with rapid, dismissive hand gestures and snaps, and it’s his idea to force both demon ladies to fight each other by ensuring that at least one potential victim gets cursed by both of them. Toshio seems to be discounted in this equation, but if we’re to extend the wrestling metaphor, think of him as a supernatural Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, running interference in order to ensure victory by hook or crook for his client, er, mother.
Even for those of us who’ve stuck with both franchises, in Japanese and/or American remake form, and are familiar with the series’ horror beats, they’ll still play as effective. Sure, Toshio gets a ninja move or two that look a little ridiculous, but Sadako’s creepy hair is still creepy, and Kayako’s spider-walk the best since The Exorcist. Most of all, even when we know where it’s all going, the dread comes from hopelessness. The giggling schoolgirls who unleash the lethal ladies this time around don’t suddenly become ass-kicking “final girls” like so many of their U.S. counterparts, but remain woefully ill-equipped, adopting fatalistic attitudes wherein the only way they see to beat the curse is suicide. The underlying theme: society only truly empowers women like Sadako and Kayako who’ve been scorned and are considered therefore entitled to unleash righteous rage, though this demonizes them as well. The rest are trapped in a structure that’s nearly impossible to break, and feel powerless about it.
If Sadako vs. Kayako were viewed by its filmmakers as one last big blowout for both (prior, perhaps, to rebooting), it could have culminated in a glorious ghoul-off. Instead, it’s clearly perceived as the beginning of yet another trilogy/series/whatever, and as such ends in a manner that’s likely to annoy you. Though a post-credits scene mitigates this somewhat, the apparent need to leave material on the table for a potential sequel is, paradoxically, likely to bug fans so much that they may not want one.
I call it the Mission: Impossible III syndrome, where a movie can be good for most of its running time, but ends so poorly that you leave the theater angry, thereby perhaps unfairly judging the flick as a whole. It’s hard to recommend something that fails to truly deliver on what its title promises, but then again, Frankenstein didn’t meet the Wolfman ’til the very end of their movie either.
At the same time, right up until this ended prematurely and irritatingly, I must admit I was with it all the way. So for that I have to GRUDGE-ingly give it 3 burritos…with a RING of extra cheese.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos.
Featured image: Kadokawa/Shudder
Luke Y. Thompson is the only member of the L.A. Film Critics Association desperately hoping we get cool new action figures out of this movie.