With Japan’s two most famous fright franchises having squeezed sequels or remakes dry and needing to be spliced together like a human centipede, the result can only be the J-horror to end all J-horrors. Director-writer Koji Shiraishi (“Carved: The Split Mouth Girl”) knows that self-parody is the only way to go with “Sadako vs. Kayako,” contriving a goofy way to make the vengeful spirits from “Ringu” (a.k.a. The Ring) and “Ju-on: The Grudge” cross paths for a twisty-crawly smack-down. Ingenious marketing has created buzz since the two characters made a side-splitting ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game in Hokkaido. The film boasts long, jerky festival legs and will be a jamboree for audiences when it screens at Toronto’s Midnight Madness section. Shudder, AMC Digital Networks’ streaming service, holds North American rights.
Shiraishi, a B-horror-making machine, has a knack for deadpan spoofs, as seen in “Shirome” — a clever mockumentary that nails the infantile tone of celebrity reality TV and idol bands, and “Paranormal Phenomenon,” a send-up of “Paranormal Activity” and the whole found-footage genre. Both “Ringu” and “Ju-on” have spawned so many sequels and knockoffs that the premise no longer shocks, and Shiraishi has the sense of humor to trigger laughter from the familiar, such as Sadako and Kayako’s contorted gaits, influenced by kabuki and butoh.
The problem with reviving Sadako in the digital age is that videos are now a rarer species than ghouls (let alone Pokemon monsters). But the film has found a solution by having college student Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) buy a VHS player from a second-hand shop to help classmate Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) transfer her parents’ wedding video onto DVD. The girls find a videotape inside the player, with clumps of hair poking out. Still, Natsumi watches the video and gets the obligatory ringtone of doom, telling her she’s got two days to live.
Sadako and Kayoko participate in a bizarre first-pitch ceremony at the ballgame: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Co6zFxXw5-Q
Yuri consults her anthropology professor Morishige (Masahiro Komoto), who has written a book on urban legends. His elated reaction reveals he’s been (literally) dying to meet Sadako. He eagerly asks Natsumi to pass him the video, then enlists the help of a weird Shinto priestess, Horyu. The resulting exorcism is pure farce, with Horyu soliciting donations for the temple even in the throes of a possession, while Morishage gushes with fanboy excitement. Shiraishi also gets comic mileage from Sadako’s Rapunzel-like hair, which turns up just about everywhere in gross-out scenarios.
The shenanigans are intercut with an adjacent, blander plot that involves high-school student Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro, “Chasuke’s Journey”), who moves into a nondescript neighborhood with her parents. The house next door, whose gates are sealed by yellow duct tape, and which bears the sign “Entry Forbidden,” piques her curiosity. She learns that it was the infamous home of Takeo Saeki, who murdered his wife Kayako (Rina Endo) and son Toshio (Rintaro Shibamoto). She becomes troubled by strange vibes, especially after a boy who’s forced by school bullies to enter the house as a dare, goes missing. The haunted house sucks intruders into every available storage space, which isn’t near as funny as it sounds, and doesn’t lampoon the “Ju-on” template very well. Toshio, the ghost boy with heavy mascara, prances around, but his apparition is neither as creepy nor, in this film, as gag-worthy as Sadako.
The parallel tales remain unrelated until a linking device finally arrives in the form of Kyozo (Masanobu Ando), an onmyoji (shaman), and his pint-sized sidekick — blind psychic Tamao (Maiko Kikuchi). Summoned by Horyu at the eleventh hour, the duo sense the house calling to Suzuka, and a plan is devised to cancel out all the protagonists’ curses in one fell swoop. How Shiraishi contrives to bring the two grumpy fiends under one roof certainly takes some warped imagination, and the resulting rumble is supremely silly yet undeniably fun.
The cast carries off the cheeky tone, and never takes itself seriously. Usually, J-horror is inundated with idols mugging fear with whiny voices and gormless stares, but Yamamoto, Satsukawa and Tamashiro display self-control and even a bit of welcome meanness. Ando, one-time soulful teen star of “Kids Return” (1996), hams it up big time. Endo’s Kayako, who never makes a full appearance until the end, does so with grotesque aplomb.
Tech credits are adequate in an average budget. Playing along with the retro feel, the visual effects remain low key till the finale, which boasts glossy-looking CGI.