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Fantasia 2019: Sadako, The Deeper You Dig

The 23rd Fantasia Fest started Thursday night on a historical note, specifically related to the festival’s legacy with J-Horror. Almost 20 years to the day, Fantasia had the North American premieres for Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” and “Ringu 2,” giving the creepy tale of the vengeful ghost Sadako (and her deadly videotape) an exposure they had not yet seen in the west in the late '90s. The audience responses to those films led to DreamWorks remaking the film with Gore Verbinski’s famous “The Ring,” and the rest is Japanese horror history. “Sadako,” the latest movie from Nakata's Japanese version of the story, has a little bit of fan service for anyone who has missed Nakata's creepy-crawly ghost, but not much else to make this a well worth returning to. 

“Sadako” is both an origin story and a new beginning, neither half very compelling. It tells of a young girl who in the beginning of the film is behind cluttered up behind a gate in an apartment, a virtual prisoner. Her mother refers to her as Sadako, and then sets the apartment on fire. The young girl survives the blaze, but the mother does not, and the apartment becomes a haunted landmark that is blocked off by police. Sadako is discovered listlessly wandering the streets (where she has visions of the dead) and is brought to the hospital where she's taken care of by a doctor named Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda). Going all the way back to “Ringu,” the story also intersects a professional investigation with a personal one, as Mayu’s wannabe YouTube star brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu, acting more Blippi than Logan Paul) ventures into Sadako's apartment seeking viral video content, and disappears. The scene of Mayu watching the video that Kazuma made, stepping deeper into the freaky remains of this apartment, establish an unsettling atmosphere that the movie struggles to hold. 

As it mixes in mystery with sporadic lukewarm scares, "Sadako" is far too touch-and-go with its chilling potential, all despite the promise from its creepy young lead (Himeka Himejima) who is referred to as a "resurrection" of Sadako. Pair that with the lost idea of how Kazuma wants to make a viral video out of a storyline that was (20 years ago, at least) about a literally viral video, and there are so many story pieces that don't build to grandiosity, so much as drag viewers to an underwhelming climax. 

About that fan service—there were two moments in which the Fantasia audiences were audibly electrified. One of them involved a TV randomly tuning into Sadako’s famous well, the location from which she slowly crawls up, and eventually through said television. It has that jolt of creepiness of seeing it for the first time in “Ringu,” even if "Sadako" specifically distances itself from the mythology that makes Sadako interesting, namely the VHS tape that contains her murderous rage, and the deadly seven-day timer it puts any of its viewers on. Instead Nakata is foiled by the problems of many prequels, where building out from a character's foundation does not compare to the questions we already have about them. 

As for the other glimmer of fan service, it comes toward the third act, after too much soapy backstory that reminds viewers that Sadako is tragic more than simply evil. But while this flashing visual is one that helped establish the shocking nature of the “Ringu” movies, in "Sadako" it plays like a parting gift after a lackluster homecoming. 

Last night at Fantasia featured something I’ve never seen before at any festival—a movie directed by a mother, a father, and their daughter. “The Deeper You Dig” is billed in the opening credits as “An Adams Family Film,” and it was indeed written, directed, shot, edited and so much more by Toby Posner, her husband John Adams, and co-directed by their daughter Zelda Adams. The background with this story makes it especially compelling, and though the movie doesn't achieve its full desired emotional impact, it is a sterling example of a flesh-and-blood DIY indie that does not play by any rules, and one that uses a storytelling sincerity to take audiences on a new path to supernatural epiphanies.

The script does better without too much detail shared in advance, but it concerns a tragedy: a young woman named Echo (Zelda Adams) is accidentally run over by Kurt (John Adams), a drunk driver—who then hides the body in a bare-bones house he’s trying to flip. Her mother Ivy (Toby Posner) struggles to mourn her 14-year-old daughter, and tries to find out where Echo is. The film’s title takes on two meanings, concerning meditations on guilt and grief: Kurt wrestles with his actions, while struggling to metaphorically and literally bury visions of Echo; Ivy takes an investigative route using tarot cards and the occult to see where Echo has disappeared to. 

“The Deeper You Dig” then divides itself between these two character's lives, both presented with stubborn pacing that doesn't let us fully connect with these gray characters, so much as simply watch them. It's sometimes too distancing, even for a movie set with the cold, isolated environs of the Catskills, and lessens the impact of some of the impassioned performances, and the script’s more interesting contributions to horror films that circle around grief and guilt. But as Ivy and Kurt's lives do eventually converge in a big way, it’s by the third act that the movie becomes more than a quasi-compelling brood piece, and goes all-out with its own striking visions of horror and the horrific. 

"The Deeper You Dig" creates an impressive cinematic quality with the very basic tools of filmmaking—there are some arresting usages of light and darkness, namely a lot of shots that are mostly pitch black (as during Ivy’s tarot readings, or shots from inside Kurt’s bare house) with select slivers of light. The editing becomes its most polarizing factor—some climactic scenes have a few too many extra beats, and other scenes make the whole of it dangerously slack. But throughout, the intuition within "The Deeper You Dig" proves this filmmaking family is one to keep an eye out for—the Adams' consistently make choices that do not feel to be inspired by the ideas of other movies, or even non-family members, so much as come from an increasingly evident desire to tell this wild story exactly how they want to. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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