Written by: Ehren Kruger (screenplay), KŰji Suzuki (novel)
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, and David Dorfman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
True horror translates. It knows no boundaries, be it language or cultural. Thereís a reason many of our most successful, resonant horror franchises thrive on the simplicity of universal terror: we all are capable of taking trips that go horribly awry; we all sleep, camp, and celebrate Halloween; most of us have encountered stories about some boogeyman or another.
Likewise, weíve all watched videotapes (or at least we had closer towards the turn of the century) and indulged campfire tales or urban legendsóthis, more than anything, explains the runaway success of both Ringu and its American remake The Ring. Both thrive on an irresistible hook: what if there was a videotape so evil that it could literally kill you? Itís the allure of watching a forbidden tape magnified to the logical extreme, and itís no wonder Paramount and Dreamworks were so eager to give Hideo Nakataís film an American makeover. As far as premises go, this one is difficult to botch.
Of course, itís also notable that they didnít simply coast on the premise and were committed to producing a damn fine rendition of it. Memories of what the J-horror remake wave would become sometimes make it difficult to remember that The Ring mostly works because it so deftly couches its dramatic elements in its horror beats: where later films would thrive on an assortment of frightful gags and unreal imagery at the expense of story, The Ring effectively balances both: itís creepy, tense, and gut-wrenching in equal measure. What screenwriter Ehren Kruger and director Gore Verbinski did was rightfully take a solid foundation and embellish upon it ever so slightly, and the result is one of the best American horror films of this century so far.
While it wasnít exactly unheard of during this time (look no further than The Sixth Sense a few years earlier), itís still noteworthy that The Ring just felt like a big deal, thanks in large part to Naomi Watts taking the lead. Just a year removed from her critically acclaimed breakthrough role in Lynchís Mulholland Drive, she lent an immediate presence and gravitas to the role of Rachel Keller, a Seattle reporter investigating the bizarre death of her niece Katie (Amber Tamblyn). Her friends insist that she died after watching a mysterious videotape while on a weekend trip with her boyfriend. Oddly enough, he also diedóaround the same time as Katie to boot. Upon further investigation, it turns out that two other students on the trip also died in a car accident, a revelation that further piques Rachelís curiosity about this preposterous story.
Viewers don't find it difficult to believe at all. In a masterfully tense prologue, the audience is privy to Katieís last, agonizing moments of life. It begins innocently enough, with her chatting away with a friend about her forbidden trip with her secret boyfriend. Even when the topic of the tape is broached, itís dismissed as harmless nonsense. Katie even goes so far as to fake her own death as the fatal hour approachesóand then the phone rings. Verbinski playfully leads up to the punchline by faking out both Katie and the audience, letting them off the hook with a sense of relief just long enough before introducing the ghastly, deadly truth: the urban legend is very real, as evidenced by the spooky image that inexplicably haunts Katieís television just before she dies.
But Verbinksi doesnít completely give up the ghost; instead, he basically dangles it like a carrot before the audience, who are strung alongside Rachel on her quest to uncover the grisly truth. Itís fair to say that much of The Ringís effectiveness thrives on the source material, and Verbinskiís adaptation retains its page-turning intrigue. He and Kruger also have a sense for pacing to be sure, but author Koji Suzuki and original Ringu screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi laid should be commended for laying a fine groundwork. Even after all these years, The Ring moves with a potent sense of urgency, spurred on by the fact that Rachel herself only has seven days to uncover the tapeís mystery after watching it herself. When bother her young son (David Dorfman) and ex-lover (Martin Henderson) view the tape, the urgency is only compounded, spurring her to uncover the sordid backstory even more feverishly.
Unfortunately, the cryptic nature of this otherworld transmission sends Rachel prowling through the labyrinthine history involving the Morgans, a local family who endured a tragedy some years earlier. Verbinskiís unravelling of this sordid tale is essentially the filmís prologue write large: just as that prelude playfully slinked through its beats, so too does the Morgansí backstory send the audience on an exciting rollercoaster ride. Somehow, even mundane stuff like Rachel trawling through old newspaper clippings and footage is positively thrilling, and business only picks up once she encounters Richard (Brian Cox), the surviving patriarch of the Morgan clan. Itís at this point the script deftly sets its twisting, turning climax into motion: it has you looking in one obvious direction (like Rachel, the audience is absolutely convinced Richard murdered his own daughter, Samara) before pulling the rug from beneath you multiple times.
In this respect, Iím not sure The Ring gets enough credit for being so goddamn fun. Once its wheels are greased, the last half hour or so are wickedly entertaining, full of twists, turns, and one particularly awesome fake out that allows the film to linger on for one last, particularly cruel revelation. Forged from all this is one of the horror iconís most recent icons in Samara, the Morgansí 12-year-old daughter. Born under mysterious circumstances, Samara is unnaturally creepy in her sparse appearances, and few explanations are offered for the bizarre events surrounding her. Samara herself can only dryly insist that she does want to hurt people, though she does half-heartedly claim sheís sorry for it. Sometimes, pure evil wears the face of a devious little shit thatís committed to spreading misery from beyond the grave, even if it entails manipulating a desperate mother into doing her dirty work.
Of course, her most infamous legacy is the tape itself, an unholy dispatch from beyond. While much of the imagery is repurposed from the original Ringu, Verbinski makes it his own, and I find it to be a little more oppressively sinister than Nakataís slightly more ethereal take. Itís an unnerving collection of imagery that would be among the most effective horror shorts even outside of its context in The Ring. Within it, becomes something of a puzzle left to be decoded, the twisted key to unlocking Samaraís gruesome fate at the bottom of a well. Paradoxically, it also ensures that her end is only her beginning, a closed loop that will perpetuate forever so long as the tape circulates.
Samaraís tape is also a microcosm of The Ring itself: a template thatís been just slightly embellished into something familiar but fresh. I donít want to discount Verbinskiís fine helming here: far from a simple copy and paste job, he magnifies Ringuís melancholy vibe into a suffocatingly somber, rain-soaked affair. For all its thrilling narrative meanderings, The Ring is also unnerving because Verbinski casts just enough of a pall over the proceedings. His restrained scares are expertly couched and spring organically from the story, be it an eerie episode involving a spooked horse or Richard Morganís outrageously grisly suicide. Thereís not a gratuitous frame in The Ring: every story revelation, every grotesquely distorted face works towards that stunning moment when Samara emerges from the television to claim her final victim here.
This final turn of events further resonates because of the strong character work. Watts is obviously the filmís empathetic center as Rachel, whose desperation and determination fuel much of the filmís urgency. Sheís an authentic mess, a mother who knows she hasnít exactly been there for her son, and Verbinski shows admirable restraint when exploring their relationship. The Ring doesnít lean on cloying, obvious displays, and Dorfman is just the right mixture of precocious and weirdóyou sense that a lesser director would have wrung this whole subplot for maximum, phony sentiment. Verbinski rightfully keeps the drama grounded and genuine, even as it pertains to the bad blood between Rachel and her ex, as Hendersonís performance remains muted and aloof. These are all simply good people caught in an inexplicable feedback loop of tragedyówhich is exactly why the ending of The Ring is such an effective gut punch.
Thereís a tendency for landmark films to sometimes be caught in their own wake. For example, the conversation surrounding Scream often circles around to the films it inspired, that wave of slick, studio slashers starring marketable names and faces. Likewise, The Ring is inseparable from the J-Horror remake boom it initiated, even if it is leagues above all of the films that followed (including its own sequel). I canít help but wonder if The Ring has been underappreciated because this particular wave was so underwhelming as a wholeófor the most part, this rash of ghost movies (many of which carried the dreaded PG-13 rating, not that itís any indicator of quality) is a forgettable lot that hasnít aged very well.
If anything, this only makes The Ring all the more special, and I will certainly never forget attending a secret advanced screening for it about a week ahead of its actual release, a strategy that no doubt contributed to the filmís huge word-of-mouth success. While no one could have known it would essentially kick off a new era in horror, there was something undeniably fresh and exciting about The Ring at the time (well, at least for those of us who hadnít seen Ringu, which wouldnít be released in the States until 2003).
Even now, it stands as a stark reminder that the best ghost stories donít have to rely exclusively on cheap jolts and loud noises to be effective. Something even more basicóyet paradoxically more difficult to craftóis more essential: a clever hook, some genuine dread, and strong character work go much further. Of course, an iconic gag where a ghost girl crawls out of a TV like an unholy demonic spider helps too.
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