Following the sudden death of her niece Katie (Amber Tamblyn), Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), a Seattle journalist, is compelled to investigate the strange circumstances behind Katie’s death, her friends directing Rachel to a mysterious video tape that allegedly kills you in seven days after watching it.
After viewing the tape herself, Rachel receives a phone call telling her “seven days” that soon leads to nightmares and bizarre situations. Determined to find out what’s causing these recent troubles of hers, Rachel and friend Noah Clay (Martin Henderson), a video expert, investigate the tape more, leading them to uncovering a truly disturbing secret behind it all.
This film is primarily responsible for why I screen my calls, and why I chose a house with city and not well water.
I’m sure horror diehards were pulling their hair out in anger upon hearing the 1998 Japanese horror flick Ringu was getting the good ol’ ‘Murrican treatment. Clumps of it were probably then yanked out in fury when it was confirmed Gore Verbinski, the director of MouseHunt and The Mexican, had signed on to direct.
But The Ring (which aside from altering the antagonist’s backstory is fairly faithful to the original) manages to do something most horror remakes, and in this case Japanese horror (nicknamed “J-Horror”) remakes, rarely do – actually be good.
Wait… The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse, One Missed Call, Shutter (Thailand), The Eye (China)… EDIT: Actually be watchable.
Of course, those aforementioned films point out one of the downsides brought on by this film. Remember how 2009’s Paranormal Activity’s success led to every studio wanting their own Paranormal Activity knockoff? Well, seven years before Oren Peli’s hit, The Ring remake opened up to solid critical reception and made almost $250 million on a $50 million budget. What followed was every studio wanting their own J-Horror remake, and Lord knows we bastardized enough of them to justify a second Pearl Harbor bombing.
Still, just like I don’t blame Paranormal Activity for the studio bandwagon reaction, I don’t hold The Ring responsible for its aftermath, and out of all the American J-Horror remakes, this one manages to get mostly right what our Asian neighbors across the Pacific have been able to do so extremely well with the horror genre. Is it as good as Ringu? Nope, not quite, but to be fair, as Mickey Knox would say, “It’s pretty hard to beat the king.”
Despite some similarities to the vastly inferior FeardotCom, also released in 2002, The Ring’s premise about a killer videotape – one that looks like a collaboration between David Lynch and a film student version of Marilyn Manson (Martin Henderson’s unimpressed Noah refers to it as “very film school”) – has an eery campfire ghost tale vibe, and the film lets you know it means business about it within the first five minutes. Imagine a VHS version of a chain letter, except instead of never gaining the love of your life or experiencing bad luck financially if you don’t pass it on… you die.
Although he doesn’t abuse them, Verbinski does fall back on the usual tricks of the trade at times. No horror film’s complete without the creepy son smarter than any child really should be, and the requisite trip to the foggy, isolated country to find the answers needed about the videotape. Overused devices, sure, but Aidan’s still solidly performed by David Dorfman (though lacking just a bit of the childlike innocence and fear Haley Joel Osment combined with his character’s wiser beyond his years personality), and what is oftentimes the cliche road trip is at least compensated by two extended cameos from screen veterans Jane Alexander and Brian Cox that are more than welcome.
Yeah, it succumbs to a few tropes, but Verbinski and his top-notch crew that includes cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and production designer Tom Duffield take full advantage of the rainy, dreary Seattle backdrop to create a gloomy atmosphere that succeeds in getting under your skin. It’s an eery tone and visual style (complemented by Hans Zimmer’s haunting score) that’s sure to give you chills without placing a stranglehold on the film where it ends up serving the style and not the style serving the film. Unlike many other horror remakes of its time that failed, The Ring makes no effort to one-up its predecessor by needlessly dialing up the intensity with an R-rated dosing of blood and gore or an overkill of style. Instead, Verbinski wisely chooses to keep the pervasive, ominous sense of dread that made the original great in tact. Moments of shock do occur (those meth-faced victims of Samara provide a good “WTF?!” jolt), but they’re dispersed appropriately amidst longer stretches of shots that linger.
Lending credibility to its supernatural elements is Naomi Watts in what was my first exposure to the Oscar-nominated actress. It’s both this film and her breakthrough role in David Lynch’s neo-noir Mulholland Drive, released the year before, that paved her way to becoming the A-list star she is now. Granted, there are moments where Keller’s investigation flows a little too smoothly than one might be willing to accept (maybe she really is that resourceful in immediately pinpointing the exact lighthouse she’s looking for), but Watts brings a dogged determination and genuine sense of urgency to her character’s dilemma that her life, in this case, literally depends on.
She’s also got some nice pipes for screaming too.
Fun fact: When I was around 18, I bought the DVD and showed it to my parents and sister. Naturally, my sister at the age of 13 was thoroughly creeped out by the film. So I took one of the two landline phones (you cellphone obsessed youngins today might be thrown off by just what the hell that is) we had at our house into the bathroom and dialed our home number. I told my mom to give the phone to Rachel, and when she nervously answered, I quietly whispered “seven days”. Judging from the screams I heard outside the bathroom door, I take it my prank worked.
Combined with the stunt I pulled on my sister after seeing Paranormal Activity years later, you all probably think I’m a dick brother.
The Ring falls into its share of genre trappings, and though no fault of its own, it’s kinda unfortunate that its reputation has taken a bit of a hit from the number of crappy, Americanized J-Horror wannabe that followed. That said, this is still an effectively creepy horror film thanks to Naomi Watts’s committed performance and director Gore Verbinski’s strong sense of style and atmosphere, eschewing the obligatory gore and jump scares, for the most part, in exchange for an unsettling mood that rarely lets up.