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Non-Review Review: Ringu

There are a handful of movies I will forever associate with a particular viewing experience – and some with the first time I had seen a given movie. I remember, for instance, seeing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back for the first time with my father in the local cinema during its nineties re-release. When I think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I recall the time I had to sit in the hall while the grown-ups watched it. Anytime I see The Shining, I think back to watching it in the wee hours of the morning with gran and granddad. The Japanese cult horror Ringu is something of a similar experience.

All's well that ends well...

It was 1998. I was still a child, not yet even twelve. I had somehow convinced my parents to allow me to install a television in my room, perhaps to spare the rest of the family my eclectic taste in cinema and science fiction. Anyway, the television naturally came with fair restrictions – including a reasonable curfew. Of course, like any kid just shy of his teenage years, I was in the mood for a little rebellion. And, being the geek that I was, it consisted of sneaking on my television at inappropriate hours, to catch the good movies, not the relatively safe nonsense that the channels showed during primetime. Yeah, I was never cool.

Channel 4 was doing one of those wonderful movie seasons that they used to run late on Monday nights. Sometimes it’d be Woody Allen films, or French comedies, or even forgotten classics. This time, it was Asian horrors. I saw a couple that truly unnerved me, including Audition. However, it was Ringu that truly terrified my young and impressionable mind. Here I was, just eleven years old with a television in my bedroom, thinking it was the coolest thing since sliced bread and – bam! – here’s a movie about television signals that will kill you. It took a while to get that scene out of my head. If you’ve seen the film, or even the remake, you know the one that I’m talking about.

Eye see you...

I disconnected the television to help me get to sleep that night. I closed the wardrobe door over it. I kept mistaking the sound of wind through trees for childish giggles. I think I slept about two hours that night, constantly waking up in fright. To be entirely honest, the Japanese version of the Ring was the only horror movie that ever made me that uneasy. Sure, walking home from the cinema after a slasher movie might have weirded me out, but I never lost sleep over it. Even when granddad used to show me the old John Carpenter movies that he really shouldn’t have, I still slept quite well. But there was something about Ringu that just lodged itself in my young mind.

Of course, I’m older now, so it doesn’t unnerve me quite so much these days, but I’d still argue that it’s one of the best horror movies ever produced. Like a lot of the great films from our collective youths, the movie rewards us on visits in later life. The initial hook – a video that killspeople – is still as potent now, but there’s also quite a bit of depth to the tale as well. The movie has a wonderful grindhouse feel to it, captured on film for a murky feel and a heavy, ominous soundtrack that seems to wail and scream, while avoiding the string sections we’d expect from a conventional Western horror.

"... And we're sending our love down the well..."

There was something very bold and very new about the idea when it first emerged. The horror genre as a whole was undergoing something of a rebirth in the mid- to late-nineties, with Wes Craven’s Scream plowing the way for the post-modern horror film. Ringu feels like something just as clever and just as bold. It’s a horror film about a horror film – it’s about victims of a horror film who died from watching a horror film. It’s a clever way of exploring the culture of urban myths, because – despite the fact that curse is housed on a video cassette – it’s really the story of a killer idea. Something that gets passed on from person to person, spreading fear and mistrust and uncertainty.

“Everyone’s talking about it,” we’re informed of the mysterious and sinister tape. When one person asserts that somebody has actually died, they can’t point to the person due to the nebulous network of urban mythology. “No, my friend heard it from somebody else.” We’re told that “these stories get started after people die horrible deaths”, almost as a means of giving voice to a collective fear and uncertainty, one that is as hard to place as it is to ignore. “Stories like that don’t start with anyone.”They come from the community and the collective unconscious. The film spends quite a bit of time on pseudo-science, one of the aspects that helps differentiate it from the more gothic American adaptation, with various characters exploring ESP and other theories of paranormal activity.

One to watch...

I think that’s why the ending – which I won’t spoil here – sits so much better with this version of the film. Gore Verbinski would translate the story to the sort of New England setting that Lovecraft, Poe or even King might feel at home in, playing on familiar tropes like animals that can somehow sense evil. It was very much a gothic ghost story, a fact somehow helped by the fact the VHS was already a dying medium by the time that film was released. There are undoubtedly elements of that sort of horror here – with typhoons and “goblins” that dwell in the sea (and the subtle suggestion that those creatures may have fathered Sadako, with the observation that “maybe her father wasn’t human” and her more inhuman features here than in the remake), touches I’m surprised were omitted from the American version of the film – but it feels like more of a sort of a science-tinged horror.

After all, the experiments our heroes investigate took place “forty years ago”, which – given the fact the film was made in the nineties – would take place in post-War Japan, still recovering from the use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, at that stage Sadako herself would have been several years old, perhaps born immediately in the wake of the War, after the splitting of the atom. It was nuclear weapons that awoke all manner of science-fiction monsters in Japanese pop culture, the most famous being Godzilla, who arose from the sea as some sort of atomic vengeance. It’s hard not to see this film in similar terms, with pulp science (ESP, electro-radiation, etc) used to explain how events in the distant past can haunt various locations.

When it comes to puns for this film, I'm well sorted...

It helps that the movie is genuinely unsettling. The relatively low-key production means that the special effects really have an impact when used, especially during the movie’s key scene – one I’d argue is as iconic as any horror scene. Things like Sadako’s unnerving giggle, or even the way that she moves, feel all the more uncomfortable because – despite the premise – this isn’t an inherently fantastical movie.

I might sleep a bit better after watching it these days, but Ringu still holds up as a genuine horror classic, in any classification.

10 Responses

  1. i’m not a big fan of horror but there’s something that’s so good about this movie/series of movies. no matter how many times i see it and how lame i found the american version i am still genuinely creeped out by a fair few moments. one of the very best horror movies i’ve ever seen.

    • I didn’t hate the American version, I must confess, but it’s not nearly as good. The American film is a gothic horror, which is a strange fit for a movie about new media (and that’s why I think the ending doesn’t quite work), but the Japanese film is fantastic. It still creeps me out.

  2. I’ve only seen the American version, but I always loved how they took a ridiculous premise (a tape… that can KILL YOU!!!) and treated it very seriously.

    • Justin, I would recommend seeking out the Japanese film, even if most of the twists have been spoilt for you. And watch it at night, in a dark room, on a grainy set. It’s a wonderfully pulpy and creepy experience. Though I will concede it’s a silly premise, I do think that horrors are more prone to them than other films. Unless you’re making a straight-up exploitation slasher, I think that a lot of supernatural thrillers veer into the ridiculous – with monsters and aliens and ghosts and so on.

  3. I love love love ringu!!! it always stays in my number one horror movie of all time.

    I freakin hate the remake, tho

  4. lovely review – really does it justice. I will watch again.

  5. Sorry for commenting on a five-year-old post, but oh man, do I love Ringu.

    Haven’t watched it in years, but I get chills just thinking about it. Whenever a conversation turns to the subject of scary movies, I always bring this one up. It’s like a Hitchcock film, the way the dread and mystery slowly build — it still works, even when you know exactly what’s coming.

    I think your observation about the production values is quite relevant. Ringu seems to occupy a sweet spot between low-budget (which fails to convince due to its shoddiness) and high-budget (which fails to convince due to its flashiness). The film quite wisely doesn’t throw a lot of FX work at you early on, so you don’t have any idea what to expect, and then it hits you with That Scene. I feel this is where the American remake fell flat. Sadako crawling out of a TV looks exactly like you’d imagine someone crawling out of a TV would look; Samara teleporting out of a TV, accompanied by glitchy static effects, looks like something you’d see in a movie.

    • Don’t apologise for commenting! I’m always glad to see old articles get some love.

      And any excuse to talk about Ringu. I adore it. It gave me nightmares when I first saw it, the night that I got a television installed in my room.

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