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Non-Review Review: The Ring

The Ring is actually a surprisingly effective horror when measured on its own terms, as well as being perhaps the most successful American adaptation of a Japanese horror. I would make the case that the film isn’t a patch on the original Ringu, but it’s to director Gore Verbinski’s credit that he attempts to subtly distinguish his film from the one that inspired it, while remaining true to the spirit of that classic cult horror.

Watts going on here?

In fairness, the movie does suffer a bit by virtue of its timing. Indeed, the movie’s opening scene – where a poor schoolgirl finds herself a victim of the mysterious curse – is hard to take seriously in the age of the post-Scream horror film, even when Verbinski attempts to insert a sense of humour or self-awareness into the sequence. In fairness, it’s really the only part of the film to feel so entirely out-of-date, with Verbinski doing remarkably well with the rest of the film, but it feels strange to start off on a traditional horror cliché (the poor young girl at home on her own, waiting to fall victim to some sinister predator) in this day and age.

Another aspect of the film that hasn’t aged too well is the way that the film relies on copying and playing VHS tapes in order to pass on the curse. When the original film debuted, more than half-a-decade before the remake, the idea was bold and clever – it seemed to put a modernised twist on the old “pass it on” urban legends that would be handed down from friend-to-friend. Give the way that – even into the nineties – film fans were passing around bootleg VHS tapes of arthouse classics or special cuts, the idea of a tape that could kill you was a powerful one.

They'll watch anything...

However, Verbinski’s film was released in 2002, with the era of DVD already in full swing. In fact, by 2003, the VHS would effectively be extinct – with more people buying and renting DVD than VHS. Don’t get me wrong, the film’s fundamental idea – a movie that kills you – is still a powerful one. That said, seeing the characters wandering around with VHS does date the film, and make what should be a cutting-edge idea already outdated. In fairness, the problem would become far more pronounced in the sequel, which would take be released in an era where it was highly unlikely any of the audience was still using a VHS. It’s kind of a shame, given how the core idea could have been cleverly updated for new technology and modes of media consumption, but it’s a small point.

And, to be honest, perhaps it’s an intended difference between Verbinski’s vision and that of the original Japanese film. The Japanese film was shocking when it first came out – it didn’t look or feel like anything Western audiences had experienced. I know this, because I remember watching it in my room at the tender age of ten or eleven, and unplugging the television (and sealing the wardrobe door) in order to get asleep. Sure, it sounds cute in retrospect, but I was bloody terrified on watching that Japanese horror. I still rank it as among the best horrors ever made.

I'm on the fence about it myself...

Verbinski knows that he’s adapting a work that has had years to work its way around the film circuit, to the point that even the most out-of-touch horror fan would be familiar with the basic concept (from word of mouth if not personal experience). So he knows that the film isn’t going to come from out of left field, and I think he adapts it accordingly. He doesn’t attempt to emulate the feel of the film that inspired this adaptation, and instead finds a way to couch his premise in terms more familiar and fitting. In sort, he pitches the movie as something of an American gothic ghost story. And, to be frank, against this backdrop, the tapes fit right in. (In fact, most of the players in the film seem decidedly old.)

He borrows the constant rain from the original film, but to a different purpose. Set in the American North East, the film documents horrors in what might be aptly described as “Lovecraft County”, with clouds constantly overhead, old fences in need of repair, and wild animals seemingly aware of evil afoot. Even the family drama from the original film gets revisited here, but it feels like something from an Edgar Allan Poe story, with a child secreted in a hidden loft in the barn. Verbinski, to his credit, homes in on the story elements from the original that fit with this idea and exploits them to the fullest – the terror of being buried alive or a secret beneath the floorboards or even an old well.

Not too watered down...

The film is at its best here, dripping with atmosphere and intensity. The desaturated look, with Verbinski playing up the shades of green, became a lot more common in the years that followed this film, but it still holds up remarkably well. Verbinski captures the heartbreaking isolation and creepy sense of darkness one can find in the midst of New England, evoking the masters of American horror (like King, Poe and Lovecraft). It’s the creepy little moments, like close-ups on the eye of a horse, or objects moving of their own accord, that help the movie to work so well. Although I could have done without the creepy child so obviously modelled on the lead from The Sixth Sense.

On the other hand, the ending does feel a bit at odds with the store Verbinski wanted to tell. Without spoiling too much, the idea of the curse as almost a virus (passed from person to person) was a relatively bold new take in the Japanese original, much like the use of new media to spread. While Verbinski allows the VHS tapes to play into the almost classic gothic story he’s trying to tell, the idea of a curse spreading like disease feels a little awkward to shoehorn in there. Gothic ghosts typically want either to seek a grim revenge or to find peace. The problem with the ending is that Verbinski’s movie doesn’t really fit that pattern, and the ending feels a little out of place.

Scared to death...

You might argue that the protagonists were merely confused about the genre they were trapped in – that they thought they were in a gothic ghost story, when they were really in an ultra-modern horror – but it doesn’t fit especially well. It’s a legitimate approach to trick the audience as to the nature of your film, but it seems only fair to clue us in to what you’re really doing before the final credits role. If the film intended to mislead us, only make a radical genre shift towards the end, it needs to offer something by way of an explanation or excuse for fooling us – or at least acknowledge the shift. Instead, Verbinski pulls a bit of a fast one, and sets the credits rolling before we can really reflect on what just happened. If this wasn’t a gothic horror film like everything else in it led us to believe, what is it?

In fairness, there are any number of thematic hints given throughout the film, including some that do tie the film to the traditions of socially-conscious horror. I can’t help but feel that more might have been made of the observation that the media “take one person’s tragedy” and “spread it like sickness.” I think that the line gives the movie a lot of depth, but I can’t help but feel that Verbinski didn’t reallycapitalise on the potential. Given how closely interconnected the world has become, the idea of something like the video should be far more terrifying – a curse that infects through mass media. As noted above, Verbinski chooses to play down this angle in order to focus on the gothic horror, but it feels strange that the movie’s finale leans so heavily upon it.

Child's play...

All that said, it’s a relatively minor complaint, because the movie works best as a study in grim atmosphere rather than bloody horror. It’s to the movie’s credit that it manages to unsettle without the use of gore or other hackneyed devices to make the audience squirm in their seats. As I noted above, the film stands quite tall on its own merits. It’s not as raw or as bold as the Japanese film that it adapts, but it’s an efficient little piece of gothic cinema that proves American directors still know how to make an effective little horror film.

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