Scary movies are hard to come by. Gory? No problem. Sorta cool and creepy? Sure, we got those in spades. But genuinely scary movies are rare as diamonds and, to be, infinitely more valuable. There is something wonderfully affirming about watching a movie that keeps you awake at night, that gives you eerie nightmares. There’s something wonderful about a film that makes you afraid to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, or that makes you nervous about the fact that the closet door is open just a crack. It’s a delightful rush of adrenaline and apprehension, but scary movies have almost become a thing of the past. Too often, people are simply interested in delivering (and having delivered to them) flashy special effects and “style.” Thus a scary movie like the classic The Haunting gets turned into another “dazzling feast for the eyes” that leaves the soul and the brain still hungry for more. Bring on the scare, man! I can watch any hundred films for cool special effects, but the well from which to draw truly frightening films is well nigh dried up.
And then along came Japan. Ah, Japan, my salvation! Just as Hong Kong swooped in to save me from the doldrums of 1980s American action excess (and just as Korea later swept in to save me from the same thing in Hong Kong), Japan came to my rescue in the late 1990s by staging a horror revolution. While they cranked out plenty of atrocity exhibits that got by on gore and tastelessness alone, Japanese filmmakers were also rediscovering the age-old pleasures of simply scaring people, or at least creeping them out with eerie rather than gross imagery. Thanks in part to a boom in horror related manga, but thanks primarily to the discovery of the fact that Japanese girls were really into chilling horror movies, the scare revolution began with films like Birth of the Wizard and a movie that will go down in history as one of the most effective horror films of all time, The Ring.
On the surface, there is nothing especially fancy about the movie. The plot is familiar territory that has been explored countless times by other films. The direction is, for the most part, top notch but straight-forward, showcasing none of the wild innovation or surrealism of other Japanese horror films, like Uzumaki. In fact, the direction is almost clinical, documentary fashion stuff that reminds me of George Romero’s scientific approach in many ways. The dialogue, the acting, and everything else is very good but not anything that sets new standards for quality.
So what is it, you may then be wondering, that makes The Ring so damn good? For starters, it uses its simplicity to great advantage. While some writers pile half-baked subplots and digressions on top of each others like the angry and sullen clambering over one another in the muck of the fifth ring of Hell, in an attempt to give their stories some false sense of depth or importance, Takahashi Hiroshi’s screenplay (based on the novel by Koji Suzuki) keeps the story fairly straight-forward, which ultimately makes the twists and shocks that much more startling. Sometimes, as I’ve maintained before, the simplest things are the best things, and there’s no need to mask yourself with dishonest complexities when the straight-forward, honest core is so powerful.
Director Hideo Nakata also understands the concept of dramatic tension, the ability to build up an overwhelming sense of dread rather than go for the three-second shock of a spring-loaded cat popping up at the characters or the “sneaking up behind my friend to grab their shoulder” scare employed by every lesser horror film known to man. As always, it reminds me of the famous story told by Alfred Hitchcock when trying to explain the basic concept of tension, which was relayed back in the review of Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan. Sadly, it is a skill that seems completely lost on the vast bulk of horror filmmakers today, not to mention going unappreciated by fans whose only real desire is to see a head or Jennifer Love’ Hewitt’s button-down top explode. I know I sound like the old horror fogy that I am when I bemoan such events, but so it goes. It’s not like I’m opposed to sex ‘n’ gore, to which many of the reviews here will attest, but liking one doesn’t mean you can’t mourn the passing of another. The other night, I was sitting around watching Bride of Frankenstein, thinking about how no horror movie that emotionally engaging or developed would ever be made today. There’s room for all types of horror, but no one seems interested in anything that relies of character or plot development.
Well, no one but the Japanese. Nakata handles the progression of the story with superb mastery, always favoring restraint over the cheap shock, allowing the sense of weirdness and dread to build throughout the entire film until, by the end, it is very nearly unbearable, and you find yourself white-knuckled and clutching the chair in anticipation of what’s coming next. That, in my opinion, is effective horror. Any buffoon can make a teenager jump by having one of those lame “shocks” like the cat or the sneaking friend, and big deal. You can make someone jump by just sitting next to them and suddenly yelling “boo!” for no reason. The Ring isn’t as base in its approach, opting instead to go the route blazed by classic horror films like The Haunting and Psycho or even Dawn of the Dead. It’s the type of scare that stays with you for days, even weeks, after the movie is over.
The Ring opens in classic horror film form, with two young girls home alone. One of them is telling a story about a cursed videotape. Once you are finished watching it, you get a mysterious phone call predicting your death in exactly one week, and then of course, one week later, you wind up dead. The second girl, Tomoko, isn’t as amused by this story as her friend, what with her and a group of friends having watched what may very well have been the cursed tape of growing urban legend fame one week ago. Tomoko tries to pass it off as nothing, but when the phone starts ringing, fear starts to rise. The entire scene, though hardly original or unpredictable, is beautifully paced. Even if you figure you know what’s going to happen, it still keeps you on pins and needles.
Enter then a sharp female reporter named Reiko, who works for what seems to be some sort of paranormal newspaper, or just a crappy sensationalist newspaper, possibly the New York Daily News. Reiko’s curiosity regarding the cursed video is piqued when one of her own relatives’ death is attributed to having seen the tape. Unfortunately, none of the other schoolgirls around can give any straight or concrete information regarding the tape. In classic urban legend form, it’s always a friend of a friend, or a friend who heard from this guy. A little investigative journalism uncovers the fact that a group of high schoolers from a nearby school have indeed all been dying off in strange, unexplained fashion, and they were all down in a rented cabin in the province of Izu.
Reiko makes the drive down to Izu to snoop around the cabin and eventually runs across a videocassette left behind by the kids. Although hesitant at first, Reiko soon pops the tape in a VCR and watches the bizarre, nonsensical few minutes of footage it contains, realizing immediately that this is the tape. Upon its conclusion, the phone in the cabin rings. What is said, if anything, is unclear, but it’s enough to freak out Reiko.
Back in the world, Reiko is increasingly upset by the video and the subsequent phone call. She enlists the aid of her ex-husband, Ryuji, a college professor who seems to have some sort of psychic ability. Ryuji is played by none other than Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the crown jewels (along with Sonny Chiba and Etsuko Shiomi) of the Japan Action Club during the 1970s and 1980s, not to mention being Michelle Yeoh’s co-star in the classic Hong Kong action film Royal Warriors. Although well versed in the paranormal, Ryuji is a natural skeptic and figures the tape to be nothing more than urban legend. He not only watches it, but has Reiko make him a copy so he can watch it over and over in an attempt to study and decipher the content. I guess he figures if you’re going to die after watching it once, you might as well annoy whatever malevolent force is behind it by watching it as many times as possible. Alleviating Reiko’s own fear somewhat is the fact that Ryuji receives no phone call after watching the video.
I wish I could say the same for me, however. In a lovely and more than a little unsettling coincidence, mere seconds after watching the scene in which Reiko views the cursed video for the first time, I got a call on the phone. Strange enough that I get a call, having as I do very few friends who use the phone. It was made more suspicious by the fact that it was around three in the morning, and even my friends aren’t rude enough to call that late without warning me ahead of time. Needless to say, I was as amused as I was scared to pick up the phone, and that’s a positive sign that the movie really managed to succeed in delivering the creepiness. Turns out it was some strung out dude calling the wrong number. Suffice it to say that The Ring will make you regard both your television and your phone with a little more suspicion.
As the week drags on, however, her fears begin to rise again, especially after her young son finds the tape and watches it himself. Determined to unravel the mystery, just in case something sinister is happening, Ryuji and Reiko follow a trail of clues to a small fishing island that was once the home of a woman with soothsaying powers. After being humiliated during a press conference meant to celebrate her powers, she and the professor who had “discovered” her went into hiding. A revelation on the island leads the duo back to Izu and the old cabin, where the final answer to what is happening lies deep underground. Or so it would seem. When doing a final bit of research to close the bizarre turn of events entirely, Ryuji discovers one more piece of the macabre puzzle that only Reiko can solve.
It’s an old story, one you’ve probably heard before, but The Ring pulls it off with such subtlety and effectiveness that it completely disarms you and keeps you guessing. Sure, you know what is supposed to happen in these sorts of ghost stories, but you’re never quite sure if the movie is going to go that route or forge off into some completely unexpected territory. It never allows you the comfort of familiarity even within a familiar type of story, and the end result is one of constant, growing fear. It truly is a beautiful experience to get this scared by such a seemingly simple movie.
It’s smart enough not only to avoid tipping its hand too early in the game and relying on horror film clichés to carry it through, but it also knows to avoid other obvious plot devices. In an American film, a story of two divorced people thrust together again by unusual circumstances would invariably become a story about them getting back together. That piece of crap Tri-Star Godzilla movie was basically a giant monster wrapping on a tired old “reconcile our past” romance with absolutely no imagination. While the characters of Reiko and Ryuji in The Ring are placed in similar circumstances, the plot never allows them to spoil things by turning into a shallow mockery of soul-searching with one of those “Why did we break up?” scenes with the predictable “Maybe we just loved each other too much” answers. There is no romance in The Ring, although it’s hinted that Ryuji may have been involved with one of his students. It keeps the movie focused on what it is supposed to be doing, which is scaring us.
The handling of psychic phenomenon is also well done. Ryuji’s “powers” are not as ludicrously illustrated as having him stand in a room and shoot wavy special effects out of his forehead or anything like that. Instead, his psychic ability is depicted realistically, or as realistically as you’d like to thing psychic abilities could be depicted. It’s nothing especially magical. Instead, he simply seems to be very adept at reading people rather than reading their minds, interpreting body language, reactions, and reading between the lines of statements to extrapolate some hidden truth. It’s nothing outside the realm of believability in the real world, and keeping the story grounded in very down-to-earth trappings is what helps elevate the horror of the truly fantastic elements when they come. Once again, subtlety and restraint prove to be two of the film’s greatest tools for constructing genuine, lasting horror.
On top of the expertly constructed plot is some fine acting. Sanada is, of course, a veteran, though here he gets to prove to genre fans that he can act as well as he can kick and shoot lasers. Actress Nanako Matsushimi, who plays Reiko, had very little experience before this film, acting in only a couple television movies. She is superb, wonderfully pulling off a character who is smart, determined, believable, and also not afraid to be afraid. And when she is afraid, you can feel it, and the palpable nature of her fright only helps augment your own fear. Despite what you may think, pulling off a strong, believable female character (or male, for that matter) is not an easy task. Sure, any hack director can plop a woman down in a scene and have her unload clip after clip into advancing bad guys without showing the slightest hint of fear, but that’s not exactly the sort of strength to which one can relate. Nor does it show very much character. And finally, it doesn’t help that this supposed bad-ass is almost always played by a model turned actress who maybe weighs ninety pounds and has all the muscle definition of David Spade.
The character of Reiko, on the other hand, demonstrates a much more believable type of strength. She’s not perfect, maybe even needs to ask for help, but she is smart, determined, and willing to forge ahead even when she’s wracked by fear. Nothing about her is overblown or of such preposterous proportions that she becomes unbelievable as an actual person. A weakly written script would have her seem like a superwoman who can solve any and everything thrown her way. Instead, we get a woman who perseveres and moves ahead regardless of her inability to answer every single question on her own. There’s a reason that this movie helped open the door for what has become known as “schoolgirl horror” in Japan, that is horror movies featuring strong but not cartoonishly infallible lead heroines. Par of The Ring’s success can doubtlessly be attributed to the fact that it doesn’t pander to not insult women, refusing to treat them as politically correct uber-women or as stumbling helpless bimbos. Instead, it gives us a very noble, believable, and imperfect heroine, and that character resonated deeply with lots of girls who saw the movie.
Reiko’s young son is also well played. Little kids in films, especially in horror films, are always an iffy proposition. More times than not, they drag the movie down with them into a kicking, screaming, whining mess. The children are often insufferably irksome, or they are in a plot where they save the day and exhibit skill and intelligence far beyond what is believable even for one of those genius super-babies. Additionally, most films with children in them never really want to upset potential parental audience members by putting the kid in any real danger, so you know that ultimately nothing is going to happen. The Ring suffers from none of these fatal flaws. The young Yoichi is rarely the center of attention, and when he is, child actor Rikiya Otaka is somber, soft-spoken, and completely devoid of the annoying traits most children in movies (and in real life, for that matter) tend to exhibit. Because of this, when his fate is called into question by his viewing the videotape, you actually don’t want to see him die a horrible and mysterious death. Funny how much more effective a film can be when you don’t want bad things to happen to the characters. I wish more horror writers and directors would realize this.
The icing on the cake is the music, which by itself is enough to illicit nightmares. Composed by Kenji Kawai, who also did the phenomenal soundtrack for Ghost in the Shell, it is perfectly suited for the film, sounding as it does like a cross between wailing souls, scraping metal, and something that Coil might have concocted on that unused Hellraiser soundtrack they did. It’s just one more difference between successful horror like The Ring, and the other crap we have out there that eschews using music to set the mood and instead uses an unrelated parade of pop hits to sell soundtrack CDs.
It’s an amazing film in every aspect, and for my money, it will remain one of the greatest and scariest horror films of all time, easily ranking among the past classics. Intelligent writing and masterful filmmaking elevate the proceedings far above the herd, and what is in one sense little more than a very good popcorn movie takes on much deeper qualities. The struggle of modern Japan and the modern Japanese against a very ancient, and traditional terror, not to mention the use of a relatively modern technology as the manifestation of this terror, speaks volumes without hitting us over the head with clumsily and heavy-handedly handled messages. There’s also a well-crafted message in the film about a generation of parents who allow the television to do the child rearing without any real regard for what it is the kids are watching, even if it’s violent pro wrestling shows or cursed video tapes. Again, the message is there but not at the forefront of the movie, never overshadowing the simple, visceral delight of being scared out of your wits by a movie. The Ring is a testament to quality horror filmmaking and should be required viewing for any fan of the genre.
The popularity of the film spawned all sorts of mildly confusing offspring. Both The Ring 2 and The Spiral are sequels, though made by different people and following different paths. Ring 2 is generally considered to be the official sequel, with The Spiral being a somewhat official sequel, but not really. Both films are quite good. Another rarity in the horror genre, I suppose: sequels that, while not quite as good as the original, are still very good. A television show was also made, and a third film, Ring 0, followed part two. Rather than continuing the story, however, part three is a prequel (thus the zero in the title), and by the time it was made, the magic (not to mention the director) had left the series, resulting in a movie that is at best a pale and distant echo of the original. On top of all that, a Korean film called Ring Virus based on the same original novel was made. That movie is also quite good.
Far and away the best thing about The Ring, and the real proof of just how solid a chiller it is, is that a week after watching it and thus watching the cursed video in the film, you’ll start to get fidgety and start thinking about how maybe you should be making copies for your friends and enemies and inviting them over for a viewing.