Monday, October 31, 2022

Fate Never Changes

The key lines of dialogue in the original Halloween come early on as Laurie Strode sits in school while her off-camera teacher discusses the concept of fate with the class. We hear Laurie's teacher saying "You see, fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Collins took, he was destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself." While her teacher is speaking these lines, Laurie is dreamily gazing out the classroom window and catches her first glimpse of Michael Myers standing across the street outside the school. She doesn't realize it yet but fate has arrived and is waiting for her.  

As much as Carpenter's original set the template for scores of slasher films to follow, it was also a rumination on the role that fate plays in our lives. Fittingly, Halloween Ends brings the franchise full circle back to that same theme. As in Halloween, fate catches up with several lives here. Many characters in Halloween Ends are marked for tragedy by circumstances outside of their control, in ways that seem to be predestined. 

Right from the start, fate intervenes to determine the course of events. Twenty one year old Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) finds himself babysitting the young son of a couple that he's done yard work for only because their regular babysitter had to cancel at the last minute after suddenly contracting a stomach virus. The mother's first words to Corey - and the first lines of dialogue in the film - are "Corey, you're a lifesaver." By the end of the night, the couple's son will be dead due to an accidental fall and Corey will become a pariah in Haddonfield.

Years later, Laurie has a chance encounter with Corey outside a convenience store as he's being harassed by a group of high schoolers and, with Corey's hand bleeding from a deep cut caused by shattered glass, she decides to bring him into the hospital where her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) works, thinking that Allyson might take a liking to him. She does and later in the film, Allyson reveals to Corey how when she heard about Corey's tragic babysitting incident in the news, she felt that she understood him and that she knew him and she felt that one day he would somehow come into her life. Circumstances have brought them together just as Allyson believed was meant to happen and the question is "were these events random or were they fate?" Do we ever know the forces that shape our lives? 

Once Laurie senses Michael's darkness in Corey, she tries to put a stop to his relationship with Allyson but Corey angrily shouts at Laurie "You invited me!" On one level, this is Corey reminding Laurie that he's only in Allyson's life because Laurie brought them together. On another level, it seems to call back to the original Halloween. Did Laurie somehow unwittingly, wordlessly invite Michael into her life and into the lives of her friends back in 1978?  Is this fate coming back around as Laurie invites Michael into her life again? Is it also possible that whatever part of Michael that has burrowed its way into Corey is also speaking through Corey in this moment?   


Standing outside of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital during his first meeting with Allyson, Corey can see the radio tower of local radio station WURG in the distance over her shoulder. On first watch, the sight of the tower comes across to us as a meaningless background detail. Later in Corey and Allyson's relationship, though, as they share a moment on WURG's station rooftop, Corey explains the significance of the tower in his life, that in the wake of his troubles he would look up at this local landmark, imagining being able to climb to the top of it and that for him it became a personal beacon that allowed him to dream about the possibility of things going back to the way they were. The constant presence of this tower in Corey's life recalls the words of Laurie's teacher that "fate is immovable like a mountain. It stands where man passes away. Fate never changes." 

On a second viewing of Ends, when we now notice that the tower was present from the very beginning of his relationship with Allyson, it emerges as a symbol of how Corey's fate was always unavoidable, a set point in his future. Even in this hopeful moment where he's talking to a girl who might change his life for the better, that tower and the dark future it represents is standing there like a sentinel or like a pin that's been pushed into a map. It is a reminder that fate will not budge and that Corey's appointed hour will come. No matter what course of action Corey takes, he is destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself. When Corey sets the tower ablaze during his Halloween rampage, fate has been fulfilled. 

Seemingly trivial details in Ends play their part in putting everything in its place. Allyson has a loose muffler on her car but this minor repair remains left undone. When she arrives at the junkyard Corey works at, Allyson tells Corey that she doesn't actually care about getting the car fixed, she just came for him and their relationship starts to move forward. We quickly forget all about the muffler but ultimately it's the sound of that familiar rattle that alerts Corey to Allyson's arrival outside of Laurie home later in the film, giving him the opportunity to make a desperate move. Nothing happens by chance in Ends. In a nod to this, Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), the girl that Laurie once babysat, gives tarot readings, underlining the movie's belief in the unseen forces that guide our lives. 

The lives of Ends' characters are intertwined in ways that they are helpless to alter or avoid. Corey and Allyson, the band kids that continually torment Corey, Laurie and Corey and Michael. All of them fated to intersect, all of them fated to instigate life or death choices in the others. 

  

Corey's bullying by the marching band kids draws Laurie to Corey, which brings Corey to Allyson and a second encounter with those kids who refuse to leave Corey alone (because the group's leader is bullied by his father and he wants to inflict the same pain he feels at home onto someone else) brings Corey into contact with Michael, which leads to Corey becoming infected by Michael's darkness. At every turn in Ends, fate tightens its noose. When Corey confronts Laurie in her house at the end and she shoots him, Corey is sent tumbling over the second floor stair railing to the floor below in the exact same manner that the boy he was babysitting had fallen, mirroring the death that had changed the course of Corey's life. 

In the end, Michael faces his own fate. He follows Corey to Laurie's house not because he is in pursuit of Laurie but because he is out to retrieve the mask that Corey stole from him, the mask that served as his identity since he first donned it in 1978. Had Michael not been driven to get it back, he wouldn't have crossed paths with Laurie for one final encounter. Fate catches up with Michael in Ends because, like everyone else, he is helpless to avoid it. It's been hardwired into him. 

The same impulse that compels Michael to take back his mask is the same that forced him in 1978 to pause his attack on Laurie because his mask had been removed. That mask defined him and, in the end, it's his fixation on it that dooms him. Michael also closes fate's circle by ending Corey's life here. Corey inflicts a potentially fatal wound on himself but we have to wonder if he only did so because he believed that whatever dark essence he was drawing from Michael would allow him to survive it. When Michael arrives to reclaim his mask, though, and Corey jerks to life, Michael ends him on the spot. If not for that, Corey might have continued to carry on as Haddonfield's new boogeyman but with his death at Michael's hands, that possibility is extinguished. With Michael's subsequent death, fate is tied up in a neat bow.

David Gordon Green and his collaborators on Ends (and on the rest of the new Halloween trilogy) have given much thought to the themes of Carpenter's Halloween and that makes Ends a much more fitting finale than some have recognized it to be. This is the first Halloween since the original to acknowledge the deeper underpinnings of fate that are key to Carpenter's film. A movie devoted to yet another battle between Michael and Laurie would not have been as appropriate a tribute to the original as this is. In Ends, it's not just that girl who once stared out of a classroom window unaware of how her life was about to change who finally comes to terms with fate, it's the entire community of Haddonfield that faces a reckoning. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

The Night No One Comes Home: Halloween III: Season of the Witch at 40


For those who were around in 1982, the current reception to Halloween Ends carries an amusing sense of deja vu. The only difference is that Season of the Witch was way more hated in '82 and it stayed that way for years. Somewhere along the line, though, it became fashionable to like, even love, the sci-fi flavored shenanigans of Season of the Witch and forty years later, we're long past anyone questioning its cult classic status. Time is typically kind to genre films in general but given Halloween III's starting point, you have to say that it's been especially kind to this one. In retrospect, though, its redemption should have been easy to predict. With the Silver Shamrock jingle drilling its way into viewers minds, chances were good that eventually people would just relent and give in. Even if it might prove to take some time. 


I can't say exactly how long it took Season of the Witch to really begin winning fans over (sometime in the '90s is when I felt the tide really starting to turn) but I do know that when it was first released on October 22nd, 1982, audiences were not having it. If anyone says they liked this movie from day one, they're lying. Personally, I have never once, even after it became cool to like Season of the Witch, ever heard anyone claim that, oh, I was on board with it from the start. It was so hated, no one even dares trying to lie about being on Team Halloween III all along. Whatever ambitions writer and director Tommy Lee Wallace and producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill may have had for this big shakeup of the Halloween franchise, audiences told them to stuff it. No one was having any anthology bullshit in their Halloween movies. 


It's Michael Myers or bust. 


As much as we might wonder why fans at the time weren't buying this shift in the series, it also seems fair to ask how anyone involved in Halloween III actually thought they would. Who thought people would be happy about this? I mean, come on. They had to know that people might be fucking pissed. It's crazy to me that anyone was shocked at the reception this got. This was a movie that was always going to take some getting used to. And honestly, if this had somehow really killed the franchise and Michael Myers had never come back, I guarantee people would still hate it. 


As we all know, in the lead here as Dr. Dan Challis is Carpenter regular and all-around genre movie favorite Tom Atkins. Challis is a middle-aged medic who, while on the job, witnesses the grisly demise of a store owner who came into the hospital during Challis' shift clutching a Halloween mask like grim death. After the man is murdered in his hospital bed by a strange assassin who immolates himself in the hospital parking lot afterwards, Challis sets out on a trail that leads him to discover an outrageous (some might call it completely harebrained) plot by Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), the world's leading mask maker, to kill as many people (mostly children) as possible on Halloween night by sending a signal through the TV ads for his line of Silver Shamrock masks. 


This signal will activate electronic chips embedded in the masks to cause the heads of every kid wearing them to burst open in an unholy eruption of beetles, snakes, and assorted other creepy-crawlies (courtesy of makeup FX legend Tom Burman, whose studio produced some of the most memorable FX of the '80s, with this, Cat People, The Beast Within and others). 


Thanks to all this ghoulish glory, Halloween as a holiday will be rightfully returned to its dark pagan roots, something that Cochran seems to care way too much about. Honestly, I'm not sure what his end game was. What was he getting out of this, exactly? I don't know. He doesn't seem to have any great explanation to offer Challis. The best he can muster is something about the planets being in alignment. I'm genuinely curious as to what Cochran's post Halloween plans were. Even if the crap he planned had gone off without a hitch, how would every law enforcement agent in the country not be on Cochran's doorstep on November 1st? No matter what kind of crazy shit he might have unleashed on Halloween, it wouldn't have meant that the entire country collapsed and we no longer had laws. Was his defense when he got dragged to jail going to be "I do love a good joke!" Thanks to Dan Challis blundering through Cochran's factory like a bull in a china shop, we'll never know. 


When you're a rich evil mastermind and you've got an elaborate sinister plan with a lot of moving parts to it (too many, I say, in this case), you probably expect that plan will be in peril at some point. Someone on the side of law and order might catch on to what you're doing and try and put a stop to it. But if you're a rich evil mastermind, you also probably believe that opposition will come in the form of a James Bond type, some slick secret agent. I mean, in Cochran's case he's got a set-up that Blofeld would envy. It may not be a criminal empire per se but he is up to criminal shit (he stole one of the stones from Stonehenge!), he owns a whole town, he has an army of robots at his disposal, and he's so rich he thinks nothing of blowing his money on a frankly cockamamie scheme that seems to have no actual purpose other than being wicked for its own sake. If that doesn't merit a worthy adversary that he can gloat about his diabolical plans to, what does? 


Yep, if you're Conal Cochran, you're expecting the very best to be coming for you. What he gets, however, is divorced doc Dan Challis. Yeah, we're not talking Batman vs. The Joker here. Challis is no grim avenger. Most afternoons you can find this guy on a bar stool. All love to Tom Atkins but in another time, Kevin James could have played this same part with no discernible difference. 


Before he even hits the road to Silver Shamrock's base of operations in Santa Mira along with Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the young daughter of the slain shop owner, Challis makes sure to bring a six pack. Once he and Ellie arrive in Santa Mira, while she wants to immediately start looking for clues about what happened to her dad, Challis' response is for them to slow their roll. As he says, "It's getting late and I could use a drink!" As soon as these two would-be sleuths catch on to the fact that something sketchy is up in sleepy Santa Mira (the sketchiest thing in Santa Mira is Challis and Ellie passing themselves off as husband and wife but whatever), Challis' immediate question to Ellie isn't what the next step of their investigation should be but to ask "You wanna leave?" This guy is no hero. I'm not even sure if you could even fairly call him an anti-hero. That seems like a stretch too. To be fair, he does fuck up Cochran's plans to a point, and he definitely fucks Cochran himself up, but he is just not cut out for this stuff. The only real success Challis has in Season of the Witch is getting Ellie into bed. It's not anything he should be proud of but, by God, he does it.


While Dan and Ellie are busy going at it, in the next motel room over a woman inadvertently causes a Silver Shamrock chip to fatally misfire and blast her face off. Ellie immediately reacts to the sudden sound on the other side of the wall but the best Challis can do when Ellie asks "What was that?" is to mumble "Who cares?" It's really not so hard to believe that this guy wasn't able to save the day. 


Like Challis himself, though, Season of the Witch is the very definition of a lovable loser. It didn't turn into a better movie over the years, fans just came around to appreciating its quirks, something that I think became much easier once they realized that Michael Myers wouldn't be going away again. In 1982, Season of the Witch felt like a prank at the expense of Halloween fans but forty years later it's seen by many as the pride of the pumpkin patch.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Drop On By the Clown Cafe

 

As someone old enough to remember when the sight of an arrow puncturing Kevin Bacon's throat in the original Friday the 13th was considered shocking rather than quaint, I found writer/director and FX artist Damien Leone's Terrifier 2 to be quite the "gee, times sure have changed" experience. Obviously there have been many films since those more innocent days that have raised the bar when it comes to splatter, whether we're talking about Re-Animator or Dead-Alive or whatever so it's not like Terrifier 2 is playing to audiences who haven't already seen their share of over the top gore but that said, I feel safe in saying Terrifier 2 is still enough to give even jaded horror fans pause. 

I know there is a segment of viewers who will take any on-screen atrocity in stride but for those who haven't gone entirely numb to violence or who aren't sociopaths, Terrified 2 is really something to behold. It is a full year's worth of old school Fangoria covers in one movie. The body count in Terrifer 2 is actually not all that high but when just one of your kills equals 20 kills in a normal slasher movie, that's fine. It's about quality, not quantity. 

As much mutilation is on display in Terrifier 2, Leone somehow avoids making it feel mean-spirited. I know others will disagree on that count and I get that (I mean, there's no question the movie is fucking ghastly) but I felt that it hit the right tone of ghoulish fun. Leone is making a live action cartoon here. This is not a True Crime story. The kills in Terrifier 2 are so extreme, Leone is one step away from going full Itchy & Scratchy and having someone's tongue tied to a rocket and having it pull all their organs out through their mouth as it blasts off into the stratosphere. 

Even though there are a couple of kills here that reference Tom Savini's work in 1980's notorious slasher Maniac, Terrifier 2 doesn't share any of the same sense of seediness as that film, in which we're forced to wallow in the diseased psyche of Joe Spinell's character. Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) isn't some real life psycho sleazeball with mommy issues, this guy is either a full on demonic creature of some kind or someone that's been inhabited by an evil force and it's Art's detachment from the real world that allows Terrifier 2 to play as a comic book style horror fantasy rather than as gritty torture porn. The splatter here is presented in the same prankish spirit as the scene in Summer School (1987) when the class is done up in gore makeup. Terrifier 2 is an incredibly violent movie but it isn't a malicious one. It wants to shock you, not make you suffer. Art may be a sadist but, as a filmmaker, there isn't a mean bone in Leone's body. For such a grisly movie, Terrifer 2 is remarkably affable.   

Beyond the gore, Leone improves on 2016's Terrifier by increasing the humor, by building up the supernatural aspects, and in introducing a strong adversary for Art in the form of high schooler Sienna Shaw (Lauren LaVera), one of the best Final Girls in ages. Leone is out to horrify us with the various gory spectacles Art unleashes, sure, but there's no mistaking the fact that Art is very much the bad guy here and he's not meant to be seen as an anti-hero in any way. Leone wants our sympathies to lie with Sienna.

Great horror heroes that are as memorable as their adversaries, to the point where they also have their own signature, cosplay-ready look, are rare and the care that both Leone and LaVera have put into developing Sienna is an aspect of Terrifier 2 that further elevates the movie's comic book vibe, lending it a mythic Good vs. Evil quality. Sienna isn't just a spunky teen with a knack for survival, she's a true warrior princess, dressed for the part like a bad ass (one of Terrifier 2's best moments is a montage that follows Sienna as she creates her homemade Halloween costume, a sequence set to composer Paul Wiley's outstanding synth score), wielding a special sword of unknown origin that is somehow imbued with magical properties.  


Post-2000 there have been several attempts to introduce slasher icons for the new millennium but none of them quite stuck. Audiences in recent years have preferred the ectoplasmic appraritions of franchises like Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring to maniacs with signature weapons. The stunning word of mouth theatrical success of Terrifier 2, however, has pushed Art to the next level. When a movie scores headlines about how audience members are fainting and vomiting and paramedics are taking people out of the theater on stretchers, you're officially big time. Art is getting the kind of foothold in the wider pop culture that a character like Victor Crowley wasn't able to. 


With the original Terrifier functioning as a proving ground, Leone has been emboldened to cut loose with the follow-up. Across the board, Leone has gone bigger and better in Terrifier 2 while Thornton continues to impress as Art. Typically slasher villains either operate in silent mode, like Michael Myers, or deliver quips and one-liners like Freddy but Art represents a unique combination of the two approaches in which he doesn't say a word but yet is able to show a lot of personality and be funny. What the future holds for Art (outside of a guaranteed Terrifier 3) is uncertain but one thing that is sure is that any discussion of modern horror will have to include him. In the A24 era we've been in where horror that indulges in deep thoughts and ruminates on trauma has dominated the conversation, Terrified 2 is a reminder of the catharsis that straight up horror can deliver (I have to say I slept like a baby after watching it). It may not be elevated but Terrifier 2 is a work of Art.  

Holding Out For A Hero


I'm not sure the higher ups at Warner Bros. know what they're doing when it comes to making the most of their DC properties but after seeing Black Adam, I believe that Dwayne Johnson is aware of the possibilities. The marketing for Black Adam caused me to crinkle my nose with its emphasis on pushing an antihero in a cinematic universe that was guilty of leaving its big name heroes languishing. When you have a universe of heroes but you've sidelined the greatest one of them all, the message it sends is that you're in the wrong business. To see Black Adam, though, is to feel more encouraged about the future course of the DCEU. Not ecstatic but encouraged. I wouldn't bank on anything until it actually comes to pass but this is the first time in the entire DCEU era that I felt, ok, things might actually pan out here.  


Even though this is an antihero story it ironically offers up more straight-up fun than we've seen from Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman in the DCEU era. Black Adam might be a dark dude and he may be tortured in his own way but this is not a dour film. It's comic book-y and action packed. It has to be said, though, that the first twenty minutes or so are pretty rough. There's some painfully clunky exposition to get through but once Black Adam himself arrives, things take off and the movie barrels along from that point on, even as it remains hampered by several flaws. 

The main everyday human characters of university professor Andrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) and her son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui), both caught up in the resistance fight against presence of the organized crime syndicate Intergang in their homeland of Kahndaq, are not terribly interesting but this is a problem rooted in the writing more than in the performances. A bigger issue is that Black Adam also lacks a compelling villain. Again, this is more of a screenplay problem with actor Marwan Kenzari simply not given much to do as Ishmael Gregor, a militant leader of Intergang who has his eyes on obtaining the Crown of Sabbac, a long buried, ancient item that can grant its wearer great power. Ishmael comes across as such a non-entity that it feels like he must be just a temporary placeholder until the movie's real villain arrives but, no, he's it. It does help that he turns into a demonic creature eventually, complete with horns and a flaming pentagram on his chest, but still, in the adversary department, Black Adam is lacking. 

Where the movie shines is in the enthusiasm that it shows for embracing the DC universe. The core of this movie is the JSA vs. Black Adam and on that count, it entertains. It isn't made clear what the Justice Society's origins are, how long they've been operating, what authority Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has over them, or what makes them different from the Justice League but Carter Hall, aka Hawkman (Aidis Hodge), has a cool plane that he flies everybody around in and that's kind of all I care about. Yes, this movie could have afforded to be a lot more generous in filling in the details of its characters but they're still fun to see in action. We get to (somewhat) know the JSA on the run as they race from one conflict to the next. 


Once Black Adam starts tearing shit up in Kahndaq, Carter calls in a hand-picked team of JSAers to handle it. He's got two young heroes - the size-changing Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and the wind controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) - and a long time veteran of the JSA, the mystical mage Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan). Between the four, there's nice variety of powers and that's an important consideration on a visual level when the majority of the movie is going to center on this team using their powers in one fight scene after another. I'm sure most people who aren't especially into superhero movies regard every one of them as nothing but people in colorful costumes unleashing their powers on each other but Black Adam actually is that. This is the cinematic equivalent of a kid playing with their action figures and just having a ball bashing them together. It's not deep, it's not complex, but (depending on how much of a nerd for these characters you are, I guess) it's a good time.
 

Even though we aren't given much info about the history of the JSA, just seeing them in action helps foster the impression of a broader DC universe that includes a more far reaching menagerie of heroes than we've seen up to now and not just Suicide Squad style cannon fodder, either. 

Hawkman and Dr. Fate are not throwaway characters, they have roots that go back to the Golden Age of comics. While this movie only scratches the surface with them, Hodge ably establishes himself as a credible Carter Hall and Brosnan is every bit as cool as Fate as anyone would have expected. There is an act of sacrifice that takes place involving Fate but given the character's supernatural bent, I don't think it precludes a return. Where and when these characters might actually show up again remains to be seen and with the way Warners/DC operates, you never know if they even have long terms plans for them but come what may it's a treat to see these guys in live action on the big screen for the first time. Hawkman swings a mean mace and Fate gets some flashy spells to cast. That checked off the basic boxes I needed checked off. 

 

For his part, Johnson doesn't do much in this movie other than prove to anyone who comes at him that they don't have a chance. He is rarely, if ever, on the ropes. Watching Black Adam spend this whole movie completely owning everyone it feels like Johnson's main interest in this part was that he just wanted to play a guy who could whip the ass of the whole DC universe. That literally is the be-all, end-all of his character. When they say that Black Adam changes the hierarchy of power in the DCEU, all it means is that The Rock will not lose to any chumps. If he's going to come in to the DC universe, he's going to dominate it. And to that I say, fair enough. Helping Black Adam humiliate his adversaries, director Jaume Collet-Serra teams with Johnson again after Jungle Cruise and he continues to be an adept visual stylist, staging Black Adam's action with flair. 

Black Adam has been hyped as a turning point for the DCEU but while Black Adam as a character is a force to be reckoned with, the real shift in power is behind the camera. Johnson has taken the lack of a driving force in the DCEU as an opportunity to grab the ball and run with it. Black Adam's much talked about mid-credits scene, bringing Henry Cavill's Superman back into the fold, reportedly only came about due Johnson insisting that it happen and it signals that he understands what the DCEU's been lacking. A DC universe that doesn't make Superman a priority is a DC universe that isn't living up to its potential and the fact that Johnson understands that and made the effort to fix it is promising. Black Adam may be an antihero but, in the end, Johnson's firm handle on what the DCEU could be if handled correctly might make The Rock the hero DC fans have been waiting for.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Well Wishes: The Ring at 20



The knowledge that one day the complications of old age will do us in isn't a cozy thought but in the immediate moment it still beats, say, the possibility of suddenly seeing your intestines dangling on the end of a pitchfork or plunging into a pool of piranha. Whether it's Marion Crane being stabbed in the middle of a cleansing shower or a hungry shark snatching young Alex Kitner off his inflatable raft in full view of a crowded beach, the fear that horror regularly taps into is not simply our fear of death but our anxiousness about the timing and the method of it. Some horror movies, though, draw their fear from having their protagonists be armed with advance warning of their imminent demise. In these films, thanks to the mechanisms of some supernatural curse, the protagonists know they are on operating on a merciless timetable in which the remainder of their lives can be measured in a matter of days. In the case of 2002's The Ring, seven days to be specific. 


Directed by Gore Verbinski, the American remake of Hideo Nakata's 1998's cult classic Ringu was the first - and went on to remain the best - of the early '00s cycle of J-Horror remakes. With a screenplay by Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, Scream 3), The Ring relocated its action to rainy Seattle where newspaper reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is investigating the recent death of her teenage niece Katie (Amber Tamblyn) who passed away under mysterious circumstances related to a urban legend involving a tape that supposedly kills anyone who watches it in seven days. Rachel discovers that a week before Katie died, she and three other friends had gone to a remote mountain retreat where they all watched the sinister tape, after which they all went on to die at the end of the same seven days as Katie. Rachel visits the moss covered cabin that Katie and her friends had stayed in and watches the strange tape for herself. Once its series of disturbing and seemingly inexplicably linked images (including a well, a ladder and a close-up of a horse's eye) has finished, the phone in the cabin rings with a voice croaking out the words "Seven days." 


From that moment, the clock is ticking and Rachel is in a race against time to beat the curse. Rachel involves her video savvy ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Hendersen), showing him the tape ("Very student film," he says dismissively) and she makes him a copy to analyze. The need to discover the source of the curse and determine how to undo it becomes even more imperative when Rachel and Noah's preternaturally mature young son Aidan (David Dorfman) watches the tape for himself. Over the course of the next seven days, Rachel doesn't waste a minute in trying to decipher the images on the tape, conducting an investigation that sees her experiencing a progressively more alarming series of eerie events as she gets closer to the truth, including the disturbing sight of a panicked horse diving off a ferry into the water only to be hacked up by the ferry's propellers.  


With his two films prior to The Ring being Mouse Hunt (1997) and The Mexican (2001), Verbinski did not seem to be an especially promising pick to direct a horror film, much less a remake of a modern classic, but he proved to be a more than capable choice. He brought just the right mix of gloss and gloominess to The Ring. It's a slick mainstream horror movie that pops when it needs to but without shaking its perpetually glum, rainy day vibe that sticks to every shot like wet leaves. 


Released on October 18th, 2002, The Ring immediately became a sleeper hit that Halloween, easily outpacing its supernatural competition in theaters that October, Dark Castle's Ghost Ship. At the time, The Ring was a ghost story for the modern age, with its insidious tape representing a contemporary update on the urban legends of cursed chain mail. Given how up to the minute everything in The Ring was then, it's a curious thing to revisit its array of outdated tech. When its characters have to fiddle with a VCR's tracking to bring a fuzzy image into focus, The Ring feels like a ghostly callback to an analog era. 


The paranoia about TV that Kruger's script seeks to stoke (the first words spoken in the film are "I hate television.") feels awfully quaint now. Even though it's set in 2002, from today's perspective the attitudes towards television expressed in The Ring might as well have been dragged out of the Fifties. In an age when iphones are an essential component of our every day life and our eyes are constantly looking at screens, we're way past the days of fearing TV as some kind of boogeyman.  


What will never become outdated about The Ring, even for viewers who have barely touched physical media, is the full body slam of its wicked double climax, lifted directly from Nakata's original. We get an exciting, satisfying resolution with Rachel and Noah discovering the well in which Samara had died in and Rachel seemingly allowing Samara's spirit to finally find peace now that her body has been found and laid to rest. Like Rachael and Noah, we now believe the curse has been lifted because a week has passed and Rachel is still alive. But the next day, Noah's own week is up and while he is alone in his apartment, the specter of Samara emerges from his TV and kills him. 


Up until this sequence, The Ring has been enjoyably spooky. There's been a couple of effective jolts, as when we see a quick flash of Katie's contorted post-mortem face (courtesy of FX legend Rick Baker), but generally the frights have been of the mildly shivery variety. Had it ended with what seems like the climax, you'd have a perfectly serviceable goosebump raiser. It's the appearance of Samara, in full vengeance mode, after we feel safe in assuming everything is over that puts The Ring over the top. It takes what has been a decent but not quite powerhouse spook show and instantly makes it unforgettable.

 

Additionally, there is the moral darkness that creeps in on the heels of that shock. Once Rachel realizes she was spared not because the curse was broken but because she had perpetrated the curse by showing the tape to Noah, she knows that only by Aidan making a copy and sharing it will he live. There is no moment where Rachel tries to discover some other way to beat the curse and we don't even see her spend an instant wrestling with her conscience. Understandable from the perspective of a desperate parent, perhaps, but it is nonetheless chilling to seeing Rachel physically guiding Aiden's tiny hands to operate the dual tape decks in The Ring's closing moments. She knows what this tape do will do to whoever watches it but there's no guilt or remorse involved. 


In realizing that we aren't willing to condemn Rachel and that we'd readily make the same choice, The Ring gives us a glimpse of our own moral vacuum. We know we'd be as quick as Rachel is to let our morality slip if the occasion called for it. The Ring is a movie where evil wins. Either Samara claims her victims or she makes them an accomplice in perpetrating her curse.  


The fact that Koji Suzuki's novel and Ringu did all the actual heavy lifting on its behalf means that one can't give The Ring too much credit for its artistic choices but it's also no small thing to have filmmakers understand the value of a story and adapt it to another culture with care. Verbinski and his collaborators ably retained the impact of the original, to the point where The Ring soon became regarded as a classic in its own right. Even if you credit Ringu as being superior, one still has to acknowledge the effect The Ring made as the first exposure to this story for many viewers. One could make the argument that an American copy of Ringu is superfluous but I say that if any film is appropriate to be remade, it's one whose plot revolves around the need to make copies of original material to share with new viewers. 


Samara would approve.