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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment