The golden age of horror: The Ring (2002)

Chris: I need to give you all something, so we’ll talk about this movie in just a moment. Let me find it…here we go. This dog-eared thing with the peeling lamination? Yeah, it’s my horror movie credibility card. I’m afraid I have to hand that in. You see, the rational part of my brain recognizes fully that this Americanized version of the 1997 Japanese film Ringu is far too long. I’m quite aware that the movie depends on events that require buying into the painful stupidity of otherwise smart characters. There are scenes that someone with real cred would describe as completely out of place. Despite all that, I’m drawn to this thing like a moth to flame. Or fly to CRT screen. You get the point.

After the jump, student films, urban legends, and a whole lot of blue.

Grandy: Wow, I was unaware I wasn’t supposed to like this movie (because street cred), but I do. Granted, there are a number of factors that contribute to that. It was my first exposure to Asian horror. It’s a decent remake of an Asian horror film. (So many of them aren’t; a friend posited you could re-arrange all of the scenes in the US version of The Grudge and it wouldn’t impact the movie or it’s ability to tell it’s story.) The opening sequence still works really well. It features the “friends messing with each other in the middle of a tense scene but then it turns into something else” trope, but it’s well done. The only thing that could possibly get in the way of the entire opening sequence is a large group of teenage girls screaming their heads off every 20 seconds (yes, I’m speaking from experience).

Chris: Perhaps I stumbled us into the definitive version, then! Whew. I know that I prefer it to the original, but when discussing American remakes of foreign films, you’ll never go too far wrong by criticizing the watery domestic brand. I guess what I’m really not used to seeing–but it completely applies here–is that having a big Hollywood budget and stylish (if occasionally vacant) director can work in the right conditions. The intriguing urban legend feel of the concept and a screenplay that minimizes its own flubs to hang that on certainly helps. It’s what makes this Ring really do it for me.

Barac: It’s a movie that only held up to one viewing for me (I think this may be why I liked it better than the original, which I saw second), but it was an absolutely terrifying viewing, and I will be forever grateful to it for introducing me to the wider world of Asian horror.

Chris: That’s a great point. I think this was part of my entree into Asian horror as well. The American version gets the similarities right (the shot for shot opening sequence, the almost unbelievably precocious and possibly clairvoyant son) to make seeking out the original at least worthwhile.

Grandy: I had forgotten the bit about the son drawing Katie’s death before it happened, though it’s partly chalked up to the nature of the mystery. Katie watches the mysterious tape, is told she is going to die on the phone. Scared she confides in her younger cousin Aidan. (Katie seems like a decent enough girl, but maybe that’s not a good piece of information to share with a young child? My older cousin let me watch Phantasm when I was 7 or 8 and I still haven’t recovered.)

In any case, at the funeral Rachel picks up the trail of the mystery (after her sister asks her to investigate) and soon enough she finds herself at the same hotel Katie stayed at with her boyfriend. It is here she sees the tape for the first time setting off an unpleasant chain of events. All of this happens in the first 25 minutes of run time. But now we’re back to what the first criticism that you mentioned: it is a long movie (50 minutes of run time to go). As to the “painfully stupid part”, I think there are a couple of different things here at work that contribute. For one, the movie seems keen on beating us over the head with the fact that Rachel is doomed because she watched the tape. Some of this stuff is certainly necessary, but for example when Rachel leaves the institution and sees the tall ladder up against the wall, director Gore Verbinski flashes back to the initial scene on the tape with the tall ladder. Rachel is going to have five hundred nose bleeds/water coming out of things/hairball incidents over the next few days. I think it’s a little overdone.

Chris: Honestly, the title cards for each advancing day are really all we need here. It’s an effective device that puts the urgency into the rising action here.

Grandy: Agreed! I don’t mind a little of the weird stuff, but less is usually more, and anyway it’s just a small misstep. The title cards do a great job, and most of the callbacks to the tape are very creepy (like a damp ring left by a glass sitting on a news paper). Aidan watching the tape does jump out at me as being stupid writing in the service of the story, and there are a few other moments like this. They don’t ruin the movie by any stretch, and they don’t even throw me out of the story (if that makes sense). Incidentally, I don’t remember this from the first time I saw it (I’ve seen most of the movie since, once, but it was ages ago; first time around on premium channels). A ring (the ring) flashes right after the horse scene on the fairy, for we the viewers. This isn’t really that sort of movie, but there it was. Of course, your criticism of the film’s identity crisis isn’t really about this.

Chris: I feel like we’ve beaten up this film a bit, so let’s talk about the good stuff. Gore Verbinski may ultimately be rather empty-headed as a director, but he’s certainly got style for miles and miles. Something as simple as shooting most of the movie with a blue filter on the lens is a wonderful choice. It gives everything a sense of melancholy creeping in at the edges. That’s never a bad thing for a ghost story–which The Ring ultimately is.

Grandy: I was going to comment on that, though I wouldn’t have known that the effect was achieved with a blue lens. I just recognize that it’s a somberly shot movie, and I agree it’s in service of the story. I like that we have a couple of bits where this is thematically appropriate for the characters – a funeral, a visit to a storm-battered island. But it’s always there outside of that, a sense that all is not well. It really helps the movie that Verbinski did this.


Chris: Sharp-eyed viewers will also spot the director’s homage to Hitchcock here. There’s a gorgeously lensed sequence of the outside of Rachel’s apartment block…and then she steps to the landing to spy on the folks in the building across her courtyard. There’s no real need for this scene in the context of the movie, but it gives Verbinski a chance to have her gaze alight on a guy in a leg cast sitting in a wheelchair. Contrived though it may have been, I liked that. More important to the movie structure itself, the video montage on the death tape is very effective for what it is (even though poor, doomed Noah beats me to the punch by calling it out derisively as a “student film”). I loved the way the haunting images are tied back to Rachel unraveling the mystery here as breadcrumbs leading her down the trail.

This version of The Ring also fixes what I think is a critical weakness of the Japanese version. The original was clearly made on a tight budget, and it fails terribly when it comes time to break out the death ghost pyrotechnics. The effects crew on the American version give us a genuinely frightening ghost by combining a flickering dreamlike vagueness and a corporeal, deadly presence. And say what you will about the horse scene on the ferry, but that shocking sequence–implausibly bonkers as it is–completely worked for me. It’s a garish display of a big budget, but the sheer audacity with which it was executed left me stunned.

Grandy: You know I hadn’t thought about the Rear Window comparison but it’s right there. I like the horse scene, too. The entire investigation is punctuated with these increasingly strange goings on, which helps add to the tension overall.

Chris: There’s one rule in particular for good horror movies that The Ring breaks, sometimes to good effect. In this tale of now-vanished technologies (VHS tapes, Star Tac flip phones, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer), much of the movie depends on Rachel’s expository search to unravel the mystery of the tape itself. Normally that’s the kind of thing that can derail momentum, but here it really propels the second half of the film. We’re as intrigued as she is, and we want to know the story almost as much as she does. That it eventually leads to some convoluted nonsense involving horses and curses and settles on a simple goth girl with daddy issues premise is a bit of a bummer, but the journey to get there is a stylish and chilling trip.

Grandy: I agree the investigation picks up steam as it goes, and it serves the movie well; at each of the major steps we think we are starting to get an idea of what is happening. Only it turns out that nope, there’s another layer, and as time is literally running out we’re on the edge of our seats. What happens next is something that’s fairly familiar for horror movies, however they have a tendency to get it wrong. The twist/turn of events is often nonsensical or absurdly contrived. No so here. In a mystery with several layers, turns out there is one more, and it’s been hinted at. Noah meets a terrifying, grisly, and dare I say iconic demise. Verbinski shows a deft hand in using just the right combination of special effects and makeup work. And Rachel does something that is unspeakable, just to save her child. I think Verbinski sticks the landing, and then some. It caps off an effective and creepy ghost story.

(The Ring is available to rent or own digitally from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)