October Horrorshow: Ringu & The Ring

It’s the October Horrorshow! It’s no secret that I hate autumn. It’s a shit time to be alive here in the northern latitudes, where the air takes on a chill, the days become noticeably shorter, and every plant from here to Seattle looks like it’s dying. Thank goodness, then, for Halloween. The festival of death is a yearly finger in the eye to the fall season, when we, and by that, I mean me, watch lots and lots of horror flicks. I choose to embrace nature’s inexorable slide into hibernation by watching fake snuff films, paradoxical as that is, and I love every minute of it. Like last year, there’s a full slate of reviews this year. No gaps. And the first is a double billing.

Ringu is the king of J-Horror. It’s not an undisputed title, but, as of this October Horrorshow, Ringu ranks as the highest-grossing horror film in Japanese history. That’s a fairly good argument in the film’s favor.

From 1998, Ringu is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki. The film was directed by Hideo Nakata.

A scary story seems to be making the rounds of high schools in Japan. Supposedly, there’s a videotape out there with a creepy short film on it. No one knows where the tape came from, or who created the content. The tape shows a seemingly disconnected series of images, ending with a shot of a well. After that, the video shows static. Then, if a person has been unfortunate enough to watch the video, the phone will ring. There may be a voice on the other end, or there may not. If there is, it will be unearthly. Exactly seven days after watching the video, a viewer will drop dead of heart failure, their face a gruesome rictus of terror.

After the deaths of four teenagers (including her niece), Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsuhima), a newspaper reporter, begins to investigate the deaths. Her inquiries lead her to a cabin resort where she finds the tape, and, not believing the stories, decides to watch it. Needless to say, that was a mistake. The tape is supernatural. It will kill anyone that watches it. Unfortunately for Asakawa, both her ex-husband, Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), and her son (Rikiya Otaka) are also exposed. From then on, it’s a race. Can Asakawa and her ex solve the mystery of the tape before it kills the entire family?

Much of the remainder of the film plays out like a cold case. But this is a horror film, so, to keep the audience engaged, the spirit or entity responsible for the cursed video screws with the three potential victims on occasion. The film works well in these spots, as, at least early on, whether or not the film’s protagonists are projecting their fears, or if there is indeed a ghost chasing them, is kept as ambiguous as possible in so obvious a story. I’m not being facetious nor overcritical of the film by writing that. The killer videotape is the hook that draws people in to see Ringu. If it had all been in the characters’ minds, or even somewhat ambiguous at all, we viewers would have heard about it.

That doesn’t matter, though. It’s not necessary for films to toy with a viewer’s understanding of the plot to be good. True mind-fucks leave a viewer feeling lost until the end; a high degree of difficulty. Ringu is a fairly straightforward story, but as the clock continues to tick down on three lives, the tension becomes greater. Unavoidably so. It seems clear what needs to be done, the only question being whether or not there will be enough time. Asakawa and Ryuji seem to keep hitting delay after delay after delay, including a typhoon. It seems like more than just a videotape wants them dead.

Nakata does an imperfect job turning the screw. Too often, there were points throughout where the leads felt a little too relaxed. There was a lack of urgency, and some dips in pacing here and there that can make a viewer’s attention wander. Stretches like these strain the film’s credulity (even though there is already a ghost in it), but then Nakata brings the film home in the last fifteen minutes, and a viewer realizes there was quite a lot of depth to the storytelling; more than was apparent throughout.

Ringu has been called the scariest horror film from Japan. I didn’t find it all that frightening. I found it unsettling, which is good enough.

This being a foreign film in a foreign language, the performances could be good…they could be bad. I can’t tell. Matsushima seems a little stiff, but I think that’s more cultural than anything else. As for Sanada, his character was a little unlikable. I feel that’s what American viewers will take away from him. And Otaka was just a child, so my only concern was that he did not stand out for all the wrong reasons. He didn’t.

Ringu is more a film for horror fans to seek out, rather than fans of Japanese cinema. I’m a fan of both, and found it a much more satisfying experience to file it away with all the horror flicks I’ve seen as opposed to something that’s strictly Japanese.

Because the film was so successful, it was a foregone conclusion that it would be remade here in the States.

Four years after the original was released came The Ring, from director Gore Verbinski. Tokyo and points south are no longer the setting, the action being moved to Seattle and a very bleakly portrayed Pacific Northwest. There was some rain in the original film, but in this remake, Verbinski ratcheted up the weather to biblical proportions. There’s more rain in this one movie than any given season of The Killing. The thing is, this palate of greys and deep greens works very well. It adds to the tension. No one wants to spend the last week of their life in weather like this.

And the last week it is.

A killer videotape is once again a concern in this film. Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is the reporter in this go-around. After she watches the tape and receives her phone call (even less ambiguity in this film; the caller on the other end of the line specifically says, ‘seven days’), the film goes through much the same story as the original. The most acute deviation comes only from the scale of the protagonists’ psychic connection with the ghost that is haunting them. In the original it becomes quite pronounced by the end, whereas in The Ring any connection is played strictly for scares.

I may get an email or two from my Loyal Seven readers for writing this, but I think Verbinski did a better job telling the story than the original. Much of this had to do with budget. The Ring is a nice case where a higher budget and more resources did not result in a remake being overwrought. This film is well-shot and well-produced. Its scale grew in all the right places. And, unlike the original, no part of the story felt jammed into set pieces. It played out just as it should.

Up above, I wrote that there was not wholesale deviation in the story. There isn’t, but The Ring has much more depth. In both films, there is a complicated family dynamic going on. Mom is a workaholic, dad is so absentee that son has no idea who he is…and son? That kid has been thoroughly messed up by his parents. While these problems are touched on in the original, they have to take a backseat to the ghost story. Not so in The Ring. Here, the dysfunctions are indispensable to the characters’ development.

David Dorfman as Aidan put in one of those child performances that gets noticed for all the right reasons. His character was profoundly unsettling. From the rings underneath his eyes, I’d have to say he never sleeps. He certainly never smiles. He and his mother are mere roommates, and she doesn’t seem to be the one pulling her weight. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the morning, the kid doesn’t go to school; he goes to slave away in an office. The kid is the most adult person in this film, and it is heartbreaking to watch a child so bright and intelligent, yet so malformed. If there’s any reason to root for the story to come to a successful resolution, it is so that his parents can shape up and give poor Aidan a childhood. Dorfman was that good.

The Ring is more than a worthy remake of a good film. It’s the rare remake that is better, in just about every marker except for originality. There is no reason a viewer need demand that it be.