To anyone who says a modern horror movie that’s rated PG-13 cannot be scary, I respond, “Have you seen The Ring?”
Childhood can widely be considered as the pinnacle of innocence and purity in most people’s memories. However, the horror genre has known a dark secret that some folks would suppress: children can also be mean as hell. And if that child has near omnipotent power, woe unto any that crosses them. Such is the message of The Ring and Ring (or Ringu for those who prefer silly American distinctions).
Yes, for this entry, I am counting both adaptations of the same Koji Suzuki novel. While purists will always prefer the Japanese classic directed by Hideo Nakata from 1998, 2002’s Americanized The Ring is just as effective a terror that does what so few horror remakes have done: it builds on the original creepiness in unsettling new ways.
Both movies generally tell the same story of a journalist (Nanako Matsushima, Naomi Watts) who begins investigating the mysterious death of a teenage acquaintance. Initially ruled as a suicide, the reporter and single mother soon learns that it is the result of watching a video tape filled with startling imagery that culminates with a mysterious phone call, stating, “Seven days.” Soon, she realizes that she has seven days to live unless she can unlock the mystery of this accursed tape. And that’s even before her spooky son also manages to sneak a peek at the video while she’s sleeping.
Coming out in the U.S. in 2002, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring jumpstarted a short-lived Japanese “ghost girl” remake craze, which was quickly supplanted (for better or worse) by torture porn a few years later. However, unlike many of the “me-too” remakes and sequels, including 2005’s truly lifeless The Ring Two (ironically directed by Nakata), The Ring translated what made the original film so creepy to a different culture; it mingled anxieties about past superstitions (restless evil spirits) with the new ones of our own in the form of literally soul-crushing technology.
Both The Ring and Ring are exercises in a culture clash of the old world and the new, exploiting our constant fear of new customs burying the humanity we once had. The fact that it’s found in a videotape that orchestrates the death of most onscreen characters (today would it be a viral Internet link?) ties directly into the paranoia of the ubiquity of television and multimedia in every family home. Indeed, the family is an excruciating aspect of both features.
In The Ring, Watts’ Rachel is forced to raise her dead-eyed son on her own since her ex-husband Noah (Martin Henderson) is an immature slacker for whom parenthood means facing his own hatred for his father, perpetuating the broken home cycle. Conversely, Ring’s Reiko (Matsushima) had a failed marriage with a far more successful husband, the wishy-washy intellectual Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada). Unlike Noah, Ryuji is not from a broken home, nor is he a slacker. Rather, he is incredibly successful in his chosen career, to the point where he gives little damn about his son, even after the boy may have been cursed with watching a ghostly tape. Both films have a unique critique of familial failings cultivated by both the West and East’s contrasting ethos.
Still, the key about both films is not the family drama; it’s the damnable tape, which proved for a brief moment to mass audiences around the world that something can be scary without want of gore, blood, or even an overabundance of “jumps.” Created like a visual scrawl of psychic angst, “the tape” in both films is realized as a film school collage of childhood rage and scribbled across a tracking code. This is the telekinetic journal of one pissed off little girl. The American version of The Ring makes special use of this concept by including on the tape images from the life of the unhappily dead young Samara. Besides acting as a great scrapbook of clues for Rachel to breathlessly follow, it allows us to see the horror that Samara has wrought in many forms, including the bodies of lifeless horses washed up on a beach, driving them to suicide in a special kind of animal cruelty.
This difference is intriguing, as the mysticism of Samara’s wrath is far more shrouded in the American version than the Japanese film. In Ring, cultural understandings about the realm of the supernatural informs why Reiko’s family is so susceptible since that film’s little girl, Sadako, is a psychic like her mother before her, and just as Reiko’s son and ex-husband have the gift of ESP. However, in the American film, Samara’s murky motivations and rage causes her own mother’s decision to throw her into a well to be all the more cryptically heartbreaking.
Ultimately, both movies come down to defining evil in children during a moment in horror where the killers were the star and soon would be again with the advent of 2004’s Jigsaw movie god. The Ring is instead driven by the impulse of a crusading mother to save her son, a universal trope in any country. It also permits each film’s sadistic deception when the mother embraces the rotting corpse of Samara/Sadako after finding the long-lost girl in the well, providing a cruelly false sense of security about familial love. Seriously, it was actually familial love that caused that girl to be sealed in that well (for 30 years in the original film), and it is that love that condemns them to spread the death tape like pestilence in both movies’ final seconds.
The best scare in the whole premise obviously occurs when the ghost girl comes for the wayward father. Set during the supposed tranquility of morning, we witness Samara come through his television set like a visual challenge of the plea of “it’s only a movie.” This is compounded especially in the American version, as we had seen via flashbacks (and a brief moment of tragic peace at the bottom of a well) Samara’s face. However, in this moment, she reverts to her only image in The Ring, which is a ghastly countenance that’s shrouded by black hair, which (like the platitude of a child’s love) hides her true malevolence. The curse is never going to stop, and even the safety of a screen will not prevent her from coming for the father—or you.
It is such a heart-pounding moment that it even excuses the “heroes” of the story choosing to spread the tape’s curse to more people to save their own skins. The Ring doesn’t offer any solace or friendly conciliation with the spirit world, which Americans might otherwise expect. Rather, it succumbs to the knowledge that the supernatural is uncontrollable and unstoppable. At best, we can hope “better him than me.”
It is a hair-raising ending whether in the lived-in economy of Ring or the desaturated storybook nature of The Ring. We are asked to surrender to the darkness and our own culpability for allowing it. It is ghost girl nihilism, which has no language barrier.
Whenever you first saw The Ring in any of its various forms, it absolutely stuck the back of your mind for the following week. Seven days to be exact.