Is The Ring this year’s The Others? No, not by a jug-full, but it’s probably the best 2002 has to offer by way of a horror picture. (True, Ghost Ship doesn’t open till this Friday, but that’s the darkest of dark-horse contenders.)
Based on a popular 1998 Japanese film, The Ring seems more than a little like a calmed-down, more intellectual, less flashy version of Fear Dot Com, which concerned a Web site that mysteriously caused the death — within 48 hours — of anyone who accessed it. The Ring involves a videotape that mysteriously causes the death — within seven days — of anyone who sees it. The similarities don’t end there, but it would be unfair to discuss them and risk ruining the mystery of The Ring. It’s also unfair to slap a rip-off label on the film, since it’s far more likely that Fear Dot Com rips off the Japanese original than anything else.
The two movies still present interesting comparisons. Fear Dot Com was a generally bad flick that scored points on stylistic flourishes and a truly wigged-out final act that played out like a silent German Expressionist film on acid. Its method of attack was full-frontal, over-the-top shock combined with a cavalier disregard for anything resembling coherence. The Ring offers a very different approach. It’s slower and less overtly shocking (Fear Dot Com pushed the envelope of an R rating; The Ring is solidly PG-13), and it works on carefully building a sense of dread. In the end, The Ring succeeds more than it doesn’t — though also like Fear Dot Com, it suffers from a certain coherence problem.
The Ring, however, doesn’t disregard coherence outright. Instead, the film seems to think it can be followed more easily than it can. The Ring feels overcooked in this regard — as if its makers were too familiar with the story’s various devices and motivations and couldn’t see that what was clear to them might be vague to the rest of the world. Upon reflection, it’s possible to see that at least most of the necessary information is referred to during the course of the film — all the pieces are there; they just haven’t been assembled.
I freely admit that I didn’t understand the ending until about an hour after I saw The Ring. And in a sense, that’s part of what I admire about the movie — its refusal to spoon-feed the viewer. But its main claim lies in its undeniable atmosphere. Hands down, it’s the most fully accomplished film Gore Verbinski has ever made (all right, so it’s not that big of a deal to outdistance The Mexican and Mouse Hunt). He lovingly crafts each scene for maximum impact — and then, often as not, brilliantly pulls back before the payoff, carefully leading up to a pair of genuinely unsettling scenes at the end of the film.
It’s Verbinski’s attention to detail and atmosphere that makes the film work, starting with the contents of the deadly videotape itself. While the images on the tape are rightly dismissed by one character as looking like a bad student film, there’s no denying that they are creepy — creepy in much the same manner that the avant-garde Luis Bunuel-Salvador Dali short Un Chien Andalou is. (It’s hard not to believe that Un Chien Andalou, with its dead donkeys and dismembered hand, didn’t influence the imagery here.)
The tape’s contents are much like the movie itself — revealing a bit more as the film goes along, slowly resolving the mystery. Indeed, the mystery of the film and the mystery of the tape provide a double-barreled denouement in one of the most intensely disturbing scenes of recent memory, echoing such notable moments in horror history as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the “Pigeons from Hell” episode of Thriller and the “Drop of Water” segment of Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, while offering something fresh at the same time. Even had the rest of the movie been less than it is, this one sequence — where we see how the video accomplishes its work — would almost make The Ring worth seeing.
Since so much of the film depends on mood, it’s a blessing that the cast — wonderfully led by Naomi Watts (Mullholland Drive) — plays it all with believably straight faces. The film doesn’t all hang together, but when it’s good, it’s very good indeed, serving up more than a few chills. I defy anyone to see the psychiatric examination of the little girl in the tape (somewhat surprisingly played by Daveigh Chase, who provided the voice of Lilo in Lilo and Stitch), and hear her response to the statement, “You don’t want to hurt anyone,” without at least a slight shiver.