Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Ring (2002)

The Ring (2002) -- an American remake of Ringu (1998) from director Gore Verbinski -- commenced the Japanese horror remake trend of over a decade ago.

Some may view this fact as a negative legacy, since the trend resulted in some truly bad horror films, like The Eye (2008) and One Missed Call (2008). 

On the other hand, The Ring is universally-acclaimed as the best of the J-Horror remake breed, and more than that, I’d name it as one of the ten best horror films from the span 2000 – 2009. 

In short, the film succeeds not only because it is scary as hell (especially considering it is rated PG-13), but because -- like all the great horror movies in history -- it expresses something important about the age in which it was created.

In this case, The Ring obsesses on the notion that modern technology is not connecting or informing the population of the 21st century, but rather negatively influencing and otherwise harming them. As you no doubt recall, the movie concerns a VHS tape that will kill you if you watch it, but will permit you to live in peace if you pass it on to other viewers. 

In the social media-heavy Web 2.0 Age of “shares” and “retweets” this cycle of copying and re-broadcasting takes on an even greater significance than it did during the movie’s post-9/11 milieu. 

What happens when disturbing imagery goes out to millions of people -- young and old alike – instantaneously?  

What are the repercussions for people and communities when this footage is seen, seen again, and then manipulated and disseminated?

Importantly, The Ring conveys this idea of instantaneous information transmission in unforgettable visual terms. The entirety of the story is presented in a kind of de-saturated, silver coloring, an intentional reflection of the twilight, static-laden world of reflected computer monitors or TV light. 

And the film’s bogeyman -- a monstrous child who literally climbs out of a TV set -- is depicted with blurs, hiccups and periodic visual interference. She is a digitized image come to life.  

But this boogeyman is something else too. She is also the ghost of a forgotten emotion (rage) or story, one bouncing around the airwaves, never truly dead, always ready to return.

“It’s about the tape. The one that kills you when you watch it.”

When a teenager girl, Katie, dies exactly seven days after viewing a mysterious VHS tape, her aunt, Rachel Keller, investigates her death.  Rachel finds and watches the tape herself at a mountain cabin, and then realizes, after a phone call, that she has just one week to live.

With help from her estranged boyfriend, Noah (Martin Henderson), Rachel attempts to find the maker of the tape.  

The trail leads back to the Morgan family, who lived and kept horses on Moesko Island. While Rachel attempts to talk to Mr. Morgan, she learns of his daughter, a little girl named Samara (Daveigh Chase) and her incarceration at a local psychiatric facility. Apparently, the girl had frightening psychic powers, including the capacity to burn imagery on X-ray film...or videotape.

Noah visits that facility, but finds that Samara is long gone.

Meanwhile, Rachel must accelerate her efforts to find Samara and end her curse because her sensitive son, Aidan, has also watched the dangerous videotape, and will die in seven days.

“You play it, and it’s like somebody’s nightmare”

As I noted in the introduction above, The Ring is a treatise on modern technology, particularly television. 

The film opens with two teenage girls discussing TV signals and phone signals killing brain cells. “I hate television,” Katie (Amber Tamblyn) says. “It gives me headaches. You know, I heard there are so many magnetic waves traveling through the air, because of TV and telephones, that we're losing ten times as many brain cells as we're supposed to. Like, all the molecules in our heads are all unstable. All the companies know about it, but they're not doing anything about it. It's, like, a big conspiracy.

This chunk of dialogue reveals a few important points.  

First, it reveals that the girls live in a pervasive culture of distrust. Katie, at least, is fearful that she doesn’t know the truth about how her everyday technology works, and furthermore doesn’t trust the establishment -- government, business, science, or the media -- to explain it truthfully. 

Secondly, Katie's dialogue suggests that modern technology plainly and simply kills, murdering brain cells a little at a time. This urban legend conveys, in a nutshell, the film’s critique of modern technology.  Under the guise of connecting you to those you love, these high-tech instruments actually kill you.

The Ring proves very concerned, indeed, with the idea of signals of an inappropriate or unsafe nature entering your house and your psyche, unbidden.  

Why should the movie obsess on this notion?  Well, in real life, it was a topic of some controversy. America had just been through Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, wherein blow jobs were discussed around-the- clock on 24 cable news-stations. I still remember parents complaining about having to explain some of the sexual terminology to their young children.  

And then, soon after that, the 24-hour news stations broadcast hour upon hour of horrific imagery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and even the bullet-ridden corpses of Saddam Hussein’s sons.  

Again, how can one explain these events and images to the very young, or the unprepared? Although horror movies when they air on TV must contextualize their visualizations with ratings explaining suitability for the young, newscasts come with no such warnings.

At one point in The Ring, Rachel steps out of her apartment, onto a ledge, and peers down into an adjacent apartment building.  She is the only person standing outside in the vast complex.

The film then cuts to a long, impersonal shot of the building, where it looks as though inhabitants are warehoused.  As the camera focuses on various apartment units, we see that the TV set is prominently placed in each dwelling, and that it is on in every unit as well, depicting some image. 

We see these people and their TV sets, and feel they are blissfully unaware of the world outside their windows. And yet they believe themselves connected to that world because an appliance -- a TV set -- is activated.  The long pan across these living units raises a few questions

What images or terrors are coming into the world over there?  In that apartment? 

Or the next one over?  The impression is that Samara's tape may not be alone in its transmission of pain and suffering.

Later, Rachel’s sensitive son Aidan (David Dorfman) watches Samara’s tape and Rachel is furious at this transgression. 

The pictures on the television have exposed him to images that she was not prepared him to see, and that are dangerous to his psyche and could, literally, do him grave harm.  This scene explicitly trades on a parent’s fears that the air-waves may not be safe for children’s eyes.  

In the post-9/11 world, you can’t leave a kid alone in the front of the TV, because you just don’t know what he or she will see.  Far from being the "babysitter" of a previous generation; a safe generation, the TV now is a portal through which children might see any number of horrors.

On top of such visual flourishes, the film’s main character, Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is a journalist, a person responsible for what type of “news” reaches the rest of the world.  

When, during the film's finale, she pushes the copy button and then passes the horror onto someone else, without comment or explanation, Rachel is committed a technological crime of sorts. We expect her to be responsible and moral, given the public trust she holds, but The Ring, again suggests that those in the media are ultimately untrustworthy gate-keepers.  

A child, like Aidan, by contrast, is trustworthy, and at film’s end he asks the question that Rachel willfully ignores: “What about the person we show it to?  What happens to them?”

Mr. Morgan (Brian Cox), Samara’s father, also reserves a high degree of hatred for journalists, as he says to Rachel.  “What is it with you reporters?” He queries. You take one person's tragedy and force the world to experience it...spread it like sickness.”  

Again, we are left to ponder the nature of contemporary news, and the phenomenon of 24-hour news stations on cable TV. Fox, CNN, and MSNBC jump on a popular story and ride out, regardless of the human or personal toll their reporting exacts.

Much in the way that, a generation earlier, Poltergeist (1982) critiqued television as a portal of evil, The Ring thus positions the new shape of television and media, circa 1999 – 2002 as a technological and inhuman monstrosity.  

This idea is expressed in several scenes which show important action either transmitted on or reflected by the television set.  

Again and again we get compositions of characters watching screens, a fact which indicates the importance of that "act" in our modern culture. At one point, we even get a Goldilocks-type shot with a big-screen/little screen dynamic for Rachel and Aidan.  They are joined in the act of watching something...inappropriate.

Importantly, Samara, it is reported in the film “never sleeps.”  Do you know what else never sleeps? 

A 24-hour cable news channel on TV.

Even the near-ritualistic repeating of Samara’s tape in the film seems to reflect the nature of modern mass media.  

You can check in on CNN every two or three hours and find it replaying the same footage, the same imagery, the same “breaking news” reel.  This was true, as well, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, shortly before The Ring premiered in theaters. A nation’s trauma was recorded, broadcast and rerun day after bloody day, over and over again, and those who saw it felt authentic fear and real trauma even though they were safe, and lived thousands of miles away from Manhattan, or Washington D.C.  

The suffering of the few was spread “like a sickness” and a virus of fear was released into the world at large.  

That virus, eventually, became the Iraq War, a war that would never have occurred had the media not been complicit in drumming up a culture of absolute, pervasive fear.

Steely and silver in color palette, The Ring thus reveals a world in which people -- despite all the connection provided by telephones and television -- feel isolated from one another.  

Noah and Rachel barely talk, and Noah is unwilling to step up as Aidan’s father.  “I don't think I'd make a good father. Maybe it was because my own was... such a... disappointment. Thing is, I don't want anyone else to do it, either, be your father.”  

In other words, Noah doesn’t seem to truly be living, but rather existing in a kind of half-paralyzed, half-awake state.  He wants to be a Dad and he doesn’t want to be a Dad. He has a job, after all...looking at screens all day.

Similarly, Rachel doesn’t listen to Aidan’s teacher, or to Aidan’s worries about death, and Samara’s mother committed suicide.  

Taken all together, this world is a dark place where love seems subdued, but personal traumas spread like wildfire, chain-mail style, via “the tape" and TV monitors.

Samara’s brand of evil also fits the film’s organizing principle, of suffering transmitted to many, like a disease, by modern technology.  

The last thing she sees is a “ring” around the well where she is trapped, and yet a “ring” is also the description of the sound a telephone makes.  The phone rings when Samra reaches out to warn viewers of the tape of their impending demise.  

A “ring” is also a synonym for a circle or loop, and news footage of tragedies are often discussed in terms of being “looped.”  Samara may be physically dead, but her suffering keeps transmitting via phone ring, and via the ring or loop of the tape itself.  

And this is how she wants it.  “Everyone will suffer,” she insists.  In modern culture, and thanks to technology, everyone can experience one person's suffering.  And as often as they would like.

The Ring establishes a new paradigm in the American horror movie involving culpability, and that too is part of it successful artistic gestalt. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, “vice preceded slice and dice.”  That turn of phrase means, simply, that the victim pool in horror movies often brought on their own deaths by breaking moral taboos. They smoked weed, had premarital sex, or snorted coke.  

This paradigm was seen in the slasher formula of the 1980s, but also the Interloper formula of the 1990s, wherein quasi-respectable white men (think: Timothy Hutton in The Temp [1993]) broke “the rules” to get ahead in his profession, only to see the blow-back destroy his family and reputation.

But films like The Ring, The Grudge (2004) and Pulse (2006), suggest something different. 

They suggest that the very act of being present, of watching or seeing is enough to warrant the wrath of angry spirits or individuals.  

In a hyper-connected, globalized world, the act of watching is enough to doom you.  Knowledge of a crime itself becomes the crime. Once you see the "the crime," you are culpable for it, a fact which is reflected in the photographs of the impacted in The Ring.  

Everyone becomes a hideous monster on film because they have "seen" Samara's tape.  They are now carriers of the disease, of the sickness that is spreading, according to Mr. Morgan.

Horror movies are often accused of coarsening the culture, or showcasing imagery that is somehow damaging to a society. Ironically, The Ring makes the reverse case. Consider: horror movies are rated appropriately, and reflect aspects of the society that created them. They are fictional works of art that are about violence in the culture, and how that violence affects people.  

TV news, by contrast, is not safely bounded within an artistic frame-work, or a regulatory one, for that matter. So while the horror film can comment meaningfully on the culture, the media, in its "fair and balanced" reporting, can actually damage it.  It just puts the images out there and leave it to "you" [to] "decide." 

The Japanese original, Ringu (1998) is a remarkable film too, with some big differences from the American version. There, the mystery of the island involves a volcano, not horses.  And the Noah figure, Ryuji, boasts psychic abilities, which helps when contending with Sadako, the film’s version of Samara. But perhaps because it was designed for American audiences, I find The Ring much scarier and on-point about technology than its Japanese predecessor. Both are great horror films, for certain.

In particular, the structure of The Ring, originated in the Japanese film, is clever because it doesn’t reveal the true horror of Samara’s behavior until after Rachel has solved the mystery.  

Until Noah becomes Samara’s victim in the film's last moments, we have seen only snippets of her activity, mainly the gruesome corpses she leaves behind.  

Thus, for the duration of the movie, we can only imagine how, precisely, Samara’s tape is murderous.  But then, all that coiled-up, sustained energy is released in the climactic scene with Noah, and we get to watch Samara’s emergence from the TV -- as a ghost and as a ghost signal -- virtually uninterrupted.  

There are few moments more genuinely disturbing in the American horror cinema of the early 2000s than Samara's escape from the television. Perhaps Samara’s water-logged form, long-hair and herky-jerky “digitized” movements have been aped so often now as to render them ineffective. 

But at the time, Samara’s ascent from the well -- and the TV set -- was a valedictory moment in the horror genre; the moment when the next generation of terror techniques and principles arrived and a new paradigm was born.

The Ring also develops well the notion of inevitability, of a “ring” of repeating events. 

You see the tape, and then you see the images of the tape in real life, until, finally, you meet Samara and she kills you. Accordingly, imagery from the tape including a ladder, water running blood-red, a fly, and an oval mirror, all recur progressively during Rachel’s investigation. The question becomes: were they already there, or are they a side-effect of Rachel’s vision; of her life re-shaping to the imagery that Samara has forged from her mind?

The Ring is an unnerving and disturbing film, made more so by the fact that it very much considers how we live in the 21st century, and wonders about all images that we have transmitted and committed to the ether.  

Could they come back to haunt us?


  1. This is a really good review, John. Sometimes I wonder how many times you watch a film to be able to pull all of your interpretations from it. I do catch the more heavy-handed messages in movies, but your dissection of "The Ring" as a comment on a complacent or manipulative media is pretty much spot on. Now, I don't know if that was the clear intent of the film's creators, as it seems (by chance) more applicable to today's social networking addiction that it does the news media.

    I used to be a news junkie but have basically stopped watching because I find it to be very manipulative. I am a much happier person without the news "noise". I may be out of touch with the 24-hour news cycle now, but I think my friends and family are happy with my change in demeanor.

    I basically despise the Media's opinion-as-news. Your not so thinly disguised shot at Fox News's catchy slogans came through loud and clear. I personally found MSNBC to be the most grating, regardless of which side of the political fence you're on.

    I really appreciate "The Ring" for its well-written story and shocking, but largely gore-free imagery. The film's blue-gray gloom and rain-soaked settings along with the accompanying music setup the story and scares beautifully.

    Naomi Watts is very good, her character uses her investigative skills as a reporter to unravel the mystery of the killer video tape. And yes, the video tape is creepy and its the centerpiece of the film. The images on the tape are at first stumbled upon by chance and are later sought out by the characters. Many of the images are also flashed, sort of subliminally, throughout the movie.

    There are many who praise "The Ring" for being extremely scary but I think its more suspenseful than anything else. The main characters are basically racing the clock trying to beat death.

    But after watching "The Ring" a few times over the years, there are a number of things that still don't make much sense.

    **SPOILERS follow**
    If Samara can manipulate images (the videotape, the x-rays), where does the phone call come from? Is she the master of video AND audio?!?

    It's also unclear if Rachel actually stops experiencing horrors only after Noah sees a copy of the tape. I'd have to watch it yet again, but the horse going nuts on the ferry boat certainly occurs after Noah has viewed the tape. Perhaps the crazy horse isn't a direct of result of the curse of the tape. It could just be the horse sensing the evil that Rachel's been involved with. But why confuse the rules of the tape at that point?!? Just to show Rachel the blood in the water?

  2. A great breakdown of this film. I have to admit, I saw the Japanese version "Ringu" first, and that movie scared me - big time. It literally haunted my dreams for a good week or two there. Because I was so darn impressed with the Japanese version, when I got around to seeing the American version I found it to be a bit too much. I found the subtle dread in "Ringu" more effective, and the atmosphere more oppressive.

    But to be honest I've only seen "The Ring" one time, and it was during my "everything Japanese is awesome" phase. So by default the remake couldn't be awesome. I really should give it another shot. That said, "Ringu" has a place in our DVD collection and always gets viewed in the fall.

  3. Anonymous1:55 PM

    I'm both amused and slightly horrified that what is often used to depict 'digital' doesn't actually happen with digital images. About the best breakup you get with digital are mis-colored or unmoving DCT aliasing...