For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
I remember hearing about The Ring back when I was about 11 or so. A movie about a cursed videotape that, if you watched it, made you die seven days later? It seemed like more of a real urban legend than a movie. Such was the impression that the simple premise left in my young mind that I never forgot it in the days since, even though I never saw either of the primary films that boast this premise until almost 20 years later; the real horror here, it seems, is time, not cursed videotapes.
I was not alone in this shared fascination with the videotape, as Japanese audiences flocked to 1998’s Ringu — so stylised in English to differentiate it from the 2002 English-language remake that equally haunted American audiences. All these years, and changing horror standards, later, the chillingly simple premise remains a stone-cold classic and both films remain important horror-canon entries (although the Japanese original is superior).
Ringu had the advantage of adapting an already-successful book in Japan, although the film changed certain elements — such as establishing a female protagonist and that protagonist’s best friend now becoming their ex-husband. Journalist Reiko Asakwawa (Nanako Matsushima) tracks down an urban-legend videotape and, upon watching it, discovers she has only a week to live. With the help of her psychic ex-husband (Hiroyuki Sanada), she races against the clock, a task only more urgent once she discovers her young son has also watched the tape.
The film wants to twist the knife slowly and slowly sucks the audience into the film, just as Reiko is sucked into the legend. In the race against time to discover the cause and cure of the curse, Reiko uncovers a shocking mystery — one that brings to the fore the film’s themes of tradition versus technology along with an unintentionally feminist angle about the treatment of women in Japan.
Ringu is not shot on a Hollywood budget, and less is more, but the film boasts one spectacular effect that will live in your mind forever. When supernatural events occur, it’s an odd balance of natural and shocking that I can imagine terrifying people in 1998 even as it feels tame in 2022. However, the strength of the film — the drama, the themes and the interplay between the two leads — makes it a compelling, engaging watch even in an age where VHS tapes barely exist any longer.
The American version copies much of the same setup but, to my mind, wrong-foots itself out of the gate. In this version, journalist Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is asked to investigate her niece’s mysterious death, robbing the audience of a gentle ease from urban legend to direct supernatural threat that the Japanese version so masterfully achieves. Rachel gets to the tape more quickly, but her investigation takes longer, which minimizes Ringu’s brilliant ramping effect.
Plus, The Ring wants to have its cake and eat it, too — eager to keep the tape supernaturally mysterious (with more overt supernatural activity) but also explain everything and reduce the original’s emotional and horrific effects. Tell me I’m lying when it feels like a full extra half-hour in the remake is devoted to horses. Plus, the ex-husband is now just an ex-lover with no psychic power. Why The Ring, a film about a cursed videotape, draws the line at “psychic power” as a step too far is beyond me. The real cost is The Ring’s reliance on more convoluted, but “realistic,” methods to communicate the same things Sanada’s character could learn by simply grabbing a man’s arm and seeing a vision of his past. Again, Ringu understands less is more, and its ticking clock feels more propulsive without stopping to learn about how the girl in the videotape had a mum who loved horses.
The Ring also makes Rachel’s kid just simply creepy for no reason, and I just plain didn’t like that. It also splits the difference with a more purposeful feminist take (Rachel is more independent and has more agency) even as it loses sight of the (however accidental) feminist undertones of Ringu, in which the simple rage of a betrayed girl is enough to start a curse. (I did enjoy its commentary, such as it was, on Americans’ relationship with TV, something unique to this entry that could’ve been further explored.)
What The Ring has in spades, though, is the production value, and boy, does director Gore Verbinski’s breakout film look great. Watching it, I realised how long it had been since I’d seen a horror film for adults that wasn’t some pretentious folk-horror misfire and had honest-to-god good production values. In 2022, that alone makes it worth seeking out.
Both Ringu and The Ring kicked off cycles of J-horror titles (and American adaptations) that lasted a good long while. That they remain the films to beat all these years later speaks to their quality in their respective realms. If you haven’t seen them, you should. If you doubt their staying power, know this: Incredibly, Rings (the second sequel to The Ring), was released in 2017 (albeit to very bad reviews), and the most recent entry in Ringu’s franchise, Sadako DX, came out just this year, after a 3D film and a crossover “versus” film with Ju-on (aka The Grudge). And Sadako DX is a comedy.
Like any good urban legend, the story of Ringu and The Ring perseveres.