Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: The Ring (2002)

The Ring (2002)

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, language and some drug references

Score: 5 out of 5

In hindsight, the legacy of The Ring, Gore Verbinski's remake of the acclaimed Japanese horror film Ringu (itself based on a novel by Koji Suzuki), on the American horror genre is probably greater than just the fact that it kicked off the "J-horror" and remake booms in the short term. Together with 28 Days Later that same year and Saw two years after that, it ended the reign of teen horror that had dominated the genre for twenty years (with only a brief lull in the early '90s) by that point, between the slashers of the '80s and the post-modernism wave that followed in the wake of Scream. Here was a film that, while rated PG-13, featured a thirtysomething mother as the protagonist, and her adult boyfriend and her young son as major supporting players. The teenage characters only appear in the prologue before they are quickly removed from the picture, showing up again only in very small parts. This was a capital-H horror film (i.e. not something like The Silence of the Lambs or Se7en that some would classify in the nebulous genre of "psychological thriller") that was clearly and overtly aimed at adults, of a sort that hadn't been big since the '70s. Teenagers did go see this, of course, because if there's one demographic that absolutely loves horror movies, it's teenagers, but they were not the target audience. Thanks in no small part to this film, 2002 marks a turning point in the horror genre as great as 1978 (the year of Halloween) or 1996 (the year of Scream). It was the year when the protagonists of mainstream horror films went from high school and college students to grown adults -- the detectives and assorted lowlifes of the Saw franchise, the hardened post-apocalyptic survivors of many a zombie film, and the parents and exorcists in the supernatural spook shows of the '10s. Teen-oriented horror, and the slasher genre especially, took a graceless and flailing swan dive at the box office and in the minds of horror fans, bottoming out with dreck like The Haunting of Molly Hartley and the Prom Night remake with only the occasional Final Destination film every two or three years to carry its torch; by the time The Cabin in the Woods delivered its definitive takedown in 2012, it was merely reading the obituary.

And it all started, ironically enough, with a remake of another film. And a damn good one, at that. The Ring is a slow burn that's as much a mystery as it is a horror film, revolving as much around the protagonists researching the circumstances behind the creation of its lethal videotape as it does around the creeping doom that's slowly coming for them. That's not to say that it neglects the scares, though, as director Gore Verbinski is excellent at employing misdirection, visual call-backs, and the scenery of its rainy Washington state setting (standing in for rainy Japan from the original film) to build an atmosphere of dread even with a bare minimum of special effects and jump scares. This is a chiller, not a thriller, the sort of horror movie that older, more curmudgeonly fans like to claim they haven't made since the '70s, and indeed, it frequently evokes that sort of old-fashioned feel -- especially now that the videocassette, the film's MacGuffin of choice, is an obsolete technology that's still in use solely among retro enthusiasts and older people who have held onto their collections and VCRs. (If you're reading this: hey, dad!) Its closest modern relatives are the current wave of "arthouse" horror films like The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch; in just about every way, it's a repudiation of the slick, glossy, MTV-like feel of the '90s horror films that preceded it. If you go in expecting anything else, you'll probably find yourself bored. However, if you're in the mood for an old-school supernatural spook show, then don't blame me for your subsequent inability to get any sleep.

The film starts out looking like your usual '90s teen horror film, with two teenage girls, Katie (played by Amber Tamblyn) and her best friend Becca, having a sleepover where they discuss an urban legend they heard about: there exists a videotape where, if you watch it, you will die seven days later. It turns out that Katie watched this tape with three of her friends almost exactly one week ago, and sure enough, after a series of fakeouts, Katie bites it that night. Later, it's revealed that her friends who watched the tape also died at around the exact same time, 10 PM. Now, if this were the movie it seemed to be at first glance, you'd expect Becca and her friends to be the protagonists, trying to learn more about the tape, accidentally watching it along the way, and being marked for death. That's not how The Ring goes about it, however. Rather, Becca suffers a mental breakdown upon finding her dead friend and is put in a psychiatric hospital, only showing up briefly later on. Another gaggle of teenagers who might've been the supporting cast in that teen horror flick do show up at Katie's funeral, but we never see them again after that. Instead, we're soon introduced to the real heroine of the film, Katie's aunt Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts). As a journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Rachel, upon hearing that three of Katie's friends died at the exact same time she did, suspects foul play and decides to dig deeper, together with Noah (Martin Henderson), a video analyst who is also Rachel's ex-boyfriend and the father of her son Aiden. As part of their investigation, both Rachel and Noah wind up watching the tape, and soon realize that the tale of people dying in seven days isn't just an urban legend as inexplicable supernatural phenomena start plaguing their lives. In order to break the curse, they must first figure out the tape's origins, which leads them to a remote horse farm on an island in Puget Sound where, back in 1978, an equestrian named Anna Morgan committed suicide after her horses went berserk and drowned themselves for seemingly no reason, and where her widower Richard (Brian Cox) has lived alone for over two decades.

From the moment we're introduced to her character, this is Naomi Watts' show through and through. The Australian actress' American accent never cracks, and furthermore, she ably sells the mystery and fear that define her character's predicament. She starts out as a fierce bombshell, but reveals herself over the course of the film to be both a caring mother and a dogged journalist eagerly digging for the scoop that may well save her life and those of her family members. Her horrified reaction when she finds that her son Aiden got bored one night and watched the tape, as well as when she discovers the aftermath of the film's famous climax, say a thousand words. Her Rachel is visibly scared from the moment she realizes that the tape's curse is real, but she never devolves into a stereotype. Opposite her, with less screen time but no less important a job, is Martin Henderson as Noah. He believably portrays a man who's kinda smarmy, and all too aware that there's a reason his relationship with Rachel didn't work out, but still a realistically flawed and interesting foil to her. While Rachel is the viewpoint character, she and Noah do equal legwork in unraveling the mystery behind the tape, and thanks to their well-constructed characters, you want them to succeed. Brian Cox is in this too, in a small but pivotal role as an old, retired horse breeder who knows way more about what happened than he lets on, and his time on screen was always a creepy delight.

As for that mystery... well, at this point everybody knows that the villain of this film is a creepy ghost girl with long black hair named Samara. Outside of old footage that the protagonists watch, she's barely in this until the very end, and we don't even learn about her until halfway into the film. Her big moment singlehandedly made her a horror icon, and without spoiling anything, you can't help but feel bad for her by the end given what her life was like. But until that finale, she's an offscreen presence more than anything. That said, her presence -- or initially, before we know who she is, the presence of something malevolent -- lingers over this film almost from the very first frame. Director Gore Verbinski knows how to make the audience feel like something is watching over their shoulders, counting down the seven days before she strikes and letting the main characters know, in no uncertain terms, what awaits them. It could be your face warping in photographs, or a nosebleed; whenever you take a closer look, there are always tangible signs of impending death. It also pulls a few fake-outs to keep you on your toes, most notably an early scene where a character is handed a phone and, without hearing who's on the other end, we're led to believe that it's Samara, only for it to be something more innocuous. Quite frankly, this film didn't even need any jump scares to build a terrifying atmosphere, but the few it does deliver, none of them false, all landed that much harder because of the effort it took to lay the groundwork for them. It's a film that runs on subtlety and the viewer paying attention, not just to the story but also to the various hints dropped concerning Samara's presence that reference scenes from the videotape. The constantly rainy and overcast Seattle setting is employed to great effect as well, giving the whole film a depressing atmosphere that leaves little room for levity but helps sell the feeling of impending doom that's coming for the protagonists.

The Bottom Line:

Right from the start, this is a highly effective horror film made for adults that proves you don't need an R rating to deliver something truly frightening, even in this day and age. Looking back, I can't help but respect this film for the work it did in revitalizing a stagnant genre, especially since it is a film that most definitely holds up.

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