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Reviewed by Jonah Falcon
IN SHORT: "Because it has something you don't have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous." [Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, language and some drug references. ]
After watching The Ring, those words uttered by the ill-fated Masha in David Cronenberg's Videodrome haunted my mind. Like Videodrome, The Ring envisions the television as a unnatural being, a pervasive force that has wheedled its way into virtually every single household in the modern world. When the cursed Rachel (Naomi Watts) stands on her balcony after her son has exposed himself to a deadly video, she sees in the next building an array of televisions through the open windows, exposing their occupants to whatever they wish for them to see - and they have a hypnotic power. No matter what their human "owners" are doing, their eyes are fixed on the screen. There is a latent sense of danger, as one mother leaves her child with what we'd called since the 50's the "electronic babysitter," caused by the subliminal question, "What - or who - have we let into our homes?"
And what could be more unnatural than television? They present images that aren't really there, and voices that aren't really spoken. Nothing is real on television - or is it? Videodrome posited, which had the faint echo of Marshall McLuhan, that what we on the TV is real, because what we watch and hear on the television becomes a real experience in our brains, and therefore, becomes reality. Indeed, The Ring tells us that if we can capture a fly on television, couldn't we pluck the video image of a fly from the screen? And if that is possible, who knows what forces can emerge from them unbidden?
The Ring is a remake of a Japanese movie Ringu (1998), which became one of Japan's biggest hits, spawning a television series and a line of graphic novels, and that Japanese pedigree shows throughout the film, past its Americanized filter: the concept of vengeful, possibly evil spirits, children who view the forces of nature and the supernatural with better clarity than the adults, and the moralistic question between the greater good and personal safety. The ending, in particular, is very Japanese; without giving anything away, it distinctly makes the point that not everything wants just to be heard and understood. Some things want to exact a price, and keep exacting a price.
The Ring opens with two 16 year old girls who are bored because there's nothing good on television. One of them, Becca (Rachel Bella), brings up a rumor about a tape that if you watch it, you receive a phone call from a girl telling you you have seven days left to live. In exactly seven days, you die. She admits she is only retelling a famous urban legend, but her disturbed friend Katie (Amber Tamblyn) insists that it is real, and admits that she and a few friends all watched the tape exactly seven days ago, and received the call. Sure enough, she winds up dead, with Becca being carted off to the loony bin after witnessing the aftereffects.
Katie's mother asks Rachel (her aunt, played by Watts) to find out how she died. Rachel, being a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, feels she's supremely qualified to investigate. Rachel's initial investigation reveals that Katie and a few friends went to a rural motel, complete with Friday the 13th Crystal Lake-style cabins, for teenaged sexual misadventures. She learns that all of them viewed a certain videotape, and all of them died exactly at the same time, down to the exact minute, a week later. Making matters more surreal, photos taken of them after they'd viewed the tape have their faces disturbingly distorted. Katie's diary contains cryptically insane messages and doodles, and all of the models in her magazines have been blocked out by her pen. Making matters more mysterious, Katie's cousin Aidan (Rachel's son, played by David Dorfman) has drawn images of her being dead a few days before she died. The trail leads to the motel, where she spies, among such classics as Yor, the Hunter from the Future, an unlabeled tape. Naturally, she can't help but pop it in the VCR in the same cabin where the teens viewed it, and is treated to a series of odd and disturbing images, which seem to have the logic of a fever dream. And, as the urban legend dictates, she receives a phone call immediately after viewing from a girl, who simply states, "Seven days."
The next day, she confides her fears to her ex-lover, but still close friend, Noah (Martin Henderson), and asks him for help, since he is a video expert. Her image is now distorted in photographs, and she is starting to have frightening hallucinations, or so they would seem to be, since they seem to leave physical manifestations behind. Against her advice, he, too, views the tape, dooming himself as well. His skepticism fades as he suffers the same symptoms, but matters are worse when Aidan views the tape, seemingly knowing already what the tape represents. Aidan also seems to be in contact with whatever force is contained in the tape.
If it sounds like too much of the plot has been revealed, there hasn't. It is merely the setup for the rest of the film, as Rachel desperately sleuths her way into finding out where the tape came from, especially since Noah reveals that there is no source encoding on the tape, which is impossible, since that would mean that no camera, computer or VCR recorded the images.
Watts and Henderson are capable in the lead roles, and Dorfman does a great Haley Joel Osmont impression (at one point in the film, when Dorfman's Aidan spies ghostly feet running up the stairs, one half-expects him to utter, "I see dead people!") The problem is that we've seen these roles before, and while the actors do a remarkable job of not coming off as derivative, they are still relegated to stock, vanilla characters. The true standouts are the supporting cast, notably the gifted Brian Cox and Shannon Cochran as tortured parents driven to felicide, Jane Alexander as a world weary doctor, and both Amber Tamblyn and Rachel Bella as the doomed teens in the prologue. Cochran has an especially thankless role, being relegated to visions and flashbacks, while Bella's perf as Becca is so much like Fairuza Balk it is scary. When any one of them appears on the screen, they steal it. The hardest role probably belongs to young Daveigh Chase, as the otherworldly Samara, which requires her to evoke fear, sympathy, and ultimately outright terror from the audience, and her acting is absolutely flawless. A lot of the credit can be attributed to director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt, The Mexican), though, because The Ring is the type of script (adapted by Ehren Kruger) that in lesser hands could have become very cheesy, especially since this film comes on the heels of The Sixth Sense and The Others, and more or less trods on the same ground as those two films.
Visually, the movie has the same, washed out feeling as a Cronenberg film, which is not surprising. The film was shot on location in Seattle, and has that same Canadian feel as Cronenberg's location of choice, Toronto. In addition, Seattle's constant rainfall allows the film to have the feel of old, waterlogged dead wood. This imagery mirrors the constant themes of water and death, which is apropos to the source of the filicide revealed late in the film, and allows the sharper images, like a haunting red maple tree, to stand out that much more. This contributes, along with the disturbing hallucinatory imagery experienced by Rachel and Noah, to a constant state of dread, much like Jacob's Ladder did. That feeling that, at any moment, something frightening will pop up.
Also like Jacob's Ladder, the film never lingers on any one image. Rather than focus on something horrifying, it'll give brief glances, constantly move either the imagery or the camera, give auditory clues, and does so expertly. This is the sort of film that must be viewed and re-viewed to catch many of the little details and subliminal visual and aural clues, and like Ladder, knowing what is going on during the subsequent viewings not only reveals more, but actually causes more questions; such as, just who is that raven-haired woman that Noah seems to be dating? One problem with The Ring is that it crams too much information in its running time. This is the sort of movie that will, on video and DVD release, inspire a lot of freeze frame deconstruction, much like Prospero's Books did.
The true thrill of the movie is that even as the tape, and the movie itself, is deconstructed - and every image has an obvious source carefully explained in the movie - the film still leaves you with more questions afterward. The best part of The Ring is its intelligence. This movie has much more in common with other mind-provoking gothic horror fare as Rosemary's Baby than the idiotic The Omen. It's scariness comes from the part of the mind that thinks as well as the part that feels. In fact, the plot twist at the end is more frightening and much more clever than that of The Sixth Sense, but where The Sixth Sense lets the audience off the hook, The Ring shows them no mercy. The dread and foreboding that has built up to that point is teasingly relaxed, before bring brought back in one of the most frightening film sequences ever put to celluloid. It is during the horrific sequence, though, that the true horror is revealed in a flashback of a video interview - the fact that not everything is born innocent.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky, er, Jonah able to set his own price to The Ring, he would have paid...
Watching Brian Cox on the screen, Jonah wishes that Silence of the Lambs be remade with Cox as Lecter. In the meanwhile, he's going to make sure every freakin' videotape he owns has a label!
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