The Ring

Monday, November 30th, 2009 Horrorthon Posts

(2002) *****

“Ninety percent of science fiction is crap,” legendary sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) once admitted, “but then, ninety percent of everything is crap.” The observation (now known as “Sturgeon’s Law” or “Sturgeon’s Revelation”) is justifiably famous; his implicit point applies not just to sci-fi but to other ghettoized genres as well. In the wilderness of the popular arts, without the reassuring guiderails of an august critical establishment, a sci-fi fan (or a horror fan) is like a treasure hunter without a map, forced to navigate the uncharted waters of pulp and schlock in search of the remaining ten percent, the “flecks of gold dropped in the grass” that make it all worthwhile. Two years ago I gathered five examples of the far end of Sturgeon’s statistical bell curve for my so-called “Masterpiece Series”—Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Alien (1979)—and now I’m ready to add a sixth.

Like those other movies, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring scales the high altitudes of art without ever losing sight of the basic mechanics of scare fiction; the elements are assembled with incredible skill, intricacy and delicacy (and an unerring sense of tone) but the chills and thrills are as coarse, direct and potent as the simplest campfire story igniting a pre-teen nervous system. The movie reaches effortlessly for the deepest themes and ambiguities of all ghost stories (and The Ring is, first and foremost, a ghost story in the richest sense) without ever abandoning the basic scare mechanics that fuel a horror fan’s nightmares. While you may never penetrate the sensual, criminal and historical mysteries at the movie’s core, you’ll know exactly which innocuous real-life phenomena to be terrified of; which mundane anxieties are being exquisitely re-tuned into instruments of fear.

“Have you heard about the videotape that kills you when you watch it?” Sixty-seven seconds and four lines into the classic dark-and-stormy-night opening (rendered in extreme low light* by ace cinematographer Bojan Bazelli), the story’s brilliant basic conceit is revealed, unleashing exactly that surreal alchemy by which the ordinary world comes apart, exposing avenues to the inexplicable and uncanny. Ghosts are storytellers, in any culture and any century, vengefully testifying, reaching back into the realm of the living with hatred and longing, but in our modern era, wouldn’t the spectral traces of the restless afterlife be recorded not in tea leaves or animal entrails (or in Kirlian images captured by Victorian cameras) but within the television screens, phones and videotapes that surround us? When six doomed, libido-driven teenagers (is there another kind in horror movies?) in a remote mountain cabin with a VCR “try to record the game” and, instead, pick up the emanations that turn an unlabeled VHS cassette into a lethal, confounding dispatch from beyond the grave, the timeless armatures of all ghost stories (from Homer to Shakespeare to Dickens) are transformed into a twenty-first-century fable, in which ethereal clues are literally hidden beyond the tracking edges of a video image.

The “deadly tape” motif is carried over from Hideo Nakata’s Japanese original, Ringu (1998) (which I have not seen), but Verbinski and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have successfully Americanized the story&#151although murky evidence of a curse from the Far East remains at the core of the new movie’s mystery investigation. The Ring doesn’t feel like a remake at all; the relentless structural perfection (by which layers of the mystery are penetrated at climactic half-hour act breaks) and the unusually subtle cultural and psychological depth lend an orchestral complexity and force to the scares. The ghost story draws powerful connections (metaphorical and real) between two shattered families, past and present, and two troubled children: Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson (as a Seattle journalist and her photographer ex-boyfriend) bring their professional skills to bear in a desperate race to solve the supernatural mystery before it kills them and their moody young son, but the mystery itself is a darker, gothic tale of an island horse farm, a lighthouse, an apparent suicide and a lonely girl trapped in a barn’s attic with only a television for companionship. The Dadaist imagery on the tape—the bugs and ladders, chairs and centipedes, mirrors and severed fingers and, finally, the ring (which you see “before you die” if you’re cursed) connect the broken families in a weave of sadness, estrangement and empathy that informs the video-broadcast metaphor: the suffering of a child is fundamentally solitary, but the effects can be broad beyond belief, and, in the end, as the otherworldly girl promises the baffled scientists who cruelly, fruitlessly examine her, “everyone will suffer.”

Beyond his masterful storytelling gifts, Gore Verbinski is a spectacular visual talent in the tradition of Ridley Scott and David Fincher, and he excels at crafting traditionally evocative visuals by means of meticulously executed photography invisibly bolstered by wall-to-wall digital effects. (Anyone doubting these claims should re-aquaint themselves with his subsequent project, the glorious Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, which employs an orgy of ILM wizardry to transform a 1950s Disneyland ride into an irresistible, nearly-hallucenogenic adventure saga.) Eight different effects houses worked on The Ring, including Tippett Studios, Matte World Digital (who created Moesko Island and its lighthouse out of thin air, as also documented in this article) and especially Method Studios, who made the Ring Tape itself (see below)—but you can watch the whole movie without ever suspecting that it contains a single pixel; like Hans Zimmer’s haunting score, the digital technology propels the story without polluting our soulful gaze at the lonely, rain-drenched, bottle-green world it inhabits. Filled with countless memorable details—a blinking answering machine light; a panicked stallion galloping across a fog-bound ferryboat, the staccato video still of the ring that exactly intersects the DreamWorks logo’s moon for two frames (see top image above) in lieu of an opening title—this somber, ultimately heroic tale fulfils the highest potentials of horror movies without ever losing sight of its obligations to scare you senseless. If, as Sturgeon implied, only ten percent of horror is any good at all, it’s an even smaller portion that’s truly superb; that affirms our faith in the necessity of the macabre: The Ring unquestionably belongs to that rarefied breed.

(P.S.:The DVD of The Ring contains the complete, uninterrupted Ring Tape as a hidden “Easter Egg,” which I’ve extracted and posted on my website for your viewing unease.)

*I’m not kidding about “extreme low light.” Watch the movie’s opening sequence again (but only if you’ve seen it already; don’t waste your first viewing of this excellent seven minutes on a mediocre YouTube clip): that’s got to be the most dimly-lit suburban home I’ve ever seen. It’s not shadowy or gothic—it’s a perfectly ordinary, affluent house equipped with a normal complement of lamps—but it’s nevertheless drowning in darkness.