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October 22, 2002

"Student film" murderously bad in more than one way

The Ring

directed by Gore Verbinski

DreamWorks Pictures, 115 minutes

There is little point in accusing a horror film of implausibility. A plausible horror film is called a suspense film, such as Psycho, the Silence of the Lambs, or Panic Room, though these all possess their share of the implausible. The Ring blends supernatural horror and investigative suspense to produce a mode of paranoia shared only by the very best episodes of The X-Files. Nifty premise: there is a videotape, and anyone who watches it receives a death threat by phone the very minute it's over. We must accept from the beginning that questions of fate, freedom, and cosmic over-determination will be introduced through a barely believable plot gimmick. Even if you can't accept that, The Ring is so well crafted, its atmosphere so immersive, that no matter how well you hold yourself above the trickery, you'll eventually be lured onto the killing floor.

However contrived its gimmick, The Ring is far more ingenious than most horror flicks. It doesn't make the mistake (contra certain critics) of trying to explain its premise, wisely quarantining the pragmatic questions of causation in the background and between the plot points, where they contribute to the sense of dread that oozes out of every detail on the screen. This movie knows that abstract doom is far more terrifying than any monster or murderer; the threat of death is always more effective when we have no idea how it could happen. At its best, The Ring rivals 1999's Final Destination, an underrated and diabolical film whose characters must confront universal fate itself, the fact that every atom and contingency in the world is directed towards their destruction.

Drawing effective performances from a little-recognized cast, director Gore Verbinski (whose other films are the unimpressive Mouse Hunt and The Mexican) reveals here a surprising, Hitchcockian gift for audience manipulation. He gets great mileage out the horror staple of ploy scares, little pinpricks of fear which turn out to be harmless; these keep the tension high and prod the audience into a very vulnerable position for when the knife really comes down.

The Ring is a remake of Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998), a blockbuster that has become the Japanese equivalent of the Hannibal Lector trilogy, inspiring a sequel and a prequel, but is unfortunately still not available in the United States. Verbinski has learned valuable lessons from the minimalist aesthetic of his source, investing the tiniest disturbance in the frame with menace, enveloping his cast with delicately choreographed camera movements, even adding to the chilly atmosphere with as miniscule a detail as the scene captions in Arial font. Though the sound design is effective, I wish he had silenced Hans Zimmer's score during climactic moments, emulating Ringu's unnerving use of long periods without sound.

The signature of The Ring is the cursed video itself, "very student film," as one character observes; it is an eerie sequence of stylized, exotic, grotesque images, recalling either East Asian experimental film or a Nine Inch Nails video. It's weirdly compelling -certainly it won't leave your mind before the movie is over-especially compelling to the characters, who spend the movie trying to reconstruct its meaning under the threat of death. The movie's overall visual style is far more American than Japanese, drawn mostly from David Fincher and M. Night Shyamalan, though Verbinkski displays a richer color palette than the former and more striking compositions than the latter. This movie's first smart move is its setting, in the bleak, rain-slicked Pacific Northwest, where the clammy atmosphere is so pervasive that we might expect water to start seeping from everywhere even if that weren't a signal that something horrible is about to happen.

The conceptual basis for this film (though never overtly addressed) is the actual, as- yet -unexplained phenomena of psychokinetography, the oft-debunked feat of someone mentally projecting an image onto unexposed film, and matter apportation, the mental compulsion of an object or event (such as water, flies, or nosebleeds). The Ring's rarely- glimpsed villain, a psychokinetic undead girl named Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase), created the tape for some inscrutable purpose-perhaps revenge, perhaps redemption; the movie leaves it open-ended. A teenage girl and her friends run across the tape at a backwoods cabin; when the girl returns home, another friend has somehow learned of the tape in an urban legend. One dies, the other is institutionalized. The dead girl's aunt, Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) finds out that not only her niece but everyone who watched the tape with her died at the same time on the same night. She tracks down the tape, watches it, and sure enough, is notified by phone that she has seven days to live. Her son (David Dorfman) and ex-boyfriend (Martin Henderson) get drawn into her investigation, and both end up watching the tape. The images lead them to a horse ranch on an island off the coast of Washington and into the grim history of the Morgan family, which owns the ranch. A suffocating anxiety besets them all the while, until they find the location of the last image on the tape. The result is a remarkable reanimation of a genre that very recently appeared dead at the hand of Kevin Williamson.

Perfect? No. The Ring regrettably reuses the tired topos of the haunted little Haley Joel Osment clone who speaks spookily and is somehow privy to essential information. Characters are thinly sketched, as they usually are in horror movies; plot and visuals are the issue here.

This is an evasive film. It begins as an urban legend flick but quickly swerves away. Even in the first dialogue exchange, which concerns the possible effects of the countless radio and TV signals constantly passing through our brains, there's a hint of what the movie might have been about, were it not constrained by the need for thrills and relative brevity. In one scene Rachel looks out her balcony into a neighboring residential complex in which everyone is watching televisions. In another, ranch owner Richard Morgan (Brian Cox) says of reporters, "You take people's pain and give it to everyone else. Like spreading a disease." This film is very faintly an allegory of how our lives are becoming dominated by images and modes of mass dissemination. Indeed, Rachel becomes fated to live through the tape's most frightening images.

Do I overpraise? Most reviews I've seen so far have been mixed or negative. Take the trusty Roger Ebert: "Rarely has a more serious effort produced a less serious result than in The Ring, the kind of dread dark horror film where you better hope nobody snickers, because the film teeters right on the edge of the ridiculous. . . the story goes beyond contrivance into the dizzy realms of the absurd." Roger and I must have some kind of delayed rapport, because these were precisely my thoughts on walking out of Ebert's adored four-star laureate, this summer's Signs, a movie in which aliens land on earth and find nothing better to do than prance around on rooftops, trash a man's house like frat boys, get trapped in a pantry, beaten by a baseball bat, and killed when a glass of water is tossed at them. Signs couldn't have been sillier if we had heard the aliens do a hip-hop rendition of "klaatu barada nikto." The Ring does not give pat explanations; the information we get only deepens the questions. Ebert fails to make that distinction. We will also note that he gave three stars to Red Dragon. When a horror movie tries to explain itself it always fails; a good horror movie compels you to forget that you're suspending your disbelief. The ending of The Ring will probably leave you in no state to think clearly at all, much less have the presence of mind to doubt it.