Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Catching up with the (super) classics of horror, part II: Video nasty


Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Ehren Kruger (based on the novel by Koji Suzuki and the screenplay by Hiroshi Takahashi)
With Naomi Watts (Rachel), David Dorfman (Aidan), Martin Henderson (Noah), and Daveigh Chase (Samara)

We've all missed movies that we should've seen.  Here are three of mine, that might surprise you.

Spoiler alert: high

My weak excuse for never seeing it: I spent most of 2002 drunk.  Therefore, it's actually quite possible I did see The Ring.  Then I died!
Why I'm watching it now:  The shame I feel based upon my near-total ignorance of J-horror and the American clone wars to follow could not be borne forever.  Plus, I was in the mood for another creepy ghost story after Oculus, and The Ring has one of that subgenre's most sterling reputations.  But perhaps the single most important reason is that the blu-ray was five bucks on Amazon. It's called value.  Your grandfather understood it.

I had no expectation of recognizing the name under the director's credit on 2002's The Ring, and I don't think I'd ever have guessed just whose it turned out to be, because it's a real outlier in a career dedicated principally to cartoons starring Johnny Depp.  Nevertheless, surely no man who once played guitar at the side of Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz could be all bad.  And The Ring demonstrates this truth.  Maybe it's not exactly what you'd mean when you say, "a Gore Verbinski film."  But it is a film, by Gore Verbinski.  This suggests that perhaps he still has the skills for this kind of small-scale work.  That's good, because after The Lone Ranger, he'll need them.

In 2002, there was no Jack Sparrow.  So you can see why Verbinski might have taken on what seems like a journeyman's task, the DreamWorks SKG remake of a wildly-beloved Japanese film then only four years old, Hideo Nakata's Ring.  (Alternatively known as Ringu, by people who think they aren't being racist when they mimic a Japanese accent while saying an English word.)

Because capitalism, DreamWorks deliberately blocked any stateside DVD releasethus avoiding any cannibalization of the remake's theatrical audienceuntil the very day their their version hit video store shelves.  Yet whatever annoyance I should feel, already muted by time, is obliterated in the actual side-by-side comparison: Nakata's Ring is inferior in virtually every respect to its American remake on a near-objective level.  I cannot imagine anyone preferring Nakata's Ring to the remake, other than those whose commitment to Japanophilia borders upon the twisted.

For starters, Nakata's Ring is one of those Japanese films from the 1990s that looks uncomfortably like TV, with a few singularly terrible video effects that look like 1970s TV.  (Indeed, Ring is a remake itself, of an actual TV movie.  I can't imagine what it looks like.)  But Ring's real trouble is its script, so lean it's starving, yet so lumpy you could choke on it.  Ring's issues are many: its mystery barely fills up a subplot; anyone below top billing is characterized at the level of a prop; it largely dispenses with its female lead as soon as a man shows up to slap her in the mouth; and I have never been fond of the lazy convenience inherent to protagonists with psychic powers getting into supernatural situations by accident.  And as for all the things Ring does get right, The Ring gets better.

Yet Ehren Kruger's screenplay remains a remarkably pure adaptation.  From the prologue forward, The Ring is Ring, with new meat added to the bare bones of even its smallest characterizations, and with all the nonsense tumors cut out.  Each film begins with a crash-course in their shared premise, presented by a pair of schoolgirls discussing a video tape.  Anyone who watches this tape receives a phone call, through which they are informed that they have only seven more days to live.  It seems like they might just be talking about an urban legend, but one of them has seen it with her own eyes and her seven days are up.

"I thought she meant business days!"

The coroner says it's a heart attack, but this is belied by that brief flashback to her corpse, at once one of the great earned jump scares in horror, as well as a reason for surprise when you discover The Ring was rated PG-13.

While it's a little too late to call it "fortunate," it turns out that the dead girl's aunt is Rachel Keller, ace reporter.  When Rachel catches wind of the tape rumorand learns that the other three kids who saw it with her also died, at the exact same momentshe takes it seriously enough to pursue.  She does not take it seriously enough not to watch the tape once she finds it.  And thereupon hangs the tale.

Rachel also has a child named Aidan, whom she often remembers exists.  One of the more idiosyncratic things about The Ring is how Rachel isby our unimpeachable Future Person standardsa terrible mother.  She's distant, disengaged, constantly working.  Yet the film is largely nonjudgmental about it.

"Did I feed you?"  "No."  "I meant this week."

Even when her hands-off parenting style crosses into genuine criminal neglect, thanks to the supernatural gun she keeps unlocked and loaded in their apartment, there's no special epiphany about how many years she's wasted, or any such phony bologna.  Only a lesson learned about securing dangerous objects.

Naturally, Watts is exceptional, a believably great reporter and, when push comes to ghastly shove, a loving parent; it's her performance that renders Rachel so immensely likeable, despite her imperfections.  Let's give credit where it's due, though: Watts is gamely assisted by child actor David Dorfman.  He appears to have been given the direction "you're not autistic, but you have spent years faking it, because you thought it was funny, and somewhere down the line, your schtick became your actual personality."  And God bless his little heart, that's exactly where Dorfman lands.  His Victorian-era Tiny Adult goes a long way toward papering over any lingering impression that Rachel's parenting actively sucks.

Of course, so does the fact that Rachel is—somehowthe single best parent depicted in the film: her sister's child is dead before minute ten, putting her out of the running; her own kid's dad is a spurious deadbeat; and if The Ring is "about" anything other than itself (and it needn't be) it's a helpful reminder that, sure, there's the lack of hugs that grown-up white people cry about in therapy, and then there's the kind of parenting that puts children in the bottom of a well.  However, given why the other child in the movie ended up in a well, it's entirely possible that The Ring is, when you get right down to it, a subliminal ode to abortion.

But this jumps ahead; for now, let us consider this vengeful spirit's gateway back into the human world.  The cursed tape is the central hook for both versions of the story, and the differences between them illuminate the enormous differences between each director's attempt.  The tape from Nakata's Ring is brief and mildly unsettling.  The tape in The Ring is much longer and severely creepy.  If it does overplay its hand with the exact kind of giant centipede that you would never see crawling around our Pacific Northwest setting, well, certainly you can't deny that centipedes are gross.

The tape is but the flashiest display of Verbinski's superior cinematic ambition (and, in fairness, his superior budget).  But the film, as a whole, is almost uniformly better-made.  Consider the shot of TV aerials crowning the roofs of houses in Nakata's Ring.  It's a shot which registered, principally, only because I'd just seen the vastly more readable composition from Verbinski's remake that pans from window to window in an apartment building, studying the actual people glued to their (as yet) non-haunted TV sets.

And even these non-speaking extras, seen from a football field away, feel like people.  Kruger's script delights in detail.  By this method, The Ring escapes from the original's unpleasantly mechanistic ethos.  Note the visitation with the dead girl's dad at the funeral.  It's absolutely pointless from a plot perspective, but it gives Michael Spound, an actor who even has an IMDB page and everything, a genuinely effective moment.  These scenes abound throughout The Ring, explaining its significantly longer runtime.  It's funny how 20 minutes of moments, each individually unnecessary, wind up so essential.  Since the entire exercise of The Ring is to establish a threat to the living world from the world beyond, these small additions that create a living world in the first place make all the difference.

As far as shot-by-shot construction, it would take a detailed breakdown to demonstrate how vastly more attuned The Ring is to the art of suspense, and the mystery is tackled with well-edited journalistic fervor.  The counterargument is that each film speaks to its particular cultural milieubut then why should so many other Japanese films speak to me just fine?

The real champion of The Ring is cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who presents a green-gray netherworld that is bleak without being offensive, and is often beautiful, especially in that rare instance when other, more luridly unnatural colors strike throughthe first sunset sequence, as seen through the orange leaves of the lone Japanese maple on the hill, is gorgeous and unnerving all at once.

For a long time, The Ring and its forebear are content with a variation upon the oldest ghost story there is.  The readiest reference is The Changeling, a very good movie that is also aggressively upfront about the nonthreatening nature of the troubled spirit that's haunting George C. Scott.  The demonstrated murderous capacity of The Ring's undead student filmmaker keeps this picture from ever losing its horrific edge.  Samara remains a menacing presence right up until she gets the proper burial every ghost apparently can't rest without; and it's done so sweetly that even if the film had ended in the well, it would hardly have been a waste of anyone's time.

Of course, you've already seen The Ring, so you realize this is when my own complacency was turned against me.  Despite having previously seen the last scare sequenceyou know, the infinitely famous oneI managed to be entirely unaware of its actual context.  (And does Dorfman ever sell the set-up to that scare sequence, evoking the exact kind of betrayal a child would experience, having assumed an adult cannot possibly be as feckless as it turns out she is.)

The Ring, like Ring, ends so perfectly it really can't be overstated; perhaps calling it "Carpenteresque" properly evokes my feelings about it.  If it was worth making the comparison between the techniques of pin-dancing angels, I'd still give The Ring the slightest of edges, simply because to target a stranger seems even nastier.  (Yet the remake flirted with disaster here.  All it needed to do was to copy the original.  However, the remake's screening cut included a clutch of scenes that were clearly intended as a sop to America's alleged aversion to moral ambiguity.  They established the existence of a child molester played by Chris Cooper, existing for the sole reason of being put in the tape's path at the end.  This misjudged subplot must have rendered the finale all but impotent, before it was torn away like an unsightly wart.)

Speaking about The Ring, Verbinski said that when he would watch his own previous films, he always wished he had a second chance.  He spoke a truthnothing is perfectbut very few things could sound more pompous, when in the context of remaking someone else's movie.  Yet while Ring is more "necessary" in the strict causal senseI would never dismiss its importancethe very best thing about it is that it was good enough to be given a second chance at being great.  Remakes are unfairly held to an impossible standard, required to earn every second of their existence.  But The Ring justifies itself so gloriously that I can't even be the littlest bit sad that it puts its very inspiration, hailed at the time as an instant classic, into permanent eclipse.

Score: 9/10


  1. Great write-up! And it's remarkably true how well this film holds up against the original. Hideo Nakata would direct the English language sequel to this film, which is one of the single worst bastardizations of a concept I've ever seen. At least he directed Ringu 2, which was so politely insane (Yoichi is given telekinetic powers, his mom is killed in a car crash early on, and Sadako is turned into a swimming pool) that I kind of loved it.
    Have you seen any other J-Horror films that you'd recommend before this one?

    1. Well, "near-ignorance" is no joke, but I.liked both Ju-on and Kwaidan. I'm half thru Jigoku, which is kind of slow but also very pretty.

      I see that you're running out of Saws. If I'm not wrong, there's more Ring material than there is Friday the 13th! Including a shiny 3D movie from 2012 that looks kind of hideous from the two minutes I watched. Just a suggestion...

  2. This review is over 8 years old as I write this and it is STILL outrageously refreshing to see someone just DUNK on 'Ring' (1998) in comparison to 'The Ring' (2002) with abandon. I was actually laughing out loud at parts because damn, you didn't have to tell it like it is, hahaha! The emperor has no clothes, indeed!

    I've always picked up a sense of--"jealousy" might be too harsh a word--protection over Ring ('98), like concern that too much recognition for The Ring ('02) would overshadow the predecessor rather than promote it. I don't think that was ever actually the case and I believe time has proven it.

    If anything I think The Ring ('02) is actually somewhat underrated, and I think it's partially due to a lot of enthusiast outlets treating it as merely an extension of Ring ('98). I always scratch my head when I run into a retrospective about Ring ('98), or even see it included in "Top movies of the 90s" lists (often as THE single Japanese entry in an obviously Western-focused list). Nobody in the west saw Ring (98) (certainly not in the 90s)! The only reason we're writing retrospectives of Ring (98) and putting it on "Best of" lists is because of The Ring (02)! And frankly if all these readers actually go and watch Ring (98) they probably won't be all that impressed because it looks like an episode of Melrose Place!

    Maybe we can just be honest about what movie was *actually* a phenomenon in the west and was seen and acclaimed by millions of western viewers and introduced them to the concept of Japanese horror and movies like Ring (98). That movie was indeed The Ring (02)!

    But I'll tell you all how I really feel in a second... ;) Great review!

    1. :)

      Melrose Place probably had better lighting and blocking. It's a bit of fetishization, I think, and not only relegated to non-Western stuff: there is not one normal person in a hundred, I daresay, who'd prefer the Norwegian Insomnia to the American, but that doesn't signal one's refined taste, cosmopolitan perspective, and encyclopedic range. "Why, of course I saw the Ring '98 in the 90s. I watch every movie made in every country somehow."

      It's a tangent, but I'm always a little of two minds about the more magisterial lists--they're going to be essentially parochial even when they try to be globally (or chronologically) inclusive. Like, my own favorite movies of the 1990s might well include Farewell My Concubine or Ju-Dou, for example, and that's fine if all I'm trying to do is express my own joys (not that I'd ever arrogate to myself any ability to be "objective" in the first place). But one runs into the "what's my expertise?" problem, since these two films probably represents a solid 10% of the total number of Chinese-language films from the 1990s I've seen at all.

      As for Ring '98, I can't actually remember the last time someone did mention it, except when referring to that presumably goofy Sadako vs. Kayako movie they made a few years back.

  3. I've always mentally thought of Gore Verbinski as a horror director even though as far as I know this is his only real horror movie, but it just leaves that much of an impression and colors the rest of his work. Pirates of the Caribbean has all kinds of monsters and ghost pirates, The Lone Ranger has a little bit of that spooky color-timing, etc. (Also, his name is Gore Verbinski for crying out loud.)

    The best case I've heard someone make for Ring 1998 is that it is itself an adaptation of a sci-fi mystery novel (which sounds completely bonkers until I remember how spooky The Matrix could get at times) and without that context it's difficult to appreciate the wisdom of Nakata's genre shift (The Ring 2002 could just take for granted they were making a haunted ghost horror show and go whole hog with it) and that the two movies aren't quite as apples-to-apples as they might first appear.

    Which, point taken, and I won't begrudge anyone who considers Ring 1998 the greater *accomplishment*, but I have a really difficult time buying any argument that The Ring 2002 isn't a better *crafted* film.

    1. I've certainly never really been tempted to rewatch the '98 film.

      Verbinski did do A Cure For Wellness. Which has its charms, and I *am* a little tempted to give it another try it at some point, but there's a lot of a "why is this Hammer movie two and a half hours long?" going on there.