A true connoisseur of the scary movie (note, not slasher flicks but psychological thrillers) will recognize certain spooky elements in many of the “classics” of the genre: the cruel parent (or stepparent); the otherworldly child, a medium for the spirit world; and, the violent reaction of animals, children and the insane to the presence of evil. Certain images are also commonly found in these movies and are preternaturally disturbing: wells, bleak cliffs, lighthouses, remote cabins in the woods, lone autumnal trees on hillsides, rainy nights, and other symbols of isolation.
Renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell, argued that certain tales and images are part of our universal consciousness and, therefore, part of collective human storytelling. Heavily influenced by Carl Jung, Campbell described how these themes reoccur throughout the tapestry of stories told by groups divided by time and geography. Perhaps then there should be no surprise that certain images reappear with such alarming effectiveness in scary movies whether the source is Hollywood, or in this case, Japan.
Based on “Ringu”, a series of books by Kôji Suzuki (the “Stephen King of Japan”), Hideo Nakata directed the original, record-breaking box office smash for Asian audiences (1998), which DreamWorks decided would translate well for American audiences. Gore Verbinski was chosen to direct even though he is best known for more light-hearted fare such as “Mouse Hunt” and “The Mexican.”
The premise is fairly simple. Urban legend meets scary movie reality when four teens die, as predicted, exactly seven days to the minute from when they watched an unmarked video in a remote mountain cabin. The aunt of one of the teenagers is a savvy and skeptical journalist whose curiosity is sparked by tales of the tape. After finding and watching the source of the mystery, she receives a phone call announcing that she has seven days. From there, it is a race to solve the clues and answer the riddle of the video, with the stakes greatly raised when two of the people closest to her, including her young son, watch the deadly tape.
The video itself is a mosaic of images both familiar and disturbing. With its mirrors, wriggly things, ladders, and -–of course—- rings, you might think you were watching “Un Chien Andalou” (Luis Buñel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 surrealist classic) as directed by David Lynch after he had been reading Jung and not getting enough fresh air.
As one born to the genre, Director Verbinski does an excellent job of letting our imaginations find portent and peril in the most mundane of actions, such as picking up groceries at the local corner store. Naomi Watts, a relatively unknown actress for those who missed her in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001), plays Rachel, the journalist whose desire to find the cause of her niece’s death becomes a life or death quest for answers. For all of us who have rolled our eyes at the screaming teen, walking backward alone through the dark house, Watts will be a relief as she plays through the gamut of Rachel’s emotions with truly credible, but not overwrought, gusto. While the adults are busy solving the riddle of the tape, the heart-stopping dyad of the Ring’s children usher in the deeper dimension of fear. Rachel’s son, Aiden (a stony-eyed David Dorfman) is the medium and interpreter for the terrifying Samara (Daveigh Chase), who lays at the heart of the mystery.
“The Ring” dips deep in the well of those aforementioned familiar scary images, which paradoxically results in a movie that is both architecturally firm but –with little new to add—empty of true revelation. Joseph Campbell could have used this movie as a reference book for universally terrifying images, but perhaps the tale itself was more effectively told in Japanese.
Parents should know that this movie is very, very scary. Four people and a horse die on-screen, with the potential for many more untimely demises throughout and -–don’t read on if you enjoy surprises-—beyond the end of the movie. The overall tone is creepy and would leave many of the staunchest of movie-goers in dire need of brightly lit rooms and laughter.
Families who see this movie should talk about the decision that Rachel makes at the end of the movie and the ramifications of her actions. They might also wish to discuss the way that different characters deal with the untimely death of a loved one.
Families who enjoy this movie might wish to shiver together over “The Shining”, “The Omen”, “The Exorcist”, “Poltergeist” or “The Sixth Sense”. Alternately, they might wish to never watch a video again (especially an unmarked one) and opt to have a Scrabble night instead, preferably after turning on all the lights in the house.