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The Ring

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Monday 21 October 2002

The Ring
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Ehren Kruger, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki
Starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox

Reviewed by John Shirley

This movie is effective enough to disorient some reviewers: Many called The Ring "psychological-horror." It's actually a tale of the supernatural — whereas psychological horror, like Fincher's Se7en, only makes you feel haunted, but has no supernatural element in it. Yet the category-blur is understandable: The Ring's real fear-power is indeed somehow in the psyche of the viewer. That is where The Ring works best — and that's where The Blair Witch Project worked best. Although this is a slicker movie, one using very professional actors — Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr.) and Martin Henderson (Windtalkers) and old hand Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lector, in Manhunter) — it would make an apt double bill with the Blair Witch. Why? Is it because they share the dark side of the rural? Is it the peculiarly feminine evil evoked in both films? That might be some of it. But it's also a certain technique — the horror in The Ring and Blair Witch is for the most part evoked indirectly. The viewer finds himself unwillingly collaborating with the film maker.

There's yet another parallel: both films share a mastery of the mindlessness of pure evil. Like Blair Witch, when The Ring is at its most chilling, its terrors seem hideously irrational — the way the universe itself can seem irrational, to human values; the way life itself can seem "meaningless." What logic these horrors have is the logic of a sick mind. We seem, indeed, trapped in someone else's psychosis. This is especially well evoked when we see the legendary video around which the tale revolves. It's just a short videotape but "it's like someone's nightmare...and there's a woman on it looking at you, and...." And after you've seen it, the phone rings. A girl's voice tells you that you will die in seven days. And then, seven days later, to the hour, you do. You die horribly. Hideously disfigured and apparently frightened to death.

The Ring starts off seeming like another "dead-teenager movie" — another urban myth comes to murderous life. Cute, clueless Seattle girls alone in a house, in a rainstorm. A horrible death. Then the film changes course and becomes the story of Naomi Watts as a journalist for a Seattle newspaper, the young aunt of one of these girls, investigating the string of deaths caused by the killer video. She gets help from her prescient son, who's a little too much like that kid in The Sixth Sense (and he does see at least one dead person regularly), and from her ex-boyfriend — Martin Henderson as the boy's irresponsible photographer dad — to try to save them all from the curse of the killer videotape. She's got seven days to do it — because she's seen the video herself; she's had the phone call. The seven days count down as the film goes on, a compelling 'ticking clock.' The filmmakers solidly build the presence of evil, until everything seems an omen, disembodied hatred pervading the very air — our heroine's face in her every new photo is blurred, as were all the victims; a videotaped house-fly seamlessly becomes a real fly.

And it's all connected with television. The evil of the television screen. Remember Poltergeist? Television as a symbol of isolation; of shattered families replacing face-time with screen-time; of a world caught up in a doomed trance, marching lemming-like to some unknown abyss.

The lady journalist and her ex investigate — this part is very well constructed, sometimes even amusing — and discover the evil is sourced in a woman who committed suicide, and the woman's insane, permanently-insomniac little girl. "She never sleeps," the prescient boy says of the little girl, again and again, quite chillingly.

I can't tell you anymore without spoiling the film. Indeed, one almost feels the film spoiled itself by finally explaining the source of the evil — not that every last thing is clearly explained. But if you think about it, after you've seen The Ring, you can work it out. Just think "insane little girl with supernatural powers." And think of those experiments with "psychic photography" supposed to have gone on some years ago.

The Ring's first half was for me far more frightening than what came after — it has a lot in common with Roman Polanski's Repulsion. The killer video itself is the movie's most creative passage; its callous, enraged, existentially resentful imagery and viciously stochastic editing verges on high art.

The rest of the movie — is it too slick, somehow? I don't know why, exactly, but I feel sure that if this movie had been made on a lower budget, perhaps on high resolution video, or cheaper film, it would somehow be more terrifying. It's a strong, disturbing film — but Blair Witch was stronger, more disturbing. By all accounts, so was the Japanese film Ringu, of which The Ring is a remake.

Still, The Ring keeps you in its grip. The ferry scene with the terrified horse plays out as one knows it will — but it is masterfully handled and seems inexorable rather than predictable. Maybe the overall script continuity slips a little in the transition from that horse barn back to Cabin 12 — the shift is a little too abrupt perhaps — but for the most part the director seems to have his surgical fingers right there in the viewer's brain.

Naomi Watts and Brian Cox are very very good — and this Martin Henderson, with his startling blue eyes and solid acting, might well become a major movie star. But the real star of this movie is the shadowy, imaginary filmmaker behind the killer video. It's the potential psychotic lurking in each one of us. And maybe what scares us most, in seeing this film: is recognition.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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