Oh boy, this one is creepy. Creepy like a single, leaden knock on your front door when you're home all alone and it's 2:30 in the morning and it's October, and you're not expecting anyone and then the doorknob turns. Creepy like that.
The two times I've seen The Ring, audiences sat rock quiet. I couldn't help looking around the theater and staring at faces. They lacked the bored, slack-jawed multiplex gape. They giggled a little, yelped a little. But mostly there was a real chill in the air and nobody said a word.
That's because The Ring is a terrific audience picture that doesn't feel like one. Watching it with other people is like sitting at a dinner party where someone just accused the host of serving rancid meat. You want to crawl under your seat.
Before we get to the plot, it should first be said that this remake of a 1998 Japanese hit of the same name is also nuts, with a premise too insane to be believed. And yet, it's a kind of ingeniously lunatic idea that director Gore Verbinski makes work because the film is all silence and flickering visions.
The idea is that a VHS tape is circulating, and people watch it and a week later they flop over dead and end up looking like that time on South Park when Mr. Hanky was all dried out.
Yes, a murderous videotape. For one to buy this premise, one must accept the idea that a malicious supernatural force waited until home entertainment technology was sufficiently up to snuff to do its dirty work. On reflection, I would say this evil force is lucky; if it chose to infect a Beta tape, its revenge against humanity might have gone differently. Thankfully, The Ring doesn't explain why this malevolent ghost picked VHS. It doesn't feature a demon that forces unlucky souls to read their VCR manuals until their heads explode. It doesn't spend time hacking away at the usual movie teens.
It only starts with teens. Two girls sit in a bedroom and creep each other out. One says she like heard a story about this videotape that you like watch and then the moment it's over, like the phone rings. You answer and a voice whispers “Seven days ...” and a week later, you're like dead. I know: spooky. One reason the movie is effective is that it begins like an urban legend, with kids who get a visceral kick out of the story.
One of the girls says she watched a similar tape recently - indeed, she watched it with some friends seven days ago. A few minutes later, she's like history and stuff.
Enter Rachel, played by the excellent Naomi Watts of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. She's a Seattle newspaper reporter and aunt of the dead girl. She hears the story and tracks down the tape and, yup, decides to watch it.
Most horror movies wield an extra-yellow highlighter. This one simply drops the tape's eerie images in our lap. What Rachel sees is a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes: a shape backing away from a mirror, dead horses on a beach, a woman in Victorian clothing stepping off a cliff, a hand reaching out of a stone well.
It wouldn't be fair to go further. The film is set in Washington state and carries the same overcast spritz that Insomnia did earlier this year. Incidentally, along with that movie, it's the year's second decent Hollywood remake of a foreign film; that both are thrillers, rather than comedies or dramas, says something about how attuned directors can be to the primal nature of horror. It translates well. The ring of a phone or the faint static of a TV signal speaks volumes in The Ring.
The movie goes wrong when it tries to explain, when Rachel tries to connect the dots. The more the film explains, the less interesting it becomes. But you had to ask questions. Like, why does Rachel watch the tape if she heard it kills people? Because she's a reporter, and if she didn't the movie would be 15 minutes long. Why does she show the video to a second person?
Good question. But a better one is: How exactly does one stop an evil videotape? After falling apart toward the end, The Ring rights itself long enough to leave you with an ominous answer.
But then, nobody asked me how to stop it, and I have a great idea, one adapted from those convenience store owners who played classical music into their parking lots to discourage loitering teens.
Simply say: Hey kids, there's this lethal videotape and if you watch it you'll catch a mournful black and white Bunuel-esque treatise on the nature of death and dissolution and its relation to the female subconscious. My guess is the carnage would be limited to film critics.