November 22, 2008

RING (1998) - watch it, I dare you

(1998, Japan, IMDB: Ringu)

Much, much much much, has been written about Ring. But I still don’t meet many people who’ve actually seen it. To honour it’s tenth anniversary, I’m revisiting it. This is after reading the books it was based on, reading the manga it inspired, and seeing the many alternate versions of the story. (More about the Ring phenomenon here). How will a trip down the well stand the test of time?

Ten years on, there’s several Ring movies, lost in a sea of rip-offs in the Asian Cinema and Horror sections. No longer the one and only, the first J-horror film. Many have only seen the American remake. Why see the original?

People easily get drawn in by the premise – a cursed videotape that kills you seven days after you watch it. Sounding like a typical urban legend, this is enough to interest new viewers, as long as they read subtitles (this is where the potential audience branches between the Japanese and American versions). While the video curse is central to the story, it’s also rewardingly complex, and many strands of the plot offer room for discussion. It also presented a new monster and a new horror mythology that didn’t follow the cliches of western horror.

The opening sets up the curse without giving much away. Two teenage girls are at home, the parents are out. They’re talking about a story going round at school about a cursed videotape. One of them jokes that she’s seen it, and when she leaves the room, her friend gets a nasty scare. The scene has a mild pay-off but certainly kicks off the mystery. The unsettling atmosphere mainly generated by the deafening telephone. But the cosy modern setting in a typical home sets the mood. This is a horror film set in the here-and-now – you’re not even safe sitting around watching TV.

The story rapidly gets creepier as Reiko, a journalist, is researching a story about the cursed videotape at the school. She’s investigating the case of two students who were found in a car, both dead from natural causes. She then attends the funeral of her niece, only to discover that all three teenagers coincidentally died at the same time.

As she gets deeper into the mystery, Reiko discovers a weekend hideaway that the teenagers all went to, finds the cursed videotape and watches it. If the curse is to be believed, she only has one week to live. Everything about the case feels like a real threat. She teams up with her ex-husband, Ryuji, to try and beat the curse…

I enjoy every scene in the film, how the mystery is unveiled, how it constantly raises as many new questions as it answers. The curse worsens, getting increasingly more threatening as she gets in deeper. There are a few shock moments, but it’s not long before I start getting the creeps.

A sort of metal squealing sound signals that the curse is spreadind. The background music is tonal and unsettling, rather than musical. The camera only gives away glimpses of ghosts and shadows. Something is nearby, but we can’t see what. The camerawork is very still, always waiting for something bad to happen.

As Reiko watches the cursed videotape, we realise that we’re watching it too. The weird assembly of seemingly unrelated nightmare images, provide more clues for her and Ryuji. Leading them both to the distant Oshima Island, in search of a psychic who could predict volcanic eruptions.

The journey to the island helps reinforce the reality of their situation. Nothing in the whole film looks like a set. It all looks like it was shot on location. Similarly, the video and a key flashback scene really look as if they were really made forty years earlier. It all looks real.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I still can’t spoil it. But keep your eyes on that video - each time you see it, it changes a little. Brrrr.

Ring is a very, very tightly-constructed mystery, a classic ghost story with great hair-raising moments as well as jolts. A complete contrast from the gore we’re wading through at the moment. It’s a testament to the writer, producer and director, that the film improves on the book. The sequels would then feed off both this film and the other books to create several parallel stories riffing on the same themes. A videotape. A well. And a girl called Sadako.

Although influenced by the ghost stories and older horror movies of Japan, the image of a vengeful ghost, a woman in a floor-length white dress with long black hair covering her face, is now a new horror icon. But besides the way she looks, the way she moves is just as scary…

Of course, the first time I watched Ring was the best. Electrifying. Now, it’s still creepy but no longer full of surprises. But it is still very watchable - for the story, the atmosphere, the impeccable acting and meticulous directing. But apart from the centre-stage videotape, the film hasn’t dated at all. It’s a true classic, an essential film to help horror buffs make sense of half the horror films that have been made since, indeed most of the ones to come from the east.

Needless to say, after the worldwide success of the story, Hideo Nakata, the director of Ring has been busy ever since. His other horror stories include Dark Water, Death Note and most recently Kaidan. He directed the American sequel The Ring Two and is currectly lined up for The Ring Three, according to IMDB. His earlier movie ghost stories are interesting, but not scary - Don't Look Up (Ghost Actress) and Curse, Death & Spirit.

Presumably Nanako Matsushima, who played Reiko, wanted to distance herself from horror after this. Hiroyuki Sanada, who played Ryuji, has also kept a high profile rather than a low-budget horror one. He starred in the excellent drama The Twilight Samurai, and has appeared in US films The Last Samurai and Speed Racer.

Ring was initially released by Tartan in the UK with poorly legible subtitles from a weaving, scratched print. It's since been remastered in the UK, but only in a boxset of all three Japanese Ring films, plus Hideo Nakata's non-essential, non-horror, children's film Sleeping Bride. The film is singly available in the US as Ringu, and in a boxset with the two Japanese sequels as Ringu: Anthology of Terror.

I'm currently exploring all of the films in Ring mythology - the overview, and links to other Ring sites and reviews, is all here.


  1. Outstanding Review!!

    I am a huge fan of Ring!
    [I too have seen all of the Japanese films - though I have not seen any episodes of the televison series - and read the novels!]

    As for the American Re-make ~ I think that it is the only Re-make of a J-Horror film that has held its own!


  2. I think its interesting to note the difference in the approach to Sadako between Ringu and The Ring. The US remake went to a lot of trouble to "televisionise" (is that a word? It is now, I guess!) Sadako, yet the Japanese original was still more effective. No doubt the US special effects team spent a fortune making her look like that, and, while clever, it just looks like an "effect", rather than being as genuinely scary.

    For anyone who hasn't seen the original, go to your local video shop NOW and just buy it! You won't be sorry. As Mark says, it is actually scary; something all too rare these days. Films this creepy only come around about once a decade, and shouldn't be missed.