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The Ring   B

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gore Verbinski
Writer: Ehren Kruger
Cast: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox, David Dorfman, Lindsay Frost, Amber Tamblyn.

Review by Rob Vaux

Even with the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hollywood refuses to believe that foreign films can sell in the States. Heaven forbid a multiplex crowd should actually have to read subtitles, or look at actors they can't instantly recognize. So instead of presenting us with the terrific (and often very accessible) originals, they reprocess them, slap an American cast on them, and try to present them as "just like the foreign one, only better!" In the process, they often lose whatever made them so special in the first place, and even grade-A remakes, like this summer's Insomnia, sometimes feel like faded copies. All because someone decided that the audience doesn't want to hear French.

Case in point: The Ring, a big-budget retread of Japan's phenomenally popular horror film Ringu (which was itself based on a Kôji Suzuki novel). The first film was a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere, a deeply unsettling ghost story as terrifying -- and as easy to absorb -- as anything Hollywood ever produced. Yet it remains largely unseen in the U.S., a cult film available only through special order or in the rare video store catering to the art-house crowd. Presumably, the producers of the remake want to change all that, so they regurgitated the film in a friendlier format, hoping to cash in on the hard work of their colleagues overseas.

Luckily, they also approach the project with understanding and respect, keying into the elements that made the original so strong. The Ring succeeds in reproducing its predecessor's structure and tone, delivering a solid if less accomplished variation of the same creepy horror show. Director Gore Verbinski establishes a nice, moody setting, making a few quiet nods towards The Shining and concentrating on the overall theme rather than sudden jolts or roller-coaster thrills. The story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, painting the film in a stark natural beauty that matches the drama well.

The premise is gimmicky, but has real bite. It centers on an urban legend -- a videotape full of terrifying images that heralds the death of anyone who views it. The tape comes to the attention of crusading journalist and single mom Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), who hears about it following the sudden death of her teenage niece. Investigating further, she learns that a party of the girl's friends found the video in a woodside cabin, and that they all died exactly one week after screening it. The cabin itself holds nothing out of the ordinary. But the caretaker still has the tape that the departed teenagers left behind.

As the film progresses, all the standard horror clichés crop up -- dead teenagers, disturbing children (Rachel's son, played by David Dorfman, looks like a miniature Peter Lorre), spooked animals, and mysteries that are better left alone. But they're all trappings, throwaway flashes used to build the mood rather than serving as an end unto themselves. Verbinski's previous work hasn't been impressive, but he shows strong instincts here, leaving the right events unexplained and letting our minds fill in the details. He increases the tension slowly, punctuating it with a few moments of intensity, but never permitting cheap scares to overwhelm the larger picture. He also sorts out the more far-fetched plot twists of the Japanese original, one of the few times The Ring actually surpasses its predecessor.

Indeed, taken by itself, the film has much to recommend it. It continues the encouraging trend away from Scream-style jokiness, maintains a high level of professionalism (the film's technical aspects are quite impressive), and never takes its audience for granted. But despite that -- and despite the yeoman efforts of everyone involved -- it can't help but feel a little hollow. So much of The Ring depends upon the standard set by the original that it hardly has the energy to function on its own. The most notable failure occurs early on, when it all but abandons one of Ringu's best conceits: having found such a tape and suspecting but not knowing what it contains, could you just let it be? Or would you be compelled to view it -- to look the Gorgon in the face regardless of the consequences? The Ring unwisely dismisses the question, letting the heroine jump right into the action before she's fully aware of the implications. It's a missed opportunity that, thankfully, does not repeat itself, but the stumble illustrates just how much hangs on the earlier film. Could The Ring have accomplished so much without Ringu to show it the way? Probably not, and that lingering doubt hangs like an albatross around an otherwise admirable effort. Turning a great movie into a pretty good one is still a step in the wrong direction... and The Ring will never be more than a pretty good movie.

Review published 10.18.2002.

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