I think the people can speak for me about The Ring. I watched this movie in a packed theater in Los Angeles with that perfect audience of screaming girls and people murmuring after every scary scene. This flick is a bona fide Saturday night chill-fest, the kind that tries to creep you out by getting under your skin. There are some jump-moments here, but much of the fright comes simply from exploration of dark places. Although not a particularly deep movie, The Ring is calculated to entertain, and it does its job with more dignity than the majority of horror fare released these days.
BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD.What follows includes full discussion of The Ring and the original Japanese movie, with references to their common ending.
The Ring is a re-make of Ringu, a 1998 Japanese horror film by Hideo Nakata. This Japanese version won over a large cult following and is based on a novel which also inspired a manga, a Japanese tv show, an alternate Japanese movie version, and two sequels to Nakata's version. The main story is essentially an involving piece of fiction about a little girl with deadly psychic powers who was killed unjustly and now wreaks havoc from beyond the grave. The hook? Good ol' urban legend stuff -- if you watch a certain videotape containing mysterious images connected to her life, you will die in seven days. In Nakata's movie, the heroine foolishly watches the tape but somehow finds a solution that avoids the death sentence.
The fun thing about Nakata's movie was how inconsequential it actually was. As it turns out, the movie is about discovering you're stuck in a chain-letter trap by watching the tape (such as, "if you get this letter, you have to make a copy of it and send it to someone else or else you'll have bad luck"). The entire film involves its heroine attempting to solve the mystery -- the back-story of the little girl -- in the hopes that it will reveal an escape from certain death. That story is fun but it's mostly filler, for a happy accident -- not her ghost-chasing -- produces her solution. The whole length of the movie emerges as just one big set-up for a fantastic punchline -- a payoff scene that occurs after you think the movie is over and everyone is safe. It's one of the coolest scenes in all movies: a tv turns on, a well appears on it, and the little girl, whose face is obscured by long black hair, crawls out of it, then crawls out of the tv! Her very walk -- a sort of slow, shifty, pigeon-toed approach -- is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies.
Admirably, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter Ehren Kruger kept this construct in their attempt to strike gold with American audiences as well. The outer shell of The Ring is exactly the same as that of Ringu -- short intro scene, long middle section, payoff scene. There are relatively minor differences in atmosphere and style -- the Hollywood version uses more special effects and lens filtering. The major differences are in the little girl's back-story and the middle portion's pacing dynamics.
Ringu's inner story involves a woman with ESP, a scientist who wants to study her powers, and a daughter, named Sadako, who can will people to death. Kruger throws all that out and makes the new story about a couple who try desperately to have a child despite failing multiple times. They finally have Samara (Daveigh Chase), but her presence seems to curse those around her. Kruger and Verbinski made sure to retain the mystery's most important element -- the look of the little girl. In both versions, she is dressed in a sleeping gown and has long black hair that covers her face. Also, because the history of the girl is now different, the scenes on the deadly tape are different too (although Verbinski's movie does keep the images of the mother combing her hair in the mirror found in Nakata's version).
It's interesting to note that they tinkered with the extra-sensory abilities of the main characters as well. In Ringu, the heroine, her ex-husband, and their son possess limited psychic abilities; in The Ring, the heroine (Naomi Watts), her ex-husband (Martin Henderson), and their son (David Dorfman) just have visions sent to them by Samara. As far as the outer construct of the movie goes, these changes aren't that important, but they do show creativity on the part of the filmmakers.
Where the new movie and the old movie part ways the strongest is in how each one handles that long middle section. Ringu is an example of classic spooky storytelling. Its middle -- which mostly consists of clue-gathering, lead-following, and little else -- is one long long set-up to a great "boo!" moment. The Ring thinks it can't afford to do that with the more impatient American audience. Therefore, to keep viewers minds from wandering, it throws in plenty of frightful scenes along the way -- a freaky dream sequence, an encounter with a horse on a ferry, a confrontation in an old man's house. Unfortunately, this doesn't allow the creepiness to gather and fester. Ringu handled this well and even used the build-up to create a suspenseful fake-climax scene where the heroine and her ex-husband try to empty water from a deep well before the sun sets. It was more effective than the corresponding scene in The Ring, where silly supernatural forces just knock the heroine in the well.
Ringu also prepares the viewer for the payoff scene better by never letting its audience see much of Sadako. Her scenes are mostly confined to two flashbacks and her final appearance. In all those scenes, we can never see her face, and, in the payoff, we only get to see her really scary eye. The Ring seems to want its audience to have more sympathy for the little girl; hence, we get to see Samara's rather sweet face clearly for at least a couple of times before her final scene. We also hear her speak a lot, unlike the silent Sadako. When all this is put together, The Ring's payoff scene ends up being less effective than it was in Ringu. It becomes simply the last in a line of scary moments, instead of being the one scene that haunts you afterwards.
Or am I wrong? Perhaps I couldn't feel the full impact of the payoff scene because I already knew it was coming. Those screaming girls in the theater, however, did not, and as Samara crawled out of the tv and walked toward her last victim, they screamed and screamed and screamed. I smiled. This is what a fun horror movie is all about -- cool set-ups and great scenes. Johnny Depp getting swallowed by a bed; Linda Blair's head doing a 360; a girl thrashing in the water before being pulled down by a shark; "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" -- these are examples of memorable horror-flick moments. Will Samara's frightening emergence from the television screen also stand the test of time and join their ranks?
(Edited version of review posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.)
Released by DreamWorks Pictures and rated "PG-13" for thematic elements, disturbing images, language, and some drug references.