A third review requested by Sara L, with thanks for contributing three times to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I expect that some of my loyal readers will be surprised to learn that it is only now, in the year 2016, that I've finally seen The Ring. There are reasons for this: in 2002, I wasn't in the habit of watching horror movies in the theater, and then as now I prefer to see the original versions of movies before I see their remake. Then, of course, the problem became that, having seen that original (or one of the originals, anyway: the history of the Ring franchise is a convoluted gnarl involving alternate sequels and four adaptations of the same book from three countries), I couldn't imagine what the point would be. The 1998 Ring, or Ringu, is neither unassailable nor the best Japanese horror film of its generation, but it's certainly good enough that there's no inherent reason to assume it could be improved upon; and anyway it seemed obvious enough what the American remake would change, and they were not changes I looked forward to (in fact, less changed then I anticipated, excepting the added emphasis given to the protagonist's creepy psychic son in the American film; a weird addition till one remembers that the giant hit The Sixth Sense was still a fresh memory). The whole routine - why remake something when you could just release the original version, in the era when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved that subtitled movies could still make blockbuster amounts of money in the U.S. box office, all that.

Anyway, I'm happy to report that the film shot right past my expectations, in all but one respect: I still don't quite see what the point was. This is a situation akin to the later Let the Right One In/Let Me In split: two films are basically alike, except that the English-language one is both a bit more slick and much less ambiguous, and I would suspect that most people would be inclined to prefer whichever one they saw first. It is, at any rate, almost as historically important as the original: where Ringu all but single-handedly kicked off the J-horror boom of the turn-of-the-millennium in its home country, The Ring is primarily the reason that J-horror style and technique became known to the mainstream of English-language filmmaking. Not without reason: it looks totally unlike any horror movie of any reasonable scale that had been produced in America in a very long time, maybe even ever. The notion of a slow, creeping dread facilitated by imagery that wasn't so much "scary" as it was conspicuously out of place - and in particular, the heart-stopping terror that could be derived from the sight of a little girl whose baleful eyes could barely be glimpsed through the long streaks of black hair covering her face - was also, if not exactly new, than certainly long-forgotten after 22 years during which "horror" in the American cinematic context had almost exclusively come to mean "slasher movies". This was, in fact, exactly the point at which that process started to undo itself, and Hollywood learned anew the great joy to be had from a solid ghost story.

Bits and pieces of The Ring have so thoroughly colonised pop culture that I hardly need mention the kernel of that ghost story: a haunted video tape full of strange imagery half-hidden by the technological degradation of the tape medium itself. Watch the video, if for whatever reason it should happen to cross your path, and you receive a phone call, with a young woman on the other end whispering simply "seven days". And seven days later, you die. Horribly. We see the end of this process in the film's opening scene, as Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and her friend Becca (Rachel Bella) swap stories about the haunted tape, at which point Katie kiddingly admits that she's actually seen it, with her boyfriend and another couple. When Katie heads to the kitchen, just before 10:00 PM, she starts to witness inexplicable happenings, and when she returns to her bedroom, a POV Something leaps at her and kills her stone dead.

Katie's aunt Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), an investigative journalist, has an obvious interest in the strange occurrence, especially after learning that Katie's three friends all died at the same time she did. She's able track the foursome back to a cabin in the woods, and while searching the grounds, she finds an unmarked videotape. Recalling Becca's testimony that Katie had mentioned watching a strange video, Rachel, naturally puts two and two together and decides to watch the tape herself (the footage is frankly overblown and silly compared to the equivalent in the Japanese film). The second that it's done, sure enough, the phone rings, and thus starts a seven-day timer until Rachel meets, presumably, the same fate as her niece. Deciding to be more proactive, Rachel reconnects with her ex, Noah (Martin Henderson), a video technician, in the process causing him to watch the tape, as well. And the fun really gets cooking when Rachel and Noah's son Aidan (David Dorfman), whom we've already seen demonstrating latent psychic abilities, watches the tape himself, giving Rachel even more motivation to figure out what's going on.

"What's going on" isn't really all that surprising, if you've ever encountered a ghost story, but screenwriter Ehren Kruger (much more closely adapting Takahashi Hiroshi's 1998 screenplay than Suzuki Koji's 1991 novel) and director Gore Verbinski do yeoman's work in making the basic material of uncovering the wrongful murder that led to a now-vengeful ghost feel as new as it was ever going to in the 21st Century. A lot of that is simple borrowing from the Japanese versions of the story: the technological angle, the heart and soul of modern J-horror, was of course brand new to English-speaking audiences in 2002, and it really is true that the idea of a ghost using mass media and modern communication technology as the vehicles for her haunting is something entirely worthy of the splash that The Ring made when it was new.

Where the film really thrives, though, is in the style that Verbinski used to bring the borrowed plot to life. The Ring is an unmitigated triumph of visual mood-setting: the whole thing is coated in a sickly greenish tinge that feels, if only because of chronological proximity, that it must have been influenced by The Matrix. But it very much becomes its own thing in the hands of Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. The film, shot mostly in Washington and Oregon, is gloomy enough just thanks to the oppressive overcast haze that comes into play during every daytime exterior. A huge part of any horror film making the sale is just a matter of finding the right atmosphere, and this is something The Ring excels at: there are few weather systems on God's green earth more perfectly-suited to engendering the feeling that all of life is being robbed of its vitality and replaced with damp grey depression than that of the Pacific Northwest, and not that many movies have ever seen fit to fully exploit that region for its atmospheric possibilities. Adding to that color correction which lightly implies a widespread, uncontainable toxicity that infects everything it touches is really just gilding the lily, but when something works this well, it would be churlish to speak against it.

Verbinski's savvy for directing slow-boil paranormal horror goes well beyond creating a sustained mood. The Ring is paced beautifully, moving as slow as a Hollywood genre film would ever dare, letting moments slowly clamber their way up the audience's spine with eerie gravity. And, counterintuitively, Verbinski goes so far as to slow the movie down as we learn more information and come closer to the climax; by the crucial late scene in which Rachel finds herself waste-deep in an almost pitch-black well, The Ring is barely moving at all, but just holding us there in the cold and dark and letting the terror soak in.

With all that in its favor, I can easily understand why so many people love The Ring so much; but I cannot join them. Part of it, again, is simply that I'd already seen Ringu, and it's hard to think as highly of The Ring's storytelling in comparison. There's a negative sweet spot that the American film falls into, as far as clarifying its mysteries: much too opaque to be absolutely coherent (this was a common thread of the negative criticism it received at the time of its release), but so much more coherent than the Japanese version that it can't tap into the same vein of the truly otherworldly and inexplicable that makes so much of J-horror so great. Like the great Italian horror of the '70s, Ringu and its followers gets a lot of mileage out of possessing the irrational confusion of a nightmare. The Ring explains enough that what it does leave unexplained feels more like an accident (and it does have its share of routine plot holes, the most glaring to me being that if Katie had experienced the same seven days that Rachel does, it's hard to believe she'd be that sanguine about having watched the video that close to the hour of her death).

The Ring also has a largely uninspiring human cast, or perhaps it's just that Aidan is such a misconceived character in this version that he makes he like everyone a bit less. It's not a very exciting showcase for Watts, in her first project after Mulholland Dr. made a star out of her. But at least she's got inherent screen presence and an ability to look suitably nerve-wracked. Martin Henderson is unspeakably bland in a role that needs some cocksure charisma: his inability to turn this film's enormous success into the springboard for some big parts in major films is completely unsurprising and not very disappointing, either. Daveigh Chase is excellent as the black-hearted ghost Samara, both as a menacing spectral presence and as the purely evil little girl seen on video tapes; but there's not all that much of her.

By no means does this make The Ring a bad movie: would that every American horror film were half as good at creating a protracted sense of creepiness. It would certainly be a fine thing if Verbinski decided to make another pure horror movie one of these days, too, since he proves here that he's an ace at creating an atmosphere that won't let up for even a minute. His Ring is a very strong movie in all the ways you need a horror movie to be strong. But it is a movie that could very obviously be better, and that's even without benefit of having the actual better version of the film fairly readily available in these latter days.