Sunday, July 24, 2016

Off Script: The Ring

Films: The Ring
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

In the 2000s, particularly in 2008, there was a spate of American remakes of Japanese horror films. Arguably this trend started with 2002’s The Ring, a remake of Ringu from 1998. A lot of these remakes (see One Missed Call or Pulse) have gotten nothing but a critical panning and ended up giving this trend a deservedly bad name. The Ring is different, though. It sticks to the original story well, maintains a solid air of mystery throughout its running time, and packs in a few quality scares. I don’t like the insta-remake trend more than anyone else seems to, but when the results are this good, it’s hard to object.

I do like the original version better, but not a lot better. I’m just enough of a purist to think that a remake has to be significantly better than the remake for me to think it was worth making. The benefit of The Ring for an American audience is that it’s simply more accessible than the Japanese version for an American audience. The benefit of this version is that anyone who isn’t willing to watch a film with subtitles will be able to get a very good, very accurate version of a damn good horror story.

Like most horror movies, we start with a good scare. A couple of high school girls are bored watching television and begin talking. Katie (Amber Tamblyn) tells her friend Becca (Rachael Bella) about a videotape that kills the viewer seven days after the viewing. Through the conversation, we learn that Katie saw the tape with her boyfriend and another couple seven days previously. Since this is a horror film, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the opening sequence finds Katie dead of unknown causes.

What follows is the investigation into Katie’s death by her aunt Rachel (Naomi Watts), who works for a newspaper. Rachel’s son Aiden (David Dorfman) was close with his cousin, but apparently drew pictures of his cousin dead and buried in the week before Katie’s death. According to Aiden, Katie knew she was going to die. A little digging from Rachel turns up the fact that three other teens from the area died on the same day and at the same time as Katie—the three teens who watched the tape with her. Rachel develops the film in her niece’s camera and discovers that some of the pictures of the teens show their faces distorted and warped.

Her investigation leads her to the place where her niece saw the tape, which leads to Rachel seeing the tape as well. What follows is a race against time, since once the tape is viewed, the viewer has only a week. Rachel enlists Noah (Martin Henderson), Aiden’s father, on the quest as well since he has expertise in video and the technology used. Slowly, Rachel begins to piece together the mystery of the tape and the lives of the people who are shown in quick glimpses on it. One of the constant images is the titular ring, a black circle surrounded by a circle of light.

The Ring starts from a strong place, the original movie from about half a decade previous. It then makes the incredibly intelligent move of pretty much only changing the language that the story is told in. It sticks very close to the original story, which is a smart move; the original movie is damn good. It also reveals the answers to the mystery throughout the film, taking us down a few rabbit holes and wrong paths. As the audience, we’re always sure we know where we’re going. Every time we seem to veer off that path, it comes as a surprise, but one that works. None of the twists are cheats. They all work in the narrative, and if you know the end of the story, you can see exactly how they work.

Another good thing here is just how much The Ring depends on atmosphere to work. There are a couple of moments that might possibly qualify as gross, and these are less than a second long in each case, and aren’t splattery or gruesome in any way. The film works almost entirely on the idea of creating a sense of paranoia and dread in the audience. When it’s done well, that’s the most effective kind of horror, and it’s done very well here. So much of this works at all because we’re as much interested in the mystery as we are in anything else. The horror creeps in at the edges of this. It may be the primary reason for the film, but it rarely comes across as the primary mover in the story itself.

I still don’t like the trend of remaking foreign movies a couple of years later. The originals should have a little time to breathe before someone comes in and does the exact same thing, since the remake is almost never as good as the original and often a great deal worse. We didn’t need an American remake of the British Death at a Funeral, and we probably didn’t really need an American remake of Ringu. But when it’s done well, it’s done well, and The Ring is done very well.

Why to watch The Ring: As good a too-quick remake as you’ll find.
Why not to watch: The original is still better.