Reel Time Machine is a Substream column in which we will reflect on films during their anniversaries. Do they still hold up the test of time? Are they better than we remember? Sit back and take a journey with us as we figure it out.
A funny story really quick. I went to see the 2002 remake of The Ring with a couple of friends at a local movie theater in New Jersey. On that night, the power went out in the entire theater. Imagine going back to your car in a pitch-black parking lot. But thankfully, they got the power back, and we were able to watch the movie. Getting home that night, when I turned the TV on in my room, it was completely static. Luckily, an entity did not crawl out of it — hence, I would not be writing this if so.
2002 was a time in American horror where you had films like 28 Days Later, Cabin Fever, Queen of the Dammed, and Halloween: Resurrection as your big releases. Around the same time, classic Japanese stories like Dark Water and Ju-on: The Grudge were released. Who would have known that both worlds would collide with Gore Verbinski’s version of 1998’s Ringu, directed by Hideo Nakata, which was based on an adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel. The Ring‘s success led to an avalanche of J-Horror adaptations in the United States — The Grudge, Shutter, The Eye, One Missed Call, and Pulse are a few that come to mind. However, The Ring captured a progressive sense of dread and uneasiness that some other adaptations may have lost.
One of the first things you notice in Verbinski’s Ring is the saturation of blue and green. The story is set in Seattle, it’s extremely rainy, and the tones used by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli provide a constant sense of melancholy. Then there’s the opening scene, which sets the stage for the relentless curse. Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella) talk about an urban legend of a videotape that if you watch it, you’ll die in seven days. Katie hints she may have seen it during a weekend trip with the guy she likes, but plays it off. Verbinski uses various fake-outs while alluding to what’s to come.
The audience doesn’t see Katie die — it’s just a quick barrage of images and a high-pitched squeal. But seeing a quick shot of the aftermath in the closet is what gets you. Ehren Kruger’s story is written for you to constantly feel the pressure of time running out while uncovering the mystery around two families. Rachel (Naomi Watts) is a reporter with a son named Aiden (David Dorfman), who can easily take care of himself and calls her by her first name. With the death of his cousin Katie, Aiden had drawn these macabre images of her death a week before. Katie tells him about the essence of the curse, which leads Rachel down this rabbit hole to find out what happened.
What works in The Ring is that the story is very much self-contained. In the subsequent sequels, they’ve tried to broaden the story. Given how fast things go viral due to social media, a single VHS tape seems obsolete. But when you witness the disturbing images for the first time, there’s a curiosity to find out how they got there in the first place. The film chronicles how many days Rachel has left, and the anxiety is only heightened when her ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson) and Aiden also watch the tape. There’s an emotional distance all three characters have with one another in some form that gets tightened because of this burden.
Then we come to the character of Samara Morgan (Daveigh Chase), who has left a path of emotional destruction even years after she’s died. However, The Ring plays with perspective to trick you into having sympathy for her. Yes, Samara contained psychic powers that drove her adopted mother crazy and the horses in the barn — but the story lends itself to the trope of a vengeful soul needing to be set free. You almost breathe a sigh of relief when Rachel and Noah uncover the mystery.
However, The Ring has a couple more tricks up its sleeve because some people are just outright evil. A doctor talks to Samara about wanting to hurt people: she replies, “but I do, and I’m sorry. It won’t stop.” Those words set up the sequence with her ghost crawling out of the television the audience didn’t get to see with Katie — a clever payoff still eerie to this day. Some plot holes are present. However, the film is quite confident in carrying the mood it establishes. It doesn’t elect to pile on gore — a contrast years later when we get into the Saw and Hostel era of horror.
Other J-horror adaptations elected to dive fully into the folklore without first setting the table for it. The Ring stays a notch above that because it slowly assimilates the horror of it all, piece by piece. It elects to add twists to enhance the original story and not weigh it down with conventional tropes.