Like The Shining, Carrie and The Exorcist before it, Ring has entered the pantheon of truly great horror movies simply by executing a scene so accomplished and powerful that the rest of the film feels like a wonderful and terrifying prelude. The scene is the now legendary TV-set scene that left us forever terrified of girls with long black hair, but we should not forget that the rest of the film is a masterfully constructed piece of suspense horror that is based less around making us jump out of our seats and rather on sucking us into a terrifying and macabre mystery that keeps us hooked all the way through. It is easy to wax lyrical about Hideo Nakata’s 1998 classic, but what exactly is it that made the film such a classic? This film has spawned a prequel, a sequel, a Korean and American remake, a sequel to the aforementioned American remake, a short TV series…and this is not counting Spiral, the official literary sequel to the Ring. Koji Suzuki, the author, cannot have possibly imagined the cultural impact of his effective chiller. The fact is that the film beautifully fillets the slightly over-complicated ‘virus’ theory of the book and instead retains the supernatural elements that are wisely left unexplained; the film gets a beautiful sense of mystery and terror that unfolds, managing to keep the film scary even during long scenes of exposition. The cinematography of the film is also quite striking, a bleak and almost colourless tone that Gore Verbinski borrowed almost wholesale for his remake of The Ring (not that this is a bad thing). It is refreshing to see a world that isn’t presented in rather over-romantic or feudal tones, as in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and The Last Samurai. The film is expertly controlled by Nakata, whose solid and fast-paced direction gives the film an energy that it could have so easily lacked. Nakata’s world is almost disturbingly normal; what we see is a modern Japan with the same concerns and fears that we have. Intrusive press officials, motel owners, teenagers…it has a Japanese lilt to it, but if it were not for the distinctive architecture we could almost be anywhere in the world. In this world, we see Reiko Asakawa, a single mother and journalist who becomes fascinated with a folk-lore story about a videotape that is supposedly cursed, and kills whoever watches it within the week. Once she locates the tape at the motel where all of the dead teenagers stayed for a holiday, the film picks up its pace.
She has a week, and we know it. There is simply no room for the possibility of it being ‘wrong’; the film is kept powerful and lean because there are no scenes where shrieking supporting cast members scream ‘I don’t believe it!’ as basically the entire cast of Final Destination does. Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji Takayama, are very much aware they are living on borrowed time – because they believe it with such conviction, we believe it too. Every piece of evidence and exposition is true because they believe it, and there is no falsity in the film. There is no need for doubt in the film. This isn’t a murder mystery with red herrings and dud clues; it’s a mightily effective horror machine. The videotape leads our desperate heroes – both surprisingly sympathetic – to the disturbing past of a psychic woman and her daughter, Sadako whose psychic power led her to an unimaginably macabre fate. The flashback sequences, although explained in a slightly fudged way by having Reiko experience a bizarre psychic ‘flash of memory’, are in stark black and white and are so chilling that often these scenes are more effective than those set in the present day.
Sadako’s fate, an ugly death at the bottom of a well, serves as the penultimate ending; it could be the end, but Nakata is not prepared to let us off so easily. It is perhaps somewhat amusing that Nakata knows that the simple reburial of a troubled soul’s remains will not suddenly stop everything; revenge, as the film shows, knows no bounds. This sets us up for the simply nerve-jangling scene in which Ryuji watches in disbelief as…gah, no, I can’t say it. You have to watch. The final scene leaves us with a satisfying note of doubt; Reiko has saved her life, but she still has to save her son. And that means a horrible sacrifice in his name.
So, what is the ring? The simplified explanation in the remake is that the ‘ring’ is the last thing you see before you die, but the Japanese explanation is far more chilling; the only way to save yourself is put another in jeopardy, and they have to do exactly the same thing to someone else. It is an eternal loop; a ‘ring’ that keeps on growing. Perhaps it is this, combined with some iconic moments and the scariest child in film history that has made Ring what it is. Perhaps it is simply that the film never lets us feel safe; as I have already stated, revenge knows no bounds. Not even death can hold it.