Part urban legend. Part psychological thriller. Part monstrous horror. These are the elements of The Ring, an American remake of the disturbing Ringu trilogy from Japan. Often disquieting, always haunting, and ultimately horrific, it is one of the few films that approaches The Exorcist in its ability to terrify.
After the gruesome and inexplicable death of her niece, journalist Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) links the event to a mysterious videotape that is the centerpiece of a local urban legend: anyone who watches the tape immediately gets a phone call foretelling their demise, and in exactly seven days, they die. Skeptical, Rachel watches the video, a virtual flood of bizarre images. Though she is eager to dismiss it as an elaborate hoax, her belief in the video's curse grows as she begins to experience hallucinations and unnerving phenomenon, like her face constantly being distorted in photographs. As the end of her seven days fast approaches, Rachel must discover the dark secret of the curse or suffer her niece's fate. Her race against the clock intensifies when her young son also views the tape. But Rachel's uncovering of the mystery leads to an unimaginably horrific revelation...
Essentially an updated version of the urban legend regarding chain letters, The Ring deftly balances the technological (VCRs, televisions, video dubbing) with the supernatural (restless spirits, curses, psychic phenomenon) to produce a story that is scary even though it takes place in a decidedly modern setting--a notable feat, considering how many horror films dilute their fear factor by delving too much into the scientific realm.
The Ring's weaving of a beautifully twisted tale full of tragedy, insanity, and dread puts it far above the standard slasher flicks of Hollywood. The film is crawling with a palpable, uneasy atmosphere from the very beginning. The relentless countdown of seven days that persists throughout the story adds a constant psychological pressure, while the blue-ish filter through which many of the scenes are shot effects a muted, other-worldly mood. But most accomplished of all is the shocking and horrific final act--just as it looks like the end has been reached, the nightmare starts up again with a vicious intensity, as if the movie has consciously regrouped for a magnified assault on your senses. It is an attack so violent that you can feel the horror as it unfolds on the screen, resulting in a remarkable paranormal film that leaves the viewer haunted. Had it ended ten minutes earlier, The Ring would have merely been "very good"--but with its sudden and drastic final twist, it is catapulted into the league of horror classics.
Naomi Watts makes a great leading lady and brings an excellent presence to the film. Her character reacts to the unreal events around her in an intelligent and believable manner, a critical element to the movie's credibility. She's smart, strong-willed, and incredibly sexy--a brief scene in which she hunts for her dress while her son waits earns her the honorary "Mom Bomb" award (of course, it's not quite like her mind-blowing, full-on lesbian lovefest in Mulholland Drive, but I digress).
As with other great horror/thrillers, children are an important factor in The Ring. In this case, two of them conspire to creep us out: David Dorfman as Rachel's son Aidan, who perceives odd things in Sixth Sense fashion; and Daveigh Chase, who embodies what the Children of the Corn should have been. Horses and their reaction to the unseen are also recurring themes, and a scene in which one noble equine drowns itself is both original and unsettling. And then there's "the ring" itself, which functions on two levels: the physical (think about what must be happening to you when you look up at it) and the symbolic (the notion of a never-ending chain).
The movie's biggest flaw is how perfectly the pieces of Rachel's investigation come together. While it's granted that she is smart and resourceful, some of the breaks she gets are simply too ideal to swallow. For example, after catching an image of a lighthouse on the videotape, she browses through a stack of books at the library and almost immediately discovers the same lighthouse in the reference material. Her quest for the truth progresses without a single major hitch, and the smooth transition from point to point adds a very scripted feel to the story. There are also too many flashbacks that unnecessarily remind inattentive audiences about what was already said or shown. And while I'm in complaint mode, I might as well throw in the fact that sound could have been used to greater effect (witness its power in The Exorcist).
Still, the problems of The Ring don't particularly detract it from being one hell of a scary movie. For those who like to be freaked out even after the final credits have rolled, this is one frightening trip that is not to be missed.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)