For his first re-view for the 10YA project, Drew Mackie chose Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of The Ring, a gamechanger in the world of American horror cinema whether you like it or not. You can read more of Drew’s musings at his pop culture site The Back of the Cereal Box.
Ten years ago, my roommate and I did something I wouldn’t expect college-aged guys do often: We watched a PG-13 horror movie, and we liked it. That night, I found myself in bed, telling myself, “Don’t think of the corpses. Don’t think of the corpses.” But I did. I thought of the corpses. Amber Tamblyn’s disfigured corpse haunted me in a way a horror movie hadn’t in years.
Since The Ring introduced moviegoers to Amber Tamblyn’s corpse on October 18, 2002, a steady flow of PG-13 horror flicks have followed. Maybe The Ring alone shouldn’t take the blame for them — M. Night Shyamalan’s movies certainly didn’t help — but a lot of them attempted to achieve what The Ring did: look slick, be scary enough without verging into R territory, and make money. The Ring has brought in $249 million to date, and that box office was enough to usher in a whole wave of Asian horror remakes. Just about all of them have featured ghostly dark hair, ghost-infiltrated technology and cyan lighting in one combination or another, and most of them have been pretty terrible. But have all the kiddie fright flicks and lame A-horror remakes lessened the greatness of The Ring?
Just a little bit, yeah.
I guess I’m alienating some people by calling The Ring great. I know a lot of people whom this film didn’t impress. I, however, loved it. The plot holds up about as well as I need a ghost story to, and the investigation by heroine Rachel (Naomi Watts) snaked around twists to keep me feeling surprised. (“Ahh. Samara makes everyone see a ring shape because that’s what she saw from the bottom of the well, looking up at the light shining through the rim of the closed lid. Clever girl!”) But beyond that, it’s a gorgeous movie to watch, with many scenes looking as picture-perfect as the Andrew Wyeth paintings that inspired them. (Check out the glum colors in “Christina’s World” and you’ll see connections to the film, especially the scenes set at the Morgan family horse farm.) In re-watching The Ring to write this review, I was also reminded of the care that Ehren Krueger’s script puts into creating incidental characters: During their investigation of the cursed video tape, Rachel and Noah (Martin Henderson) run into this large cast of bit players who each get a few well-crafted lines that hint at who they are beyond the scope of Rachel’s story. It’s a nice touch in a movie that’s ultimately about a world larger than what we’re seeing on screen, and for all we know, the cursed video tape will find its way into their lives too.
All that said, watching it in 2012 made me realize that elements I found novel back in 2002 have since been diluted. Lesser A-horror remakes such as Dark Water, The Grudge, Pulse and, worst of all, One Missed Call feature the aforementioned horror movie hair and haunted technology in a way that makes you realize that The Ring was just showcasing tropes that had become standard in the horror movies of various Asian cultures. Granted, The Ring was the first to do this for American audiences, and in adapting the film, director Gore Verbinski wisely cherrypicked what would work in an American film and what wouldn’t. (Towel Man does not make an appearance, for example.) To me and other Americans experiencing them for the first time in The Ring, these tropes seemed unlike anything else happening at the time, but someone who maybe saw the lesser films and then saw The Ring would probably walk away less impressed than I was. “Oh, ghost girl. Oh, water as a medium for the supernatural. Oh, old world superstition and new world means of communication. Yeah, I’ve seen that.” That’s what this hypothetical movie-goer would say.
And then there’s the 2005 sequel, The Ring Two. Even with the participation of horror faves like Sissy Spacek and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and even under the the guidance of Hideo Nakata — director of the original film, Ringu — this sequel just isn’t a good movie. In fact, unless you just pretend it doesn’t exist, it may do more to tarnish the original than unrelated dreck like One Missed Call.
The technology that’s most central to the story — a VHS tape — also drew me out of the film a little. In 2012, evil little Samara (Daveigh Chase) couldn’t unleash her evil in the way she did in 2002, simply the only people who have reason to use a VCR are hardcore film geeks. (And let’s face it: If a ghost started knocking us off one by one, would anyone notice right away?) That’s the problem with yoking a plot to the technology of the day. It immediately dates the film. Time will tell if horror fans twenty years from now will know what to make of The Ring: Will the further antiquated technology make the film less accessible? Or will VHS tapes seem strange and exotic and therefore even scarier?
I would hope that the passage of time does nothing to diminish Naomi Watts’s performance, however. If you’ll recall, The Ring was Watts’s first major project after her breakthrough performance in Mulholland Drive. She took that role to wonderfully strange places, and she demonstrated amazing range, so I felt hesitant about her follow-up being a PG-13 horror movie. And while the role of investigative reporter Rachel Keller isn’t exactly as tightly written, it’s great to watch Watts elevate the character beyond most other horror movie heroines. She’s multidimensional. Of particular note is Rachel’s unusual relationship with her son, Aidan (David Dorfman): He calls Rachel by her first name, and she initially seems too casual and immature to be a proper mother. When Aidan watches the tape, however, her reaction is fiercely maternal, and Watts sells the shift in character.
In favor of the film overcoming superficial datedness is the core of Samara’s evil plan. As Samara’s doomed father (Brian Cox) pointedly tells Rachel when she visits the Morgan family horse farm, reporters take a person’s tragic story and “spread it like sickness.” That’s exactly what Samara wants people to do: to pass on the video tape and let as many people as possible know her pain. In a way, the movie suggests the literalization of an urban legend in which people perceive something so disturbing that they can’t help but pass it on to somebody else. No matter how technology evolves (and what future ghosts may possess it), that won’t change.
– I can’t decide if Ring parodies have helped or hurt the movie’s rep. It’s a toss-up, probably, but one spoof stands out: “Body Fuzion,” one of the first Saturday Night Live Digital Shorts. In the original broadcast, the Drew Barrymore-led workout clip turned out to be the video Aidan is watching, the one that prompted Rachel’s horrified reaction. In re-broadcasts, the Ring endjoke has been stripped, but I’m sure this version still exists somewhere online.
– So who of this film’s cast has done the best career-wise? Watts’s career has cooled in recent years, but she’s playing Princess Diana in a buzzed-about upcoming film, and I feel most people still consider her a capable, reliable actress. The Ring also boasts a pre-O.C. Adam Brody as a spooked high schooler, but it’s maybe Pauley Perrette, who plays Noah’s college-aged fling, who’s come the farthest as far as mainstream popularity is concerned. No matter what anyone says, tons of people watch NCIS.
– In a class by herself: Daveigh Chase. She’s something, even independent of Samara. She voiced both Lilo in Lilo & Stitch and Chihiro in Spirited Away, and she played the non-Gyllenhaal Darko sibling in Donnie Darko — a role she reprised in the rather meh sequel. She also played the manipulative Rhonda Volmer on Big Love, but her most recent feat to date is her involvement with a messy custody battle over a dog… named Stitch. Like I said, a class by herself.
– Shannon Cochran played Samara’s mother, the one who bashed the little darling’s head in and dumped her in the well. She doesn’t have an extensive filmography, but she did play Pam Beasley’s mom in a 2005 episode of The Office before the role was recast. That puts Pam and Samara in the same category, at least in my head, and I think that is funny.
– Gore Verbinski directed three Pirates of the Caribbean movies as well as the Oscar-winining Rango. Ehren Krueger wrote two Transformers movies. I maintain that The Ring is the best film either has been attached to.
– The VHS tape isn’t the only antiquated technology in the film: landlines and non-flatscreen TVs abound. But this former newspaper editor had to cringe at the scenes of Rachel working in the bustling newsroom of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, because that’s perhaps the most glaring example of something that was plausible in 2002 but is no longer so today.
– Finally, if you’ve made it this far, you might be interested to read a personal intersection of my life and The Ring — the Amber Tamblyn corpse in particular. Enjoy!