By the mid '70s, horror was widely celebrated as popular cinema's most intellectual genre. The political and psychoanalytical interpretations of critics and scholars did not seem terribly far removed from the explicit intentions of such modern masters as Wes Craven (Shocker, 1989), David Cronenberg (Shivers, 1975) and George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, 1968).
In the years since, horror movies seem to have become the exclusive province of fans who like to pick over stock plots, special effects and moments of gore, but precious little else. Their so-called appreciation often slides (Des Mangan style) into a form of superior, camp derision.
For those even slightly familiar with the vast, new world of horror-related zines and internet sites, the Japanese sensation Ring may well be very old news. This was the first film in a massively successful series which has quickly hit a low ebb with Ring 0 (2000).
But in the fan documentation devoted to the Ring phenomenon, you will not find much speculation as to what this splendid inaugural film is really about, or why it works so well.
Ring has a quiet simplicity that aligns it more with The Sixth Sense (1999) or the classics of Val Lewton (such as Cat People, 1942) than either the gross-out gore tradition or the post-Scream rash of horror parodies.
The story builds slowly in a ripple-effect that travels both forwards and backwards in time. In the present tense, reporter Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) investigates the strange deaths, on exactly the same day, of four teenagers.
These friends had all seen the broadcast that appeared in the snow of an unused television channel – a collection of disturbing, incomprehensible images and cryptic messages. According to a fast-spreading urban legend, anyone who sees this footage will immediately receive a phone call and, exactly a week later, die.
Reiko joins forces with her sullen and disbelieving ex-husband, Ryuki (Hiroyuki Sanada), in search of a forty year old story that involves a woman with mystical powers, her small daughter and a sinister doctor. Meanwhile, the footage keeps popping up on television sets, spreading its curse.
The film's manner, elegantly poised between humour and horror, is set out in its opening scene. Two schoolgirls tease each other with morbid tales about the deadly videotape. At the end of each tale, there is scary pause for reflection, and then a release into laughter. Then the phone begins ringing, and the scene becomes still more sinister.
Director Hideo Nakata plays on our nerves in a similar fashion throughout, alternating lyrical moments of calm and sudden explosions of intrigue. Whenever we might foolishly think that the plot has been settled, a simple but unnerving device – the appearance on screen of the day and date – reminds us of the inexorable terror ahead.
Ring is a film that only gradually unveils its true theme. At the curse's centre is the supernatural rage of a hurt child. This becomes a grand metaphor for the more mundane reality of broken homes and dysfunctional families.
Once we grasp this, we can see all the relationships in the film (especially that of Reiko and Ryuji) as manifestations of a syndrome that has disastrous effects on the young. Unsurprisingly, much of the story's anxiety concentrates itself around the couples little son, Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka).
In the '70s, critics often lamented the fact that there were few truly progressive horror movies, since the genre's ingrained habit of always conjuring a threat to normal society as something monstrous inevitably ended up affirming the status quo. Ring's remarkable climactic sequence confronts this convention head-on.
Much of the charm and effectiveness of Ring is due to its deliberately old-fashioned air. It cleverly refuses the latest cyber trends in techno-horror. Based on a bestselling novel from 1991 by Koji Suzuki, it gestures back further to disquieting cerebral horror films of the '80s including Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) and John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987).
The clearest sign of the film's knowing use of anachronism is its choice of technological vehicles to carry the dreaded curse: not computers or DVDs but humble telephones, televisions and VCRs. This note of everydayness enhances the all-pervasive atmosphere of uncanniness.
Another sign of the film's debt to '80s horror is its ingenious blending of reality and fantasy. The borders between these two realms become more fluid as the story proceeds and certain events and apparitions are extremely ambiguous, adding to the mystery, poetry and terror of proceedings.
Ring delicately leads viewers to their own hallucinations: eventually we may come to imagine those videotape images as unfolding in their own parallel universe. This is a dream worthy of the best Surrealist art – as well as a perfect way to trigger the sequel, The Ring Two (1999).
Hollywood remake: The Ring
© Adrian Martin September 2001