For the record, I don't believe in ghosts or paranormal phenomena; not one teeny iota. But even a die-hard skeptic can enjoy a good ghost story if it is precisely that: a good ghost story. Sadly, there are relatively few of these in cinema, but The Ring, I'm happy to say, is a worthwhile exception.
The Ring has a mixed pedigree of sorts, being an American remake of a Japanese film of the same name which was itself largely pillaged from American supernatural horror films of the past generation (The Changeling, Ghost Story, and Poltergeist come primarily to mind). Inventing an urban legend about a cursed videotape that kills viewers within a week, the film feels fresh after so many years of slasher horror involving libidinous teens. Indeed, after the opening sequence involving two schoolgirls sitting around home in their schoolgirl outfits for no discernable reason, the story moves on to deal with mostly adult characters. One can almost feel the baton being passed, as the teenaged characters hand the genre back to the adults; all I can say is, it's about time.
Rachael (Naomi Watts), an investigative reporter and single mom, hears of the "cursed video" myth following a death in the family, and finds troubling corroborating evidence for the story: her dead niece's friends, who all allegedly saw the video in question while on a private getaway at a mountain cabin, also all died on the same night. She quickly finds the tape itself, containing bizarre and oft-unpleasant images, and receives the whispered proclamation of "seven days" in a little girl's voice that phones immediately afterwards. As she begins to find herself haunted by the images she's seen, she begins poring over the tape in an attempt to discover where it came from and what it means, a mission given redoubled urgency when her forthright and precocious son Aiden watches the tape himself and sets his own countdown clock ticking off the days.
Watts is a charismatic actress, and the strength of her performance carries the film for most of its running time. Rather than constantly trying to throw shocks at the audience, The Ring plays more like a detective story than a horror flick for the most part. The film also, in a sadly rare move, bothers to spend time with character development; tension, after all, fails to build if one has no vested interest in seeing the protagonists survive. Rachael and Aiden form an odd pair, both fiercely independent, both missing Aidan's father and refusing to admit it. Aidan calls his mother by her first name, a behavior which seems a sign of impersonal disconnect until one realizes that only arbitrary cultural custom dictates that it should seem so. His teacher thinks he's hiding a deep sense of hurt over his cousin's death. Perhaps he is. He repeatedly draws somewhat morbid pictures of his cousin lying beneath the ground. Though unable to explain why he apparently began this habit days before her death, Rachael tries to keep a level head about it. Children do all sorts of things to express what they feel, she says reassuringly. How right she is, and she's yet to learn just how much so.
Director Gore Verbinski gives us a beautifully shot film, washed from beginning to end in a pale sea-green. While unmistakably modern in style, it's a welcome return to the classier horror films of the past, more interested in teasing out suspense than with building an impressive body count. The flip side to that is that while the film is moody and eerie, it's very rarely actually scary. It's saturated with forboding, but rarely is one likely to jump in one's seat. This, I suppose, is the trade-off for making a film with classier aspirations, but it's a trade-off I'll take.
Stories of angry ghosts generally have exactly one possible cause behind them, and that holds true here, as well, but this film succeeds by making the journey to that conclusion an enigmatic, winding trail of clues and portents that only becomes clear at the very last. At the end, one feels as though they understand what has happened, but The Ring wisely refuses to give up all of its secrets; with supernatural phenomena being patantly illogical to begin with, one shouldn't come away thinking all was too neat and tidy. I personally feel it was an odd and perhaps ill-advised choice to finally reveal the specter's face after hiding it for the duration, as there seems to have been nothing to really hide, but for the most part the film is a fun, spooky ride down the paths of human guilt and fear: the irrational fears of children, and parents' fears of parenthood and their childrens' irrationality and alienness. Those aren't fun in real life, of course, but at least in film we can look at them through a distorted lens and feel better about our own, smaller issues.
-review by Matt Murray