Thursday, October 09, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 8 - Ring

#9 (Tie) - 5 Votes

While looking up information for this post, I was reminded that Hideo Nakata's Ring (referred Ringu in the U.S. to avoid confusion with the remake) was never given a proper theatrical release, only appearing on DVD as a tie-in with Gore Verbinski's version five years after its release in Japan. Nakata's film was a big hit there, but over here it initially had the same fate as many other notable Asian movies then and now, its reputation growing thanks to festival screenings and, mostly, people passing around import and bootleg copies of the movie. This was a fitting means of distribution for a horror movie that is so much about the technology and media at the particular moment in time that it was made. The central conceit of a haunted tape that curses anyone who sees it could only have made sense at a time when the beginnings of social networking created a greater opportunity to share obscure or offbeat movies and other media but, in the absence of YouTube and BitTorrent, people still relied on physical media to do so (only a few years later, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse used webcams as a paranormal plot device). When someone inevitably reboots The Ring, they'd be wise to make it a period piece; unfortunately, it seems a lot more likely that we'll get a movie with a pun-y tagline about "going viral."

But while the movie's VHS-centric plot and hallucinatory images have led some to compare it to Videodrome, Nakata isn't as interested in the technology itself as Cronenberg. The author of the Ring novels, Koji Suzuki, has cited Poltergeist as an influence; as in that movie, where paranormal activity was the result of a then-modern real estate development being built over a cemetery, Ring uses TV as a means for the past to communicate with the present. While my knowledge of Japanese cinema isn't comprehensive enough to make any sweeping claims about what a film is or isn't saying about the culture, in every Japanese ghost story I've seen, the ghosts are mainly a reminder of the past intruding on the modern. In the case of Ring, the malevolent ghost Sadako exists to remind, as ghost stories in every culture often do, of past sins that refuse to be forgotten.

Sadako's backstory is the least interesting part of the original or the remake, and the U.S. version's makers smartly trimmed it down, as the investigation slows down the middle third of Nakata's film with flashbacks and exposition. The terrific ending more than makes up for it, though, and comparing how each films handles Sadako's (or Samara's) appearance is a great illustration of differing approaches to horror. In Verbinski's version, Samara's trip through the TV screen is heavily aided by visual effects, and she's given a monster-movie makeover by Rick Baker. It's still very effective, but in Nakata's film, the scene is comparatively still, and more terrifying for its stillness. The visual effects that transition Sadako into the real world aren't as slick, but it doesn't matter; the emphasis is entirely on the uncanny effect of this being who absolutely should not be in the room occupying very real space. The lighting is shadowy, but not to the point of horror movie expressionism; the setting is ordinary, which makes Sadako's appearance seem all the more unnatural. In The Ring, it's a great jump-out-of-your-seat "Boo!" moment, but Ring's subtler approach gets under our skin. They both work, but it's Nakata's ghost that lingers uncomfortably in our memories.

What critics said at the time:

"The images, it transpires, are images from the mind of a psychic with a nifty line in high-tec hexes. Nicely shot, and with an intriguing premise, this gets throttled by its over complexity, duff plotting and a distinct lack of actual action. Part of a trilogy by popular horror author Koji Suzuki, apparently." - Adam Smith, Empire

 "Director Hideo Nakata manages to strike a genuinely alarming balance between the cultural depths of Japanese folklore and the surface sheen of latter-day teen culture. With its video curses, late-night television links and matter-of-life-or-death phone calls, Ring has more than enough techno-friendly trappings to ensnare the average channel surfer. But lurking at the bottom of its well of intrigue is a timeless terror more attuned to the mature sensibilities of an adult audience. And it is this unique combination of old folk devils and contemporary moral panics which gives Ring such a nerve-rattling edge." - Mark Kermode, Sight & Sound


christopher fujino said...

Do you mean never received a proper US theatrical release? In Japan it was certainly theatrically released, and became the country's all-time highest grossing horror film.

Andrew Bemis said...

Yes. As I note, it was a big hit in Japan.