Damn The Ring for forcing me once again to confront that most annoying of critical battles: the gut vs. the brain.
Genuinely unnerving horror films are so rare that it’s tempting to cut The Ring a whole lot of slack. For much of its running time, it’s an effectively creepy supernatural mystery, stylishly filmed and solidly acted. But by the time the credits roll and you’ve extricated your fingernails from the armrests, it may become irritatingly evident that the film’s crucial revelations are completely ridiculous. We’re not just talking a strain to credulity—we’re talking absolutely, irrefutably ridiculous. A film that should leave you shaking on the drive home instead leaves you shaking your head.
Before that disappointment comes the kicker of a premise: Somewhere out there is a videotape of nightmarish images—beginning with a white ring on a black field—that ultimately leaves all those who view it dead seven days later. That’s the story circulated when four high school students all die at the same time on the same night, a story that involves Seattle reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) when her niece is one of the victims. When Rachel finds the tape and watches it herself, she comes to believe that she’s on a one-week countdown clock to unravel its secrets before becoming the next casualty.
If the plot inspires a vague sense of déjà vu, that’s probably because the recent release FearDotCom played with the same idea, substituting a website for a videotape. The makers of The Ring at least are honest about drawing from another source—it’s a remake of a 1998 Japanese horror film that broke box office records in its native country, adapted by Scream 3 scribe Ehren Kruger—but both films draw on precursors like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and eXistenZ that portrayed passive technology as a concrete, horrifying threat. The Ring makes a pass at commenting on the danger of television as a baby-sitter and time-waster, but it’s almost as token an effort as the sparring relationship between Rachel and her video-expert pal Noah (Martin Henderson). Director Gore Verbinski (The Mexican), like Sam Goldwyn before him, leaves the message-sending to Western Union.
He does, however, want to freak you out royally, and quite often he does so. The opening sequence delivers a slick hit of slowly ratcheting tension, playing off expected shock-cuts with nerve-wracking precision. Bojan Bazelli’s icy blue cinematography of rain-drenched Seattle sets a tone that he cuts through with occasional disconcerting bursts of color. Even the intense stare of David Dorfman (as Rachel’s young son) contributes to the atmosphere of menace.
But the centerpiece of the film is the video itself, which Verbinski chooses not to keep some ominous secret. It’s a risky move, since the video’s quick collage of images could have played like a pretentious film school art-horror project. Instead, it turns into a vision of pure dread that gets under your skin, popping up time and again in subliminal interstitial flashes. When Rachel enters a room in one scene to find another character unexpectedly watching the tape’s final image, it’s enough to make your skin crawl. You may begin to wonder how much time you have left yourself after so much exposure.
So why waste any of that valuable time picking apart The Ring’s internal logic if it does the job of serving up the heebie-jeebies while you’re sitting in your seat? Because what the film tries to introduce as a shocking twist is actually an absurd cheat. It’s impossible to discuss the plot development specifically without spoiling too much plot, but the fact is that The Ring’s final 15 minutes create a world in which nearly everything that has gone before makes no sense. The convoluted back-story behind the tape’s creation proves challenging enough to follow when there’s at least a faint line between points A and B. In the service of one big “gotcha,” The Ring erases that line completely.
Maybe for most viewers, it will be enough to get that adrenaline rush that comes from two hours in the dark with a ghost story. But a horror film loses something if, instead of troubling your dreams, it troubles your common sense. It’s only when the lights come up that the brain begins to override the gut, and it becomes too easy to remember that there are few things scarier than a screenwriter who’s just not paying attention.