The Ring

Hideo Nakate’s original film, itself based on Koji Suzuki’s novel, quickly achieved cult status there and ultimately spawned two lesser sequels. The initial pic is one I’ve long recommend to others. (For those in New York, I believe it’s set to play at one of the arthouse theaters in future weeks.) Along these same lines, I’d also urge film enthusiasts to check out the original version of “The Four Feathers” on October 13th at the American Museum of the Moving Image; that 1939 film is better than the Heath Ledger remake currently in theaters. But I digress…

The American version of the film is as taut and as gripping a film as the original, beginning in much the same way. After an overnight trip with three friends to a cabin, teenager Katie (played with good poise by Amber Tamblyn) recounts to a close friend having watched a videotape of disturbing images, then receiving a call directly afterwards telling the quartet they have exactly seven days to live. Minutes later, viewers see her quick demise by an unseen assailant. This is not entirely expected, given that this is a cornerstone to a good horror flick that any viewer of the “Scream” films knows is coming.

Viewers are then introduced to Rachel Keller (played by Naomi Watts), a staff reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a single mother. Viewers first meet Rachel as she picks up her son Aidan from school, and curses out her editor over the greening he is performing on her current piece. A cousin to the fated teenager, she promises her close relatives that she will look into what doctors classify as a stroke, for it’s “what she does,” as they say; she soon finds that Katie’s three friends (one of them the boyfriend) had also died in mysterious ways that same night. Rachel soon finds the cabin, as well as the tape the teenagers had watched. Unaware of the consequences that a private viewing will bring, she too receives a phone call with her week’s notice. She goes from an observer, the normal sphere of a reporter, to become the center of the story.

During this sequence, the audience also observes the tape in full for the first time— a disjointed, eye-catching progression that includes a burning tree, a middle-age woman looking at herself in the mirror and later jumping off a steep hill, a “Rear Window”-like image of a man glaring inside a house’s window, dead horses in the water’s surf and a young girl climbing out of a deep well; all of these images clues for Rachel to unravel. There is a surreal Mark Romanek feel to the tape (think of his work on No Doubt’s “Hella Good” video). This is the crux of the film, and the creepy vignette delivers.

Realizing what she has uncovered, Rachel digs deeper to find salvation for herself in her (literally) numbered days. She enlists the help of video expert Noah, who also happens to be the father of her son. Despite her warnings, Noah too watches the tape. Soon after, so do Rachel’s son and the son’s babysitter (actually, this latter person’s viewing is a bit of a murky point. It’s implied that the babysitter does, but this plot point disappears after this brief scene).

Rachel soon discovers a hidden frame of a lighthouse, which sets her on a new course that links the tape to the Morgan family. She meets father of the clan, who is unwilling to speak of the tape and his daughter Samara, who is seen briefly there. The daughter is the key, and, after Noah arrives at the campsite, they piece the mystery together. Or do theyr There is a great point where you wait for the credits to roll— and then Rachel and Aidan realize that they may have made a giant mistake. Unlike some other fake endings in some of the slasher films, this one works, though.

The ending is a morally ambiguous one, to say the least, but one that both fits the film as a whole and leaves it open for a sequel. It brings an interesting twist to the next installment if done correctly—it almost makes the surviving characters vampire-like, in a sense.

Naomi Watts does serviceably well with the role of Rachel, although this doesn’t show the full range hinted at in her last film, “Mulholland Drive.” I think this a solid step for her career here, although many others have gone from a wall-regarded role to a horror film haven’t fared that well. She meshes extremely well with both the Noah (as played by Martin Henderson) and Aidan (David Dorfman, whose performance reminded me a great deal of Rory Culkin in Signs).

Henderson should receive some good notices for the way he handles the role. He does a deft job fluttering between the role of the humorous cynic and someone who comes to believe the urban myth. Dorfman does well with a role that has been expanded from the original, but this doesn’t set him apart from some of the other talented child actors in his age group. I would have loved to see what Nicholas Hoult of “About a Boy” could have done with this role, for example, should he have been able to shed the British accent servicably.

Also good in a limited role (three scenes, I think it was) is Brian Cox as Richard Morgan, a character not found in “Ringu.” Cox, the first actor to portray Hannibal Lecter, has been extremely busy as of late filming roles in the upcoming films “The 25th Hour” (December 20th) and the sequel to “X-Men,” “X Squared,” which arrives next summer. This will be a footnote for his resume, but he brings a great deal to the part. I’m just not sure the ending the character was given, though, was the strongest.

The original film doesn’t mine as deep as its Americanized cousin with the tape’s images and meaning, and this effort is far more stylized. In this regard, the original was better for the simpler tale it told, as this feels a little bogged down in comparison. There are still some problems, though: Blood in one scene is visible to audiences a good half-minute before the characters see it and there are some leaps in the story that could have been better explained.

Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography is top-notch, as is the tight editing by Craig Wood. Samara’s vengeful appearance at the very end is extremely well-done. Verbinski shows again that he is a master at crossing several genres, moving effortlessly from the family film “Mousehunt” to the more mature Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts flick “The Mexican.”

DreamWorks is doing a good job establishing this picture in its marketing efforts, despite comparisons to August’s flop “feardotcom” and the competition that this month’s “Below” and “Ghost Ship” bring. Current television spots feature an early review from WWOR-TV (the flagship UPN station, based out of Secaucus, NJ) comparing it to “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” which is hallowed ground that this film falls short of. “The Ring” does indeed work, yes. But I’m not sure it is destined to be a part of that milieu.

Were there scattered laughs from a cynical Manhattan audience during some parts of the screeningr Yes. Were there people covering their eyes and ears to ease the images being shown on the screen as wellr Yes. Would I recommend this to friendsr Absolutely, yes. Would I say it’s one of the best horror films of the past 25 yearsr Not by a longshot.

Still, “The Ring” is a great concept that is well-executed. Overall, I give it a B and look forward to seeing on DVD, as I threw away the VCR as soon as I got home.

Rating: B