Note: In the following Blu-ray review John Puccio and Yunda Eddie Feng comment on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Movie According to John:
At the time of its release I went into 2002’s “The Ring” with some slight trepidation. A half dozen of my film students had already seen it before I did, and they seemed evenly divided on its merits. Three of them thought it was scarier than heck, and the other three thought it was boring.
Then along came my reviewing colleague, Eddie Feng, on a trip to California where we met for the first time. Eddie had already seen the movie and liked it, and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind seeing it again. He said sure, but it occurred to me I might be placing myself in an awkward situation. What if I didn’t like the film? I hardly wanted my first visit with Eddie spoiled by a disagreement. I mean, it was like getting a Christmas gift from your Aunt Martha and being asked to open it in front of her. What do you say if you really hate it?
Fortunately, no such dilemma presented itself. I enjoyed the film quite a lot, if a little less and for slightly different reasons than Eddie. But first let me make one thing clear: “The Ring” came out at about the same time as another horror movie, the abhorrent “FearDotCom,” which had a similar premise. “FearDotCom” was about a deadly Web site, “The Ring” about a deadly video tape. However, there the similarities stopped. While “FearDotCom” was a typically crude, clumsy gore-fest, “The Ring” is an accomplished and stylish thriller.
Based on the big-screen Japanese hit movie “Ringu” from 1998 and a series of Japanese television shows that Eddie will list below, the DreamWorks production of “The Ring” likely surpasses them all in technique and execution. You wouldn’t know that from the first few minutes, though, since the film begins, teasingly, like almost every slasher movie in history, with two teenage girls alone in a house on a dark, stormy night. They’re telling each other ghost stories, and one says, “Have you heard about this video tape that kills you when you watch it?” And as soon as you watch it, she explains, “your phone rings and someone says, ‘You will die in seven days.'” Then, before you die, you see “the ring.” Well, one of the girls reveals that she has, indeed, watched such a tape the week before, and then the phone rings! We expect any moment a meat hook to come slashing out of the shadows or a carving knife to start severing body parts. But not to worry; nothing in this film is quite what you expect it to be.
In fact, for a traditional horror thriller, this film from director Gore Verbinski (who went on to do the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films and “Rango”) is decidedly untraditional. Unlike most such scary movies these days, “The Ring” depends mainly on sights, sounds, music, and imaginative lighting and camera work–zooms, pans, close-ups galore–to build and maintain suspense; and on red herrings and mysterious characters and things that go bump in the night. There is very little actual blood or gore involved, yet there are a couple of good starts and a few images that may make you turn your head away.
The picture stars Naomi Watts in an overlooked Oscar-worthy performance, an oversight possibly the result of the film’s not being deemed part of a serious-enough genre to deserve consideration; I don’t know. Anyway, she plays a mother, Rachel Keller, whose young son, Aidan (David Dorfman), is having premonitions about people’s deaths. Subsequently, the police find these people with their hearts stopped and horrible, ghastly expressions on their face. Clearly, they have died of fright, and Aidan may know something about it.
Rachel becomes involved when Aidan correctly predicts his cousin’s death, and the victim’s friends claim a video tape caused it. Rachel, an investigative news reporter, begins looking into the matter and finds related deaths, tracing them to a single night, the victims all viewing the same tape.
As much a detective-mystery thriller as a horror film, things get progressively eerier as the movie goes on. Rachel gets hold of the tape and naturally, being inquisitive and unbelieving, she watches it. Too bad for her. The bizarre pictures on the tape appear to tell a story, and Rachel soon learns that she has only the allotted seven days to figure out what it means or…well, you guessed it. The plot plays out in those seven days, counted down one day at a time.
Rachel manages to enlist the aid of a friend, Noah (Martin Henderson), a video consultant who is understandably skeptical at first but eventually helps her in the investigation. Although there is a small but solid supporting cast involved, this is almost entirely Ms. Watts’s movie, and beyond the introductory sequence she is in practically every scene. She is convincing all the way.
The movie is perfectly creepy in the best possible sense, director Verbinski taking his cue largely from Hitchcock and “Psycho.” There’s a creepy Bates-like motel in the country run by a creepy Norman Bates-like manager, plus a highly suggestive shower scene and even a climactic shot of a chair turning slowly around with a body in it. Moreover, Brian Cox (the original Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter”) is on hand as a creepy old guy with a creepy old farmhouse and an even creepier young daughter. That would be Samara (Daveigh Chase), of whom people say, “She never sleeps.”
It’s hard to take your eyes off the screen for a second. Part of this is because the film and its characters are so fascinating to watch, and part of it is because if you do look away or blink twice, you’re sure to miss some important plot device. Woe to thee who does.
I have to admit that I found the middle of the picture somewhat flat, and by the second half I thought the plot became a little too convoluted for its own good, throwing in one too many twists and turns and anticlimaxes, ending on an ambiguous note. Yet, overall, “The Ring” has more than its fair share of unsettling images, chilling scenes, and disturbing junctures. Warts and all, “The Ring” was without a doubt the best horror film of 2002 and holds up pretty well today.
John film rating: 8/10
The Movie According to Eddie:
“The Ring” was 2002’s “The Others.” In 2001, “The Others” was a horror movie that featured an Australian actress (Nicole Kidman) coming into her own as a major star. “The Ring” was the same kind of vehicle for the Australian Naomi Watts. (In fact, Kidman and Watts have been longtime friends.) “The Others” grossed approximately $96 million, and “The Ring” grossed approximately $126 million. Both films have mature-for-their-age children who figure prominently in the narratives.
I think that “The Ring” is so effective because, like “The Others,” the center of the story is a collection of tragedies. These tragedies elevate the movie from freak-show status to an examination of the human condition. You have a mother (Rachel) who has strained relationships with her son and her son’s father. You have a couple (Richard and Anna Morgan) who finally get a child, only to face more problems than any parent would reasonably expect to have. You have a child who has been ignored to the point of dementia. Yes, it’s true that Samara is a personification of evil, but she’s just a little girl, too.
I first saw “The Ring” at a sneak preview a few weeks before its official theatrical release. I remember being very scared while driving home, alone, after the movie. I had to drive through neighborhoods with restrictions on how much street lighting could be used, and I kept on thinking that something ghastly was going to rise behind me from the back seat and strangle me or something. Heck, I had to call some friends with my cel phone in order to calm down.
A month later, I saw “The Ring” a second time when I visited San Francisco. My positive comments about the movie persuaded fellow reviewer John Puccio to see it, so we caught an early evening show. Even though I knew what to expect, the movie still gave me major creeps. I even heard John mutter “Jeez” and “Wow” a few times when some of the most brutal makeup jobs in cinema history flashed on the screen. You thought that Linda Blair looked ugly in “The Exorcist”? Take a good look at the victims of the videotape in question.
To tell you the truth, I can’t really say that I saw the film twice. At both showings, I covered my eyes for about a fifth of the running time. “The Ring” is so intense that parents should think carefully about letting young children see it, even when accompanied by adults. As I write my review, I’m afraid of turning around for fear of seeing a monster scare the bejeezus out of me before I can complete the task at hand.
Many viewers feel that most of the horror films made during the 1980s and 1990s were chaotic messes because they made little effort to be logical. I agree with that assessment, which is why I appreciate “The Ring” so much. There is a sort of inexorable logic and momentum that drives the movie, from the way Rachel manages to unearth clues that lead her to discovering the nature of the tape as well as why the demon chose the videotape as its medium of expression. Also, the story doesn’t degenerate into a series of violent confrontations that try to out-gore the previous fight. The makeup designs and the visual effects in “The Ring” are terrifying, yes, but they’re not bloody. They’re not meant to make you squeamish; they’re meant to make you afraid to even open your eyes. Most importantly, “The Ring” relies on unsettling revelations that lead to the conclusion that there’s no real way of defeating the demon in the videotape.
If you’re not too caught up in the story or if you’re not too busy being scared, you might catch references to a host of other movies. For example, “The Ring” begins like a typical teen slasher flick, complete with a low-angle shot of a looming mansion on a dark, forbidding night and 2 semi-undressed girls talking about scary things. There’s a countdown of the days left in Rachel’s life that reminded me of the progression of days in “Se7en.” Shots of Rachel in the shower prey on the audience’s fear that a “Psycho”-like scenario will occur. The footage on the videotape evokes Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s “Un chien andalou.” You will find Samara’s origins in “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Omen.”
“The Ring” isn’t perfect, of course. For example, the filmmakers lazily used REALLY LOUD NOISES for a couple of cheap scares. Also, would someone who has broken into a building be slamming metal cabinet doors and cursing at the top of his lungs? Probably not, unless he really wanted to be caught in the act. Finally, it seems rather weird that Richard Morgan would endure so many years of torture before doing what he does in the movie–unless he’s some sort of masochist. (Also, I think that it was a monumental waste to have the hot chick in the opening sequence ending up in a mental asylum looking like a walking ghost.) At any rate, these concerns don’t detract from the overall experience.
Tracing the genealogy of “The Ring” reveals that there was a Japanese TV movie in 1995 called “Ringu.” That project was followed by a big screen remake in 1998 (also “Ringu”) that lead to a sequel (“Ringu 2”), a brief TV miniseries (yes, “Ringu”), and a prequel (“Ringu 0”). Along the way, you have possessed videotapes, CD-ROMs, computers, etc. and the very similar “Fear Dot Com” that, along the lines of Disney’s “The Lion King,” refuses to acknowledge that it was inspired by Japanese sources.
Hollywood has remade non-American movies for ages, and most of these remakes have been inferior to the originals (even if they were good movies in their own rights). However, “The Ring” found an enthusiastic response in Japan. There were even reports that the majority of viewers preferred the American try rather than any of the Japanese motion pictures. I think that “The Ring” was one of the ten best films of 2002.
Eddie’s film rating: 9/10
The folks at DreamWorks do a good job transferring the film to Blu-ray. Although its theatrical aspect ratio measures an ordinary 1.85:1, the video quality is anything but ordinary. Using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode, the video engineers provide a clear, clean, sharply defined image. The filmmakers purposely did up the colors in blue-gray and green-gray metallic shades in many instances, and they look quite good. Dark areas reveal plenty of inner detail, with strong contrasts and good depth and dimensionality. The film never intends the various muted hues to be realistic but to create atmosphere, and the video reproduction renders them nicely, with a modest degree of natural print grain.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 matches the quality of the picture, with excellent front-channel separation and a few well-placed surround noises. Dialogue sounds especially well rendered, and all of the channels produce firm dynamics and deep bass. It’s true, there is not a huge amount of information fed to the side and rear channels, but what there is comes through effectively, things like the ambiance of Hans Zimmer’s relatively subdued but spooky musical soundtrack, ghostly creakings, and, naturally, rain (we are in the Northwest, after all, so expect a lot of rain). How did we ever enjoy rain before surround sound?
DreamWorks have included the extras they did on their special-edition DVD, most of them this time in high def. The first item is the best, the featurette “Don’t Watch This” (HD). It’s a fifteen-minute mini movie that uses mostly alternate and deleted material to create a different way of looking at the same subject matter. It’s one of the few bonus items I’ve enjoyed on disc, and it conveys its own moments of tension.
In addition, we get another mini-movie, “Rings” (HD), a sixteen-minute continuation of the “ring” mythology, kind of a stopover between the original “Ring” and the dreadful “Ring 2” sequel. After that is a series of cast and filmmaker interviews, eight minutes; “The Origin of Terror,” four minutes on urban legends in general; and a widescreen theatrical trailer (HD).
The bonuses conclude with twenty-three scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. A flimsy Eco-case houses the disc, the case further enclosed in a slipcover with a handsome 3-D holographic picture on it.
Although “The Ring” didn’t particularly scare me, I found its tensions undeniable, its moods gripping, its suspense forceful, and its cast excellent. Just don’t let that premise of a haunted VHS tape bother you as it did me at first. It may seem a bit corny that a small video cassette could accommodate the soul of some arcane, ghostly entity, but the gimmick works. Just let it play out. The movie, I mean, not the tape. Let the tape play out, and you’re in for some lethal trouble.
Final note: The folks at DreamWorks are making “The Ring” available only as a Best Buy exclusive. It’s a policy I personally dislike because it doesn’t allow the buyer a chance to shop for the best possible price. But who am I to question a studio’s accountants, who undoubtedly have figured this matter out down to the last penny and found it the most-financially rewarding scheme for them.