Ring a Ding Ding

I know this should be the thrilling conclusion to the “American Cool” trilogy, but…come on! It’s Halloween. And when the barrier is thinnest between the worlds, I like to poke through the veil and explore the places where science fiction and horror mingle in an unholy coupling. And what better manifestation of that nightmarish alliance than a pissed-off little girl with wet hair?

When Hideo Nakata’s Ring (let’s not get into the Ringu thing, OK?) stormed onto Japanese screens in 1998, it caused a sensation. On the surface, there was nothing especially fancy about the movie. The plot was familiar, at least on the surface — a classic “angry spirit” yarn. The direction was straight-forward, almost clinical, documentary-style stuff that reminds one of George Romero. Competent and unobtrusive. The dialogue, the acting, and everything else is very good but not anything that breaks new ground. So what is it that makes Ring so good?

For starters, it uses simplicity to great advantage. Some writers pile half-baked subplots and on top of each other, like the angry and sullen clambering over one another in the muck of the fifth ring of Hell, in an attempt to give their stories some sense of depth or importance. But Takahashi Hiroshi’s screenplay for Ring is pretty straight-forward — quite a feat, given that it’s based on an utterly loony series of novels by Koji Suzuki. Sometimes, the simplest things are the best things, and there’s no need to mask yourself with dishonest complexities when the straightforward, honest core is so powerful. The staid, attentive plot makes the twists and shocks that much more startling. Director Hideo Nakata understands the concept of dramatic tension, has the ability to build up a sense of dread rather than go for the jump scare of a spring-loaded cat popping up at the characters or the “sneaking up behind my friend to grab their shoulder” scare employed by every lesser horror film known to man. It also dared to be serious at a time when horror was light. Dominated by the success of Scream, few horror films committed themselves. They hid behind an ironic self-awareness, always winking at the audience. Not Ring. Nakata did not allow his film to become cute. He insisted on a classic, straight-faced, honest slice of pure terror.

The horror boom in Japan didn’t have any one cause, but it did have one big ingredient that made it a success: girls. Under normal circumstances, saying that young girls were a key to the success of anything horror related would mean that young girls were prominently featured in the film and probably died gruesome deaths. In this case, however, the young girls weren’t the ones dying; they were the ones buying. Someone, somewhere who probably actually knew some girls had the bright idea to start running horror comics as a regular part of a popular manga magazine aimed at teenage girls. Chief among the horror creators was Junji Ito, who wrote stories in which teenage girls were the central characters but were not treated like or written as victims. They were regular girls, a bit on the smart side, and believable. He placed these characters in the middle of wonderfully conceived and plotted tales inspired by the likes of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. Assisting the rise of horror manga was the popularity of The X-Files. What was “discovered” was that teenage girls love horror stories. For a certain segment of the population, this is no revelation — if I were to name my favorite film writers who focus on horror, every one of them would be a woman. But we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that (oft-disproven) conventional wisdom claims horror is a boy thing. Which was and is colossally stupid. All these ingredients combined in 1999 to form the horror (with a tinge of science fiction — that’s my claim and I’m stickin’ to it) classic Ring.

Ring opens in classic horror film form: with two young girls at home, alone. One of them is telling a story about a cursed videotape. Once you are finished watching it, you get a mysterious phone call predicting your death in exactly one week, and then of course, one week later, you wind up dead. The second girl, Tomoko, isn’t as amused by this story as her friend, what with her and a group of friends having watched what may very well have been the cursed tape of growing urban legend fame one week ago. Tomoko tries to pass it off as nothing, but when the phone starts ringing…

Enter sharp female reporter Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), who works for some sort of sensationalist newspaper. Reiko’s curiosity is piqued when one of her own relatives’ death is attributed to the tape. Unfortunately, none of the other schoolgirls can give any concrete information. In classic urban legend form, it’s always a friend of a friend who saw the tape, or a friend who heard about it from this guy who’s cousin died. A little investigative journalism uncovers a group of high schoolers who have indeed been dying off in strange, unexplained fashion, and they were all down in a rented cabin in the province of Izu. Reiko makes the drive to snoop around and runs across a videocassette. Hesitant at first, she eventually pops the tape in a VCR and watches a bizarre, nonsensical minute of footage, realizing with horror that this is the tape. Then, the phone in the cabin rings…

Reiko demonstrates a believable strength as a character. She’s not perfect, maybe needs to ask for help — and is smart enough to do so, from her ex-husband, Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), a college professor who seems to have some sort of psychic ability (or at least a magician’s skill at reading people). Although well-versed in the paranormal, Ryuji is a natural skeptic and figures the tape to be nothing more than urban legend. There’s a reason that this movie helped open the door for what has become known as “schoolgirl horror” in Japan. Reiko is smart, determined, and willing to forge ahead even when she’s wracked by fear. That character resonated deeply with lots of girls who saw the movie, who had been shut out of horror for so long, building up a rage grown from exclusion that probably made Sadako as relatable as she was terrifying.

Ring is, at its core, about a vengeful spirit. It’s an old story, one you’ve heard before, but Ring pulls it off with such subtlety and effectiveness that it completely disarms you and keeps you guessing. Sure, you know what is supposed to happen in these sorts of ghost stories, but you’re never quite sure if the movie is going to go that route or forge off into some completely unexpected territory. It never allows you the comfort of familiarity even within a familiar type of story, and the end result is one of constant, growing fear. It truly is a beautiful experience to get this scared by such a seemingly simple movie.

Hot on the heels of Ring‘s success came a sequel, Rasen, aka Spiral (not to be confused with the Junji Ito comic and associated movie Uzumaki, which translates to Spiral). This one stumps a lot of people. After all, there’s a movie called Ring 2, starring the same people in the same roles, directed by the same director, and picking up immediately where the first film ends. One would assume that to be the sequel. And it is…but so is Rasen. Production house Asmik Ace Entertainment, sensing that they had a potential hit on their hands, hired two separate crews to work on two separate films simultaneously — Ring and its sequel, Rasen. This doomed the makers of Rasen, who had no idea what was going to happen in Ring and were relying entirely on the existing book series, operating under the assumption that Hideo Nakata would stick to those. They were wrong, and their film ended up being a disastrous mismatch, a movie that was considered by Hideo Nakata to be so awful that he immediately went into production on a different official sequel — the film we know as Ring 2.

Rasen came and went, and most people agreed that it was pretty much as bad as Hideo Nakata claimed, despite key members of the cast reprising their roles and the story picking upwhere the first film leaves off, but at no point is there any doubt that Hideo Nakata isn’t behind the helm. Directorial duties — as well as writing — were left to Joji Iida. As a director, he’s passable. As a writer…well, that’s why Hideo Nakata stepped in. Nakata’s Ring 2 sustains the same clinical, George Romero-style direction, but takes the story into wild new territory as Mai Takano (played by Miki Nakatani in both this and Ring and, confusingly, Rasen) investigates the bizarre death of her teacher and possible love interest, Ryuji. Aware that Ryuji was working on a strange problem with his ex-wife, and also having seen the expression on his corpse’s face, Mai’s curiosity turns to investigation when Reiko disappears with her young child. Matters get even stranger when Mai learns that shortly after the disappearance, Reiko’s elderly father died under mysterious circumstances similar to those surrounding Ryuji.

An attempt to track down the whereabouts of Reiko leads Mai to the newspaper where Reiko used to work, though Reiko’s assistant Okazaki (Masahiko Ono) confesses that they have no idea where’s she’s gone to, either. Together, Mai and Okazaki follow a trail of clues and psychic visions (like Ryuji, Mai seems possessed of some rudimentary form of ESP) that lead them to the sanitarium where one of the only surviving witnesses to one of these strange deaths is currently residing – the girl from the opening scene of the first film, who saw her best friend killed by the ghost of Sadako. They also meet a crackpot scientist and friend of Ryuji who shares his former colleague’s interest in the supernatural. Using, somewhat unethically, the young girl in his care, he’s devised a way to draw out the supernatural energy of Sadako out, hopefully removing the curse and putting an end to the terror that has been propagating itself through the videocassette containing the psychic imagery of Sadako’s mind.

Ring 2 has a lot in common with David Cronenberg’s Scanners and The Brood, two films where science, science fiction, and horror all collide. Ring 2 has a lot of crackpot science being thrown about, in the grand tradition of supernatural films that tread into the realm of science fiction. Most of it is underdeveloped but fairly believable within the context of the film and the fantastic. There have certainly been worse offenses committed under the banner of scientific explanation in horror films. Some of the ideas are fascinating to consider, chief among them how strong emotion can be transmitted through a variety of means, making even something as coldly technological as a videotape serve as a conduit for supernatural rage. Yoichi, the son of Reiko and Ryuji, is revealed to have psychic potential that dwarfs that of his mother and father. He’s also on the way to becoming a next-generation Sadako, as a rage that has been building inside him since the events of the first film threatens to warp his development in the same way the tragic childhood of Sadako was warped by her incredible powers. Mai assumes responsibility for finding a way to save Yoichi from the same fate as befell Sadako, while she, the doctor, and Okazaki, struggle to find a scientific explanation and way of dealing with something that defies science.

There are a few flaws that keep it from achieving the rarefied airs of Ring. Where the first film was focused with an intensity rivaling the rage of Sadako, the sequel meanders from one idea to the other with no clear idea of exactly where it’s going. This movie also lacks the nail-biting, increasingly frantic race against time that kept the first film feeling like a thrill-a-minute ride even when it was moving very slowly. With that deadline removed from this film, and with the impetus for action being curiosity and Yoichi’s eventual development into a vengeful spirit, the threat is more vague and less pressing. It does share a common thread with Rasen in that both movies are, in a way, about Sadako seeking a new physical manifestation. In Rasen, it’s by possession and an utterly daft plot for global annihilation. In the case of Ring 2, it’s by transferring her hatred to Yoichi.

Mai and Okazaki are excellent leads. There are quite a few spooky moments even if the film as a whole fails to sustain the feeling for the entire running time. It’s impressive that they manage to drum up some new revelations about Sadako to further develop her as something more than just a hateful ghost. She continues to develop as a tragic main character, not just as a plot device. For the third film in the series, a prequel called Ring 0: Birthday, the series would rely on Sadako entirely, as the film focuses on her childhood and the events that lead to her transformation into a rage-filled spectre. None of the revelations about her are contrived or absurd. We’re doing much better than all that crap about Michael Meyers being the spawn of a druidic cross-breeding experiment, or Jason Voorhees being a little shrieking worm.

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