Hideo Nakata’s ‘The Ring’, from the novel by Koji Suzuki, is the ‘Exorcist’ of Japanese cinema: a low-key horror film, shot with a documentarian’s eye for realism, devoid of any of the genre’s obvious scare tactics or gothic trappings, that became a global phenomenon. It kicked off the still-prominent J-horror movement and opened the doors, distribution-wise, for the likes of ‘Dark Water’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, the obligatory ‘Ring 2’ and ‘The Eye’, bringing them to appreciative western audiences and, in many cases, their directors to the attention of Hollywood.
Then there were the remakes: Gore Verbinski’s effective take on ‘The Ring’ (Nakata himself stepped up to the mark for the disappointing ‘Ring Two’ remake), Walter Salles’ faithful account of ‘Dark Water’*, David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s pale imitation of ‘The Eye’ and Charles and Thomas Guard’s ‘The Uninvited’, a retitled and redundant rehash of ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’.
A decade down the line, the iconography – distorted faces; eerily empty corridors half-lit by flickering lights; pale women with lank black hair shrouding their faces moving slowly and unnaturally towards the camera – is in danger of becoming clichéd. Moreover, ‘The Ring’ should feel hopelessly out of date: the source of the haunting is a fuzzy sequence of non-sequitur images taped off a late night channel (who tapes anything anymore?), the victim receives a phone call seven days later (everyone in the film relies on a landline; in the age of the cellphone it’d be a case of number not recognised? dump call!), and the only way to rid oneself of the curse is to make a copy of the take (again, who tapes anything anymore?). Let’s face it: unless the curse wormed its way onto the internet and did the viral thing, there’s no way it’d claim more than a handful of victims.
And yet ‘The Ring’ retains its power to unnerve. Nakata’s slow-burn pacing establishes character, setting and atmosphere. The cinematography dwells on shadowy interiors, rainy exteriors, dark corners. Impending dread hangs heavy in every frame. Even straightforward, exposition-heavy dialogue scenes play out with the sense that something is lurking just offscreen; something nasty is just about to happen. And when those nasty things do happen – several of them – some are tossed out so casually that it’s like finding yourself suddenly impaled on a plot development that came out of nowhere, while others are agonisingly built up to. The appearance of ghost girl par excellence Sadaka falls into the latter category and it’s one of modern horror’s most creepy and indelible images.
Essentially, ‘The Ring’ plays on the horror of the normal: a blank VHS tape, a TV tuned to static, a ringing phone. It’s also one of the few movies that work better on the small screen. When you watch Sadaka crawl out of the TV set and into someone’s room, a small and frightened part of the mind will always wonder if she’ll take a few more paces and seep through the fourth wall of your TV screen.
*That Verbinski and Salles have tendered the most successful remakes is due in no small part to the casting of compelling and intelligent actresses – Naomi Watts and Jennifer Connelly respectively – in the lead roles.