by Lucius Shepard
March 22, 2005
The first of the new wave of Asian horror films (quietly suspenseful pictures that owe more to European cinema than to Wes Craven or George Romero) that attracted attention on these shores was Hideo Nakatas Ringu. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki, the Stephen King of Japan, the story concerns a videotape that causes the death of anyone who watches it, exactly seven days after the viewing. It was subsequently remade in the United States by Gore Verbinski (The Mexican, Pirates of the Caribbean) and entitled The Ring. The plots of the two films are virtually identical. They each begin with a couple of high school girls talking about the tapeone admits to having seen it seven days previously. Before the evening is over, she dies in terror and her friend is so traumatized that shes committed to an asylum. The dead girls aunt, a journalist, investigates her nieces death, and, after watching the tape herself, she discovers that the urban legend is realwhen her young son also watches the tape, she is driven to find out what produced it in hopes that she can save him.
Despite their similarities, the differences between the two films are profound. Ringu has no musical soundtrack; eschews that tried-and-true tactic of horror films, the jump-scare; utilizes simple camera movement, forgoes the use of lens filters, and generates suspense that builds throughout. On the other hand, The Ring sports a hyper-dramatic soundtrack; relies heavily on camera technology, posing a David Fincher-scape of incessant rain and dingy interiors shot in crepuscular whites and gas-chamber greens, a color scheme that virtually screams to watch out for an imminent jump-scare; and yet succeeds in generating surprisingly little suspense. Ringu, though by no means the best of the Asian new wave, is the leaner, more organic film, peaks in a shocking climax, and seems to signal, at the least, the emergence of a variant sensibility in the realm of horror cinema. The Ring, despite superior acting (Naomi Watts as the aunt), and despite (for much its duration) being a scene-by-scene remake, is mechanical, predictable, and not very scary. We might say by way of summing up that Ringu is creepy and that The Ring evokes another word beginning with the letters cr and ending in py.
The images on the deadly tape that provoke the curse have a natural feel in Ringu, flurried and erratic; this by contrast to the tape in the remake, whose imagery is slickly nasty, reminiscent of a Goth music video. These images are imprinted on the tape by the spirit of a dead girl named Sadako in Ringu, Samara in The Ring. She was murdered by her psychotic adoptive mother, pushed down a well, where she survived for a time, but eventually succumbed. Even before her death, however, she was adept at projecting images onto surfacesthat talent precipitated her adoptive mothers madness. The reasons why Sadakos spirit has such a heartfelt grudge against the whole world are left murky, but from the Japanese film we derive a sense of the awful loneliness she experienced at the bottom of the well, and we are also given to understand that her spirit has been appropriated by a demon. In the American version, we are left with the impression that Samara was merely a troubled young girl.
Ringu spawned a sequeltwo sequels, in factand thus it stood to reason that The Ring would be sequelized. The initial director assigned to The Ring Two was Noam Murro, whose only previous directing experience was in commercials. He dropped out of the project, citing creative differences with Dreamworks.
Creative differences are to breaking movie contracts as irreconcilable differences are to breaking marriages, a blanket excuse that covers a multitude of sins. The chances are that Noams trailer wasnt to his liking or that the catering was subpar . . . or do you suppose it could have had something to do with the movie? Like, for instance, an incompetent script? What are the odds? At any rate, to compensate for the loss of their auteur, Dreamworks decided to hire Hideo Nakata himself to shoot the sequel.
Sounds like a great idea . . . right?
To my knowledge, there have been three instances of foreign directors hired by Hollywood to remake their own work. There may have been more, but these three are enough to contemplate. Dutch director George Sluizer was brought over to remake his suspense film Spoorloos as The Vanishing; Danish director Ole Borndahl remade his thriller Nattevagten as Nightwatch; and Takashi Shimazu remade his horror movie Ju On as The Grudge. The Grudge was the most successful of these, mainly because the original was a muddled, derivative mess and, though the remake didnt improve on it, neither was it significantly worse. Bornedahls original film, which was a major influence on David Finchers Seven, was a taut, restrained, terrifying thriller, telling of a student serving as the night watchman in a morgue who becomes the target of a serial killer. Nightwatch is almost a shot-for-shot remake, but the hammy acting, particularly the performances of Nick Nolte and Josh Brolin, and the clumsy script, a collaboration between Bornedahl and Steven Soderbergh (who doubtless added the clumsiness), reduced the film to a juvenile exercise in freakery. As for Spoorloos, in its Hollywood incarnation all that remains of one of the classic nightmares of European cinema, a picture with a brutally bleak ending, the story of a man obsessed by what might have happened to his girlfriend, who vanished several years before, is a watered-down, nearly comedic failure featuring a bewigged, mumbling Jeff Bridges as the villain, bidding a final farewell to his leading-man status. The original ending was deemed too harsh for the delicate American psyche and was rewritten to incorporate the redemption of love, just deserts for everyone, and a heaping helping of family values. We can conclude from this that foreign directors are not encouraged to remake their movies in America, not when they are good movies, but are directed to lobotomize them, reducing their work to the level of fifth-rate imitation. The task confronting Nakata, then, would appear hopeless . . . except for one thing. The Ring Two bears scant similarity to Ringu 2; it is a remake in name only and Nakata has been contracted to make a drastically different movie, one featuring some of characters and situations that figured in his Japanese-language films.
So might there be a ray of hope?
A sliver, maybe?
Well . . . no.
The Ring Two begins six months after the events of the previous film, and if you havent seen The Ring, dont bother with this one, because you probably wont understand whats going on . . . though, upon reflection, perhaps a lack of understanding might improve the viewing experience. Having saved her own life and that of Aidan (David Dorfman) by making a copy of the tape, getting someone else to watch it, thus imperiling them . . . Yup, thats how its done. In Ringu, you dont notice so much how stupid this is, borne along by the films energy. At any rate, having accomplished all that, Rachel Keller (Watts) is looking for a fresh start, trying to put her memories of Samara and the tape behind her. She and Aidan have relocated to Astoria, a picturesque town near the Oregon coast, where she has secured a job with the local newspaper, working with editor Max Rourke (Simon Baker). Shortly after the move, she hears about the death of a teenage boy that sounds suspiciously like the deaths caused by the tape: a flooded crime scene, a traumatized witness, an aghast corpse. One look at the victims face convinces her that Samara is up to her old tricks. She breaks into the dead boys house, finds the tape, and destroys it. But Samara comes after Aidan, assaults him while hes taking a bath, and leaves him bruised and hypothermic. No longer interested in vengeance, she wants to possess him. At the hospital, Rachel is accused of child abuse and forbidden to see Aidan until she talks to the resident psychiatrist, something she feels would be a waste of time. Instead, she drives to the home of Samaras adoptive parents (both suicides) in northern Washington, hoping to uncover something that will help her stop Samara. With the help of a real-estate salesman (Gary Cole in a cameo), she finds a scrapbook containing a photograph of Samaras birth mother, Evelyn (Sissy Spacek in another cameo), and tracks her down in an asylum. While there, she learns that Evelyn tried to drown Samara when she was a baby. Meanwhile, Aidan, now possessed by Samaras spirit, persuades the psychiatrist to kill herself and strolls out of the hospital. Hes going home to wait for his/her mommy.
Early on in the movie, there is a scene involving a herd of possessed deer who attack and nearly total Rachels car. It doesnt make a lot of sense, but thats scarcely a problem in a film with as many logical gaffes as this one, or one with so many improbabilities: a small-town weekly with a news desk that remains open late at night; key witnesses that are left unsecured and accessible to the press in a station house; a child who walks out of a hospital and whom the police neglect to check for at his home; etc., etc., etc. Whats pertinent about the deer scene is its effectivenessit has a startling dynamic quality that sets it apart from all the other scenes, which are startlingly undynamic, and one has to wonder if this was the only scene over which Nakata had control. You have to speculate that this was the case, because the rest of the movie is so poorly mounted, its painful to watch.
I mean, literally painful.
From the screeching dissonances in the soundtrack, the innumerable sloppy edits, and a ludicrous succession of jump-scares (the bulk of the movie seems to be filler designed to connect them), I developed a splitting headache that is with me still as I write this review. Whatever the explanation (I imagine its possible there is none, that the scene with the deer was the product of chance, an act of divine intervention, a scripting error), that scene towers above the tired, predictable slog that comprises the remainder of The Ring Two like a lighthouse above a lonely cliff, bringing its lamps to bear on the ugly rocks that surround it.
One such rock is the acting. Watts, usually a fine actress, imbues her performance with all the perky vitality of an indentured servant who, after a long day of drudgery, is anticipating the onerous sexual advances of her lord and master, the Marquis. She appears loath to touch young Aidan and her spoken endearments suggest a certain distracted characterperhaps shes thinking about firing her agent. Only when she delivers the movies angry tagline does she convince, and then one has the sense that her anger is directed less at Samara than at the folks behind the camera. As for Aidan, or rather David Dorfman, he spends the first half of the movie doing a spot-on imitation of Hayley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, and the second half of it wearing lip gloss, this to cement the impression (I suppose) that he has been possessed by a girl. But dont blame the actors for this incoherent, uninvolving disaster. The actual villain of the piece is the guy who held a gun to Nakatas head while they shot the movie . . . Im cutting Nakata a break here by assuming he didnt run joyfully into the arms of hackdom.
Avoid this movie at any cost. It has a toxic level of stupidity and its not even cheesy fun. When the DVD arrives from Netflix or Blockbuster, leave it in its sleeve. And should you watch it, please make a copy for an enemy and have them view it immediately. You dont want to take the chance that the DVD operates along the lines of the tape that is central to its plot, because I doubt very much youll be given anywhere near seven days grace before the curse takes effect.