The Ring, in both of its primary incarnations, was an incredible thing when it was released. I can’t remember another horror film that members of my generation pretty much all saw, with the one exception of The Blair Witch Project. Whether they were horror fans or not, everybody in the world seemed to have seen The Ring, and everybody talked about how freaked out they were and how somebody inevitably pranked them with the “seven days” phone call. The Ring also introduced Western audiences to the long-haired onryō, a trope which has been so overused since that sometimes it’s more laughable than frightening.
Both the Japanese original and the American remake, of course, have the same basic premise: rumors circulate of a mysterious video tape which supposedly causes people to die seven days after viewing it. A reporter gets involved after her niece falls victim to the cursed cassette, and while digging up facts on the case she ends up watching the tape herself. The movie is her quest to uncover the truth of the cursed tape before her own seven days are up.
Ringu is a masterpiece of minimalist horror. Director Nakata Hideo crafted a horror film with so few horror elements it’s amazing: a few people die at the beginning, then the entire movie is learning about the ghost whom we don’t see until the very end. The fear comes from the pervasive atmosphere of gloom, of lurking supernatural menace, and the inevitability of the characters’ deaths unless they can find a way to break the curse.
Ringu has wonderful acting–suuuuuper important in a film that’s mostly exposition–and a heavy reliance on folklore, something I didn’t really notice until after I became a folklorist. Journalist Reiko is already investigating the contemporary legend of the cursed video when her niece dies. Early in the film she discusses the situation with her cameraman, who asks where kuchisake-onna had been sighted, apparently wondering if there is some connection between the two legends. Reiko responds that stories like these are people’s way of coping with bad deaths. (Boo.) But this is significant in that it situates the film’s events in the broader context of Japanese supernatural tradition. Ghosts are more prevalent in Japanese traditional (and popular) cultures than they are in the US, as are things like reikan, or psychic powers. So in Ringu, for instance, Reiko’s ex-husband Ryuji, to whom she turns for help, has psychic abilities that provide a number of important clues in the quest to break Sadako’s curse. (Their son Yoichi is also psychic, but in a more limited way than his American counterpart.)
The Ring, Gore Verbinski‘s US remake, presents a very different scenario (appropriately enough): the key players are essentially the same, but there is no framework for supernatural belief. Rachel has no prior knowledge of her son Aidan’s psychic powers (at least, not as far as we can tell–she doesn’t seem to learn about them until he draws crayon pictures depicting his cousin’s death several days before it happens). Ex-husband/father Noah, meanwhile, has no such abilities of his own. Instead he’s a videographer (as opposed to Ryuji, who is a math professor), and his knowledge of film is his contribution to solving the puzzle of the cursed tape. The differences in the characters’ abilities and knowledge means that the US version, somewhat surprisingly, relies more heavily on research than the Japanese film. Rachel spends a fair bit of time in libraries and film archives muddling around with the cursed tape and searching for other evidence about the Morgan family, to whom the images on the tape seem to point. You might think that this would make for a slower-paced film, but it doesn’t: Verbinski inserts enough familiar horror-y material to keep it fairly brisk. It has more overt scares and more conventionally horrible imagery (Rachel coughing up electrodes, the horse jumping off the ferry to its death). This is both good and bad: it costs the film some of that atmosphere of lurking dread and inserts some unfortunately tacky special effects; but it injects some energy into what would otherwise be several long shots of people doing research and, like, driving places.
Naomi Watts is very good as Rachel, and the rest of the cast does pretty well. One minor annoyance is how Rachel’s son, Aidan, is pretty much a creeper right from the start, the archetypal spooky kid in a horror film. Yoichi in the Japanese version is just a cute five year-old who has some vaguely-defined psychic abilities; Aidan, conversely, is Danny from The Shining and Cole from The Sixth Sense combined, with maybe a touch of Damien from The Omen for good measure. He’s like a weird tiny adult, which fits the changes in the American version of the film but still bugs me because it’s just so typical in Western horror.
There are some other interesting differences between the two versions. In the Japanese film, ghostly villain Sadako once lived on Oshima Island with her mother, who was also a psychic. When a crowd of reporters accused her mother of fraud at a psychic demonstration, Sadako killed one of them with, like, mind-bullets. Later she fled with her purported birth father, Professor Ikuma, to the mainland. Famously, when it became apparent that she was simply too dangerous, he clubbed her over the head and dropped her down the iconic well (it’s actually more complicated than that, as subsequent films in the series tried, and failed, to make clear). Ryuji later suggests that Sadako’s real father may have been an otherworldly being.
In the US version, Samara’s origins are equally mysterious. She was adopted and brought to live with her new parents on their horse farm on Moesko Island. When Samara’s powers started affecting the horses (driving them to suicide) and her mother’s sanity, her parents eventually committed her to psychiatric care. When that failed, her mom took her to the mainland and, you know–dumped her down a well. Notably, Samara was just a little girl when she died, while Sadako was nineteen.
Neither film is perfect. Ringu is, as I said before, extremely slow, while The Ring is sort of a proto-Wan blued-out gritty affair with some borderline cheesy moments (the aforementioned horse suicide being a standout in this regard). I ultimately like the Japanese version a little better, because it strikes me as slightly more sophisticated–it doesn’t need awful imagery or depressing blue lenses to scare me, because the world it creates through its narrative is inherently scary enough–and because I like the connections to larger supernatural traditions. The US film does, however, prove that remakes can be good, despite how bent out of shape some people get about the very mention of the “R” word. And together the Ring films represent a watershed moment in horror cinema history, bringing some of the conventions of Japanese horror into the Western mainstream and reminding people that horror can be more than slashers and gore. It can also be creepy little kids and girls with long hair and spooky wells and, like, ocean symbolism. It can be deep. LIKE THE OCEAN.