Retro Review Double Feature: Ringu (1998)/The Ring (2002)

RinguCover1Reviewing classics is great and all, but if you really want to feel old, revisit a movie that you remember fondly from before you were legally able to drink. Jesus.

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.


Nothing is happening and IT IS TERRIFYING

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.)

TheRing1The 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.

Both versions spawned sequels, but the (awful) American The Ring Two has no connection to the (also awful) Japanese sequels Rasen and Ringu 2, or the (actually pretty good) prequel Ringu 0.

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.



The Ring:


Poltergeist (2015)

Poltergeist2015_1It seems like horror endures more remakes than any other genre. I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but it feels like it’s true. Why this is is anybody’s guess. Everybody has an opinion on the remake issue, though. For some remakes symbolize Hollywood’s inability to come up with new material. For others they undermine happy memories of bygone days. For still others– well, actually, those are the only two I can think of. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone argue that remakes are universally awesome. Opinions tend toward the negative.

My opinion is an overwhelming meh. ALL genre films exhibit a certain lack of originality; remakes just go a step further by using the name of an established franchise. At least remakes are honest about their own unoriginality. Still, I understand the frustration people may feel, particularly when an original film that you happen to like gets remade into something less than what you think it should be. Consider The Haunting. The 1963 original is a classic and a brilliant example of subtle, atmospheric horror filmmaking. The 1999 remake is a… thing. And it has Owen Wilson getting decapitated. So. Bonus.

The original Poltergeist is also a classic. Many of us children of the ’80s have fond memories of the creepy clown and the killer tree and all the other funny and kind-of-but-not-too-scary shenanigans that made that silly film a great silly film. But let’s be honest with ourselves: it was a silly film. Somebody on Twitter recently re-tweeted somebody else who pointed out that Poltergeist is essentially a family movie, and I think that’s totally right. The message of the movie is that even scary ghosts can’t stand up to love and hugs and, you know, togetherness. I love Poltergeist as much as anybody, but when all is said and done it’s horror lite.

Having said all that, the remake is pretty much exactly the same. This is not to say that it’s a shot-for-shot remake. A great deal has changed, though the core narrative is basically the same: a family moves into a new development; turns out their neighborhood was built on top of a cemetery; the deceased souls of the dead folk are pissed about that and stuck in the house and they kidnap the little girl. There is no Tangina, as we all knew by now, but they replaced her with cranky Irishman Carrigan Burke (the name is there to make sure you know how Irish he is). A number of iconic moments also remain, so you don’t forget this is Poltergeist: there’s the tree, and the clown, and the girl gets sucked into the portal in her closet and talks to her family through the TV.

The weird thing is how the movie seems to delight in its own remake-ness, which works against it at some points. Like, not only is there one scary clown: there are actually a whole BUNCH of them, and they all move (though the only “scary” clown moment is the one they show you in the damned trailer). This is a sort of stupid nod to and simultaneous one-upping of the original. There are a number of similar meta moments: one of the character quips about how the house was just built on a cemetery, “not some ancient tribal burial ground”; Carrigan’s character is a TV host with a paranormal investigation show, and his catchphrase is “This house is clean!” None of these references would work on any level if you weren’t familiar with the original and its legacy, but they don’t really work even if you are. They’re intended to be humorous (I assume), but they’re just sort of eye-rolling throwaway lines that make it harder to consider the film in its own right, instead of as a remake.

For all that, though, the feeling of Poltergeist 2015 is, for me, basically the same as the original. It hits the same notes: you worry for the cute little girl, cringe at the icky decomposing corpses that pop up through the front lawn, laugh at the dad’s not-particularly-funny wisecracks. The original didn’t require a remake: it can stand on its own as a fun, original work of horror(ish) filmmaking that can still wring a scream or two out of unsuspecting audiences. But that doesn’t mean the remake is bad. It’s perfectly fine. Enjoyable, even, to a limited extent. I don’t regret paying the $12 or whatever stupid amount it costs to see a movie now.

It should be said that the actors all do well here. Sam Rockwell is predictably great as the everyman father, Rosemarie DeWitt is a convincing stay-at-home mom, the kids are–well, they’re kids in a horror movie. Jared Harris as Carrigan injects a little humor that doesn’t depend on “munchkin” jokes, which is nice.

The thing I don’t get, again, is why someone thought a remake was necessary. Sometimes remakes are fantastic: Verbinski’s The Ring, or Carpenter’s The Thing, are both incredible movies and completely justify their own existence by being awesome. Poltergeist doesn’t manage that. It’s a fun movie, it just doesn’t seem like something we particularly needed.