The horror film genre has always been hellbent on infusing our favorite conveniences and recreations with psychologically destructive associations. “Psycho” initiated the cultural phenomenon of many people smelling very, very badly. “Jaws” ended the popular practice of swimming naked at night in deep ocean waters. “Christine” disrupted the average American consumer’s familial bond with his car.
And now “The Ring,” the latest thriller to kick away the crutch of our affluence, has dared to add horror and dread to the videotape. Can I not enjoy the latest Mary-Kate and Ashley adventure without questioning its hidden homicidal capabilities?
Directed by Gore Verbinski, this remake of the modern Japanese classic “Ringu” bases itself on a ridiculous, preposterous premise: after an unsuspecting viewer dares to watch a mysterious video, the phone rings and a creepy child’s voice reveals to the victim that he has only seven days to live. In the movie, a curious journalist named Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) takes that dare after she notices that four teenagers mysteriously died at the same moment — precisely seven days after seeing the film.
After staring transfixed at the unsettling images on the screen, Rachel receives the dreaded call and becomes convinced that the cassette’s prophecies are more than mere campfire lore. With her days literally numbered, Rachel obsessively struggles to uncover the tape’s origins, protect her only son from its consequences, and find a way to save her own life.
There is nothing inherently bad about a movie that has such an incredulous setup: supernatural monsters have terrified audiences for almost a century. But success in such an endeavor relies upon the filmmaker’s ability to make the unbelievable believable: the audience must really feel as if a T-Rex could stamp through that screen. “The Ring” achieves isolated moments of stunning visual terror, but like its title it has an enormous hole at its center — few plot strands come together at the end, robbing viewers of a complete cinematic experience.
Most of the movie attempts to give meaning to the villainous video, a hilariously over-the-top homage to the most pretentious student film one could ever envision. This step-by-step process of interpretation leaves the audience waiting in anticipation for the strange, incompatible elements of the tape to merge into one horrifying climax. Yet the resolution is less ingeniously surprising (a la “The Sixth Sense”) than it is excessively confounding.
To its credit, “The Ring” never deviates from its creepy atmosphere or its unsettling tone. It teases us early on with Wes Craven only to channel Edgar Allan Poe instead. The film sustains this suspenseful dread with the help of some excellent directorial instinct. In one nail-biting scene, the camera watches Rachel but focuses on the alternating dark and light that a rotating lighthouse beam creates, causing the audience to grow increasingly frantic over what will appear in this background. In today’s horror films, it is the rare Hitchcockian moment that feels fresh instead of hackneyed.
The other jolting moment comes near the end, when a television screen becomes a little too fluid (that is the only hint you get). This sequence is horror at its meatiest, when the viewer actually sinks into the seat to offset the infectious spread of goose bumps. But did you notice, intuitive reader, the word “other” two sentences ago? Even worse than plot issues is the crucial, simple problem that the movie is just not scary enough. A couple of hair-raising jolts do not sufficiently fill two hours. “The Ring” tries so hard to connect its loose strands and perpetuate its dark dread that it forgets to meet the requisite cheap thrill quota its audience craves.