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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002

Press play, if you dare . . .

The Ring

Rating: * * * *
Director: Gore Vervinski
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 2

You'd think that a good, solid Japanese mega-hit movie would be able to get a decent release in the United States. After all, as Hollywood studio suits are fond of saying (when it comes to their own product), well-made, entertaining stories are universal in their appeal, especially in today's McGlobalized culture.

News photo
News photo
Naomi Watts in "The Ring"

So it's kind of sad to see Nakata Hideo's "Ringu" -- one of the scariest films of the past decade, and a huge success in Japan -- getting the Hollywood remake treatment, when the original seemed to work just fine at scaring the wits out of viewers. Still, when the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)," is considered a "success" when it scrapes the $3 million mark in the U.S. market, the temptation to remake is great. "The Ring," directed by Gore Verbinski ("The Mexican"), grossed 10 times that in its first week; U.S. audiences, apparently, don't do subtitles. Call it cinematic unilateralism.

There must be few film buffs in Japan who haven't already seen "Ringu," but for anyone who hasn't, here's the good news: In what must be a first, the Hollywood remake is actually better than the original. Everything that made the original so deliciously creepy works just as well in Verbinski's hands, the plot has been remixed to give it a few more chills, and David Lynch fans will relish the presence of Naomi Watts (of "Mulholland Drive") in the lead role.

The premise is stupendously simple, the stuff of urban myth: There's a video, and if you watch it, in seven days you die. Like all good horror, it combines primordial fears -- of curses and vengeful spirits -- with the great modern terror of technology, the fear of unseen dangers that may or may not lurk in our cell phones, solvents and genetically modified food.

Not that "The Ring" spends much time belaboring this point. Its sole aim is to scare the bejesus out of you, and that it does, all too well.

The film kicks off in teen-horror mode, with two high-school girls lolling about in a bedroom, teasing each other with boy-talk and scary stories about that fatal video. But how the scene plays out is a far cry from "Scream" and its slasher ilk; one of the girls has seen that video, and exactly one week to the minute, she keels over dead. She's seen something mortally terrifying, but the filmmakers only tease us with glimpses of what that might be.

The dead girl's aunt, Rachel Keller (Watts), is an investigative journalist and begins to explore the mysterious circumstances of her niece's death. She's especially disturbed by the fact that three of the girl's friends also died on the same night. Rachel hears schoolgirl rumors that they all watched "that video, with the little girl on it," and discovers that the four teens spent the previous weekend together at a remote lodge. Rachel pays it a visit, finds a suspiciously unmarked tape, and decides to give it a look. She presses "play" . . .

Static. High-pitched tones. Grainy monochrome images of a man in a window, a lone chair sizzling under electric light, a swarm of maggots. A woman combs her hair in a mirror, then pauses, looks straight at you, with an opaque expression. Everything seems "off," just not right. A shadowy figure glimpsed in the mirror. Blood flows through turgid water. That chair again, spinning in the air. And a ring of light around a dark ominous void.

The phone rings, Rachel answers. "Seven days." Click.

Rachel realizes that this is either the mother of all pranks, or she's well and truly screwed. She takes the video to her ex, Noah (Martin Henderson), and together they analyze the tape, looking for clues as to who made it and why. Puzzling through the details of the tape, with each viewing revealing something more, makes for great suspense. Like Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," the search through mediated events reveals much, but perhaps not the most crucial facts. As Rachel races against time, her search leads her to a remote island, a mental hospital and a missing child named Samara.

The killer videotape holds center-stage here, and Verbinski's version is a chilling improvement on the original, the most surreal and unsettling imagery you'll see this side of David Lynch. I pray that I never have a nightmare as well directed as this: It's the sort of stuff -- a burning tree, or a fly that freezes in mid-flight -- that creeps you out but you can't explain why.

Verbinski goes for total, unrelenting unease. Interiors are shot in a sickly green light, and the Seattle-area locations seem to have been picked for their misty gloom. Like most younger U.S. directors, he can't resist piling on old movie quotes ("Vertigo," "The Shining," "Equus," "Poltergeist"), and Watts even gets her own Janet Leigh moment in the shower. But unlike fellow post-modernist M. Night Shyamalan, Verbinski builds to a truly shocking and terrifying climax, and one-ups the original in terms of sheer visual impact.

Verbinski and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have also streamlined the script immensely, losing a few troublesome points from the original. Noah's skepticism is played up, making a nice foil to Rachel's fears, while the relationship between them is more balanced. Watts gets to be a far more active and compelling heroine than Nanako Matsushima in the original, who mostly clung to her man, who also conveniently happened to have psychic powers that unraveled the mystery. Verbinski dropped that thread as well, knowing that the suspension of disbelief can in fact be stretched too far.

Horror is such a bankrupt genre -- relying on cheap "slam the door loud" tricks, brutally explicit killings and garishly grotesque SFX -- that it's hard to recommend much of anything in that vein any more. It's not only repulsive but banal in its predictability, and just not scary. Still, every now and then there's a work that can get under your skin and freak you out in the best way possible, films such as "The Exorcist," "The Shining," "Don't Look Now," or "Mulholland Drive."

"The Ring" doesn't quite hit these heights -- Rick Baker's makeup effects are a bit too overused to be effective these days -- but its aim is true. Verbinski's inspired remix proves that sometimes you can improve on a good thing.

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