Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ring (1998)

I can never pick an all-time favourite horror movie. There are just too many great choices to pick from the last hundred years or so. But my favourite horror movie of the last 20 years is Ring. There's no serious competition. It revitalized a then-moribund genre and its climax was, in the context of the movie, as frightening as anything I've ever seen in a movie. It did this while being low-key, being set in an identifiable and real-world setting, and without resorting to shock tactics. It presents believable, sensible adult characters and puts them into a terrifying situation from which it seems impossible to escape. It drew on themes and ideas from folklore and urban legend without being cliché, and it created a simple yet iconic horror character whose mere appearance still gives me chills.

There are going to be plenty of spoilers in this entry. Although I doubt that there are many horror fans unfamiliar with Ring by now, you should be warned that I'm going to give away the ending of the story right after this paragraph. I'd rather not spoil if for you if I can avoid it, so if you haven't seen Ring or its inferior Hollywood remake I'd suggest that you stop reading now.

In a traditional Western ghost story, a spirit will often stop being scary once we see that they just want to try to communicate with someone so that they can be put to rest. The characters in Ring make the mistake of thinking that they are dealing with this sort of ghost. Unfortunately for them they are actually dealing with an onryō, a vengeful spirit which can actively harm or kill the living. This particular onryō, Sadako, puts a curse on people which will kill them in seven days. Because of their mistake, Ring finally kicks into high gear at exactly the point when it has signaled that the story should be over. It's not unique in doing this - for example Poltergeist pulled a similar trick in 1982 - but the way it's handled here is masterful.

In a beautifully tense sequence, the protagonists Reiko and Ryuji have located Sadako's body and seemingly put her to rest. The seven days since Reiko had the curse placed on her have passed and she is still alive - it looks like Ryuji and their young son Yoichi, both of whom were also cursed, are now safe. All signs point to the curse having been broken. The police have come and gone, and everyone has gone to their respective homes. The next morning we see them in their respective homes - Reiko calling Yoichi at her father's place, Ryuji finding the mistake his assistant deliberately put in his work and correcting it. But then, as Reiko stands on her balcony with a troubled look on her face, a caption comes up: Tuesday, September 21. Why is the movie still counting off the days?

It's because seven days have passed since the curse was placed on Ryuji, and his time is now up.

It turns out that Reiko had broken her curse much earlier in the movie without even realising it. All she needed to do was to pass it on to Ryuji. He has not passed it to anyone. Sadako has not been put to rest, their efforts there were completely in vain. The set-piece where Sadako appears and kills Ryuji is so effective not just because it is so well played, but because it shows that both the characters and the audience failed to understand the rules that the movie had set up. Sadako is not a lonely spirit who just wants to rest. She is filled with rage and hatred which can never be sated, and she wants her fury to spread as far as possible.

All of this is played low-key and as matter of fact as possible. Ryuji lives in an ordinary house in the suburbs. His living room is small and sparsely decorated, and as it is morning the scene plays out with daylight shining in through the windows. There are no cutaways, elaborate special effects or jump cuts. And yet, in my opinion, it is the single more terrifying horror movie scene of at least the last twenty years. It's this very normalcy of this setting that helps to intensify the horror when Sadako climbs out of the well on the tv screen, walks all the way to the inside of Ryuji's tv screen, and actually crawls out of the screen into the real world.

The idea of the curse is straight from M. R. James's short story "Casting the Runes" (spectacularly filmed in 1957 as Night of the Demon), another movie that pointedly places supernatural events into a normal milieu. The imagery of Sadako crawling out of the tv is straight from Videodrome, and she has exactly the look of a classic Japanese ghost, but the way the scene brings horror directly into a normal living room on a sunny morning is straight out of a nightmare. Sadako literally looks Ryuji to death in probably the most frightening self-reflective moment in horror movies.

The final image of the movie shows Reiko's car driving into the horizon. She is going to her father's house so that her young son Yôichi can pass the curse on to her father. As the shot fades out one more date comes up, this time in red: Wednesday, September 22nd. The ending has an apocalyptic feeling to it; but the implication is that the days will keep ticking and the curse will keep spreading. This ending would be elaborated on in some other interesting Japanese ghost movies, for example Takeshi Shimizu's Ju-on and most notably in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterful Kairo, but I found Ring's rather intimate apocalypse more affecting, as the curse passes inexorably around Reiko's family. The best horror stories are the ones we can closely relate to, and Ring keeps things personal by directly threatening people who are close to each other.

Sadako has some clear precedents in Western horror movies, Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and Candyman being obvious examples. All of these movies involve sins of the past coming back to haunt the present, and in both Candyman and Ring the female lead learns about the killer through an urban legend told by a young woman she's interviewing. There are further parallels with Candyman through mirror imagery - Sadako is seen in a mirror in the cursed videotape and appears in the reflection on a tv after Reiko watches it, and Candyman will appear if you look into a mirror and say his name five times (a reference to the Bloody Mary urban legend).

I'll leave you with the four faces we see of Sadako's victims over the course of the movie.

Faces of Death.

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