Made Overseas: Ring (1998)

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for that one scene.

You know the one.

So turn back if you want this movie completely unspoiled for you blah blah blah blah this should be enough to clear out the preview text on the main page don’t you think?

Somehow, watching Ring on my phone’s tiny screen seems ironically appropriate.

It’s not just because of my crippling fear that Sadako was going to emerge from the screen, hoping thus I would only have to deal with a tiny Sadako and not a giant, lumbering giant-sized Sadako if seen on my bigger TV. Wouldn’t that be adorable, though? Yeah, she’s murderous, but imagine her being pocket sized! (It seems like no official Sadako Funko Pop exists, though there are fan creations.)

I was completely at a loss as where to find a legitimate copy of the original Ring (or Ringu, to distinguish it from the 2002 American remake). It wasn’t on Netflix or Amazon Prime. It also wasn’t available to rent on iTunes. Were streaming service trying to avoid … some sort of curse?

I watched Ring on the most appropriate medium: a copyright-flaunting stream on YouTube. It was either that or buying the DVD, which would set me back a cool $44.  (Though yeah…. there are some used copies circulating that you can get for less than a $1.  Perhaps from owners who mysteriously perished.)

Ring was directed by Hideo Nakata. Alongside Blair Witch Project, this movie is credited for revitalizing the horror genre in the late-90’s and early 2000’s.  It’s hard to deny the impact.  The 2000’s are littered with movies like Paranormal Activity that take influences from both.  Ring took a more subdued approach that the popular slasher films on the 80’s and 90’s. Rather than upping the gore, the terror was, for the most part, implied.

The movie opens on two girls are chatting about this weird urban legend circulating around their little town.  It goes something like this: one of the girls watched this bizarre video in a cabin with her friends. And that video… MIGHT BE CURSED.

To be fair, the video is creepy. It reminds me of Manos: The Hands of Fate.  Underneath the primitive low production values, there’s something about grainy lo-fi footage that gets under your skin. You start to wonder what the story is behind the film.  “Is this a snuff film?” Crow asks somewhat sincerely. It’s the same with the accursed video: is this the product of a madman who was trying to say something in the only way they knew how?

Here’s what the girl saw: a woman looks at herself in the mirror.  (It’s perhaps the creepiest scene. There a lot of white space. The woman’s reflection looks small and oddly framed to the left.) Then we see a shot of floating kanji, one of which reads “Eruption”.  We then cut to a scene men crawling on the ground backwards, and another of man in a kimono, pointing at something offscreen, with his face obscured by a towel.

And then… an empty well.

The girl telling the story, Tomoko, laughs off the story as a silly ghost tale.  Her friend leaves the room.  Alone, Tomoko turns around. She sees something, and her face contorts in fright.  Freeze frame, black and white filter, and then… title credits.

It’s pretty cheesy.

Tomoko dies. Her aunt Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), a reporter, tries to find out what happened. Eventually, she too watches the video. Afterwards she receives a phone call telling her that she only has seven days to live.  This movie was released in 1998, a time when both VHS tapes and landlines were still in use.  Then, it was about how you can find horror in modern technology.  Now it’s about the innate creepiness of obsolete technology.

You know how older movies sometimes had an antique phonograph playing a skipping record to indicate that something is a little off?  VHS tapes are now in the same category. Tracking lines are the modern version of that skipping record. The distressed quality looks alien when we’re so used to the crispness of DVD’s and streaming services.  Landline phones are creepy, too.  Scary phone calls informing you of you impending doom just look far more frightening when the receiver is attached by a cord.  It may be the implicit threat of strangulation.

There’s also the pale static hum of the TV screen that reaches at the end of the tape.  The screen fragments into dots, the audio becomes indiscernible, and the glow is spectral.  It has the characteristics of an otherworldly spirit itself.  (The creepiness was explored more fully in the Michael Keaton movie, White Noise.) Reiko catches her son watching the accursed VHS tape, yet all we see is this flickering static screen.  He might as well be staring at a ghost.

Reiko enlists her ex-husband Ryugi (Hiroyuki Sanada) to help unravel a mystery that seems to be at the bottom of multiple deaths.  The movie, for a long part of its running time, starts to feel less like a horror movie and more like a crime procedural.  It’s more David Fincher than James Wan.  The only overt terror comes from close-ups of victims who have perished after succumbing to the ill effects of the video. And even then, the faces skirt the border between terrifying and looking somewhat silly. When one of Tomoko’s fellow video watchers dies, the big scare effect is that her face is frozen in a rictus grin, and her skin looks gray. The rictus grin imagery is your repeated several times in the movie and is its primary horror element.

Ryugi is a little skeptical at first, but once he too gets a phone call he’s on board. He tries to rationalize everything.  Is this some sort of virus?  Will an analytical approach to the video provide clues in how to break the curse? Reiko makes the observation that there’s no way the woman in the mirror could be filmed the way she was, as the cameraman would show up in the reflection. This observation goes nowhere, but it adds to the increasingly supernatural atmosphere.

They eventually discover a clue to the woman’s dialect in a message jumble and visit her old hometown on an island accessible by boat. From there the movie is a series of misdirects.  They see a suspicious old man, but he’s not talking! Oh no, a typhoon is coming! They’ll never get off the island by the time the seven day limit elapses. Both of these turn out to be minor nuisances. The threat of a typhoon turns out to be fairly surmountable. They… find someone who can drive them to shore. The old man seems stubbornly resistant at first, but a deux ex machina (which I will not spoil here) rather quickly reveals his role in the mystery.

Nakata does something a little more subtle, though.  Many scenes feel oppressively claustrophobic.  Sometimes the characters are hemmed on all sides by the dark confines of a room.   Other times, they’re in the open, but their freedom is limited because they’re surrounded by the vastness of the sea.  Everywhere, there’s a sense that there is no escape, preparing you for the movie’s infamous conclusion.

Spoiler alert: there are many things about the movie that I didn’t spoil. And yet, now I will be talking about the part of the movie that literally everyone talks about. (I was a little hesitant to include some of these screenshots… but most of them do appear in the movie trailer from when Ring first came out.) To not talk about it is like talking about Psycho without referring to the shower scene. Even if you wanted to keep it a surprise for first time watchers, the omission would leave out the part on why the movie works so well. Take out this scene, and Ring is an unremarkable procedural. With this scene, though…

Reiko and Ryūgi seem like they’re in the clear. They have solved the mystery of the missing girl! It seems to have mostly been a mental apparition. Sadako was a spirit fueled by rage at the injustice of her own murder. The police have been called in, and it seems that Sadako can finally be at rest.

Ryūgi is alone in his apartment. The seven day limit is over. Reiko is alive. It only makes sense that he and their son will also live. And then suddenly… the TV turns on by its own.

The film is now slightly different. There’s the empty well again. But… it’s not empty. A hand emerges. We see a girl whose face is obscured by her long hair. Ryūgi is frozen into place as the girl shambles closer and closer to the screen. We cut to his terrified face. And then to the screen, where the girl comes closer and closer. And then… she crawls out of the screen.

CLUMP.

CLUMP.

We see a close up of her hand. There are no fingertips. Lost when she tried to climb out the first time.

CLUMP.

CLUMP.

Oh God.

Her EYE.

This shot has been parodied many times. The American version has been included in a lot of top horror moments list. I thought this would have defanged the moment and made it less frightening. It does not. I was literally holding my phone at arm’s length and angled in such a way to obscure the screen so I could only barely see a Sadako taking physical form. It’s been twenty years since this scene was first shot, and it has lost none of its power.

Much of terror comes from how the scene is shot. Psycho introduced the world to quick cuts that only suggest violence. It’s the opposite here. The camera lingers on Sadako far too long. You want a jump scare to come just so it can be over. But it doesn’t come. You watch her crawl slowly and deliberately to you. You see her slowly stand erect. You never see her face. In a lot of movies, the power comes from the soundtrack. In Ring, the silence works to accentuate the horror. Turning off the sound will not work when the horror is about the creeping inevitability of death.

To me, this is a far more effective horror scene than its gorier contemporaries. Blood and guts are thrilling, but they don’t scare me. Not knowing what’s going to happen, having the Sword of Damocles ominously swinging above your head with no clue when it will drop… that’s frightening. Taken out of context, Sadako is just a girl in a goofy wig with an oversized dress. Pair that with the ominous and overpowering sense of dread, and she becomes a horror icon.  Much credit to actor Rie Ino and her slow, deliberate body language.

The sound, too, is instrumental. On screen, she’s a silent ghost basically floating closer and closer to the viewer.  When she emerges from the screen, Sadako’s palms hits the floor with a wet, heavy thud.  The intangible made tangible.

Ring‘s sequel history is a strange one.  It wasn’t the first adaptation of the original mystery novel by Koji Suzuki.   There was a previous 1995 film called Ring: Kanzenban which followed the novel more faithfully.  In a bizarre marketing strategy, Ring‘s own sequel, Rasen, was released at the same time.  (The studio got around the production issues by having a different director and different cast.) Ring was a hit.  Rasen flopped hard. (I read the wikipedia summary of the book. It is bonkers. Apparently some elements were incorporated into the 2017 Rings movie.)

The studio decided to film another sequel the next year.  The events of Rasen were declared non-canon.  Ring 2 continued with the original cast and with Hideo Nakata at the director’s seat.  It seems to have done pretty well.  This would have been the end of the story… except in 2012, Tsutomu Hanabusa directed a film called Sadako 3D, which is explicitly the sequel to Rasen! So, not even counting the wildly popular American version and its sequels (as well as a Korean version called The Ring Virus!), there exists an actual Ring multiverse!

Which is all to say: I have no idea which universe 2016’s Sadako vs.Kayako exists in. Maybe we’ll find out when I check it out next Made Overseas.

FUN NOTE: Apparently Reiko and her son, Ryogi, were taken from the third book, Loop. There, Reiko has a romantic relationship with a man 15 years younger than her named Kaoru, who is … dun dun dun … a clone of Ryugi (who appears in the first novel). Also the entire book is about virtual reality. The program was responsible for creating the Ryugi clone, which in turn, has doomed the world to cancer. The cancer is Sadako taking physical form to emerge in the real world. Also… Sadako IS the virtual reality simulator.

So if you’re going to complain about the latest craziness that the Ring franchise has taken in recent installments, just remember: it was all there in the original book trilogy.

FUN NOTE 2: By the way, in the battle of Ring vs. the American The Ring, who wins? I haven’t seen the latter. However, I will tell you which one is more popular in its country of origin: The Ring made $1.3 Million more in its first two weeks in Japan than the OG Ring did in its entire run.