Ringu (1998)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-05-27 21:17

Written by: Hiroshi Takahashi (screenplay), Kôji Suzuki (novel)
Directed by: Hideo Nakata's
Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Yûko Takeuchi

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“So that video is..."
"It's not of this world. It's Sadako's fury. And she's put a curse on us."

In the fifteen years since its release, it’s easy to recall how Hideo Nakata’s Ringu turned Japanese urban legends and ghastly folklore into a cottage industry not only for his home country, but for the Western hemisphere as well. Once Hollywood caught wind of the wildly successful supernatural chiller (which still reigns as the highest grossing horror film in Japanese history), the course was set, as a gaggle of vengeful spirits would haunt multiplexes and video stores for the first few years of the new millennium. There’s a certain irony to how that virtually endless parade of knockoffs diluted the effect—after all, most of them were taking their cue from a film centered on the potency of a cursed videotape whose bizarre, searing images result in a viewer’s death within a week. However, revisiting Ringu after all these years provides a strong reminder as to why this film managed to cast the mold: it’s a perfect mix of mystery, campfire storytelling, and dread atmosphere.

Not since A Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser has a horror film featured a more effective hook, and few have delivered it with more effectiveness, as Ringu opens with a pair of schoolgirls discussing the latest urban legend floating around their high school: according to rumor, there’s a videotape floating around sourced from a pirate broadcast down on the Izu peninsula supposedly curses its viewers to death. As the story wears on, Tomoko confides that she and a group of friends recently watched a strange tape and received a phone call foretelling their death in seven days. When the girl reveals that this happened exactly a week ago, the phone rings right on cue, promptly terrifying the both of them. The duo thinks they’re granted a reprieve when it ends up being one of their parents, but a television set mysteriously turns on and Tomoko is killed by an unseen entity.

That opening sequence is an impeccably crafted prologue that captures the essence of Ringu, even if it only scratches the surface of the dense narrative, which finds Tomoko’s aunt Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the young girl and several of her classmates. As an overture, the prologue captures the urban legend quality the film is set to tackle—it very much seems like the sort of scary story that kids would tell each other at a sleepover, only it suddenly springs to life and comes true (I’ve mentioned my affinity for this sort of plot device before, and it’s awesome here). Between the killer concept and Nakata’s suspenseful execution, the setup is irresistible, and the film spins a wildly compelling yarn around it.

As Reiko peels back the mystery surrounding the tape, the film develops a rich mythos that only becomes more intriguing as it unfolds. Along with her ex-husband (Hiroyuki Sanada), she discovers that it somehow contains the supernatural transmissions of a dead psychic who flung herself into a volcano forty years earlier, a revelation that still only manages to serve as the starting point for even more discoveries. Eventually, the search takes Reiko and Ryuji to some odd places, some of which were shorn from the American remake (such as Ryuji’s own psychic ability, which didn’t transfer to his American counterpart). Unbeknownst to the duo, their endpoint rests at a mysterious well that’s somehow connected to the psychic’s daughter, Sadako, who would eventually become the franchise mascot and the godmother to all those Japanese ghost girls. Here, though, she’s simply at the center of a twisted, tragic tale that winds and wends in tremendous fashion; even after seeing this film (and the remake, which largely retains all of the major beats) several time, I’m drawn in by the narrative’s relentless propulsion and suspense, which is ramped up with each development and aided by Reiko’s race to save her own life before the curse claims her.

A satisfying thematic undercurrent also runs beneath the pulpy tale, as Reiko’s fractured family subtly mirrors the lurid familial drama surrounding Sadako. As she diligently works to (hopefully) bring justice to a long-deceased girl, she winds up almost neglecting her own son, who is often left alone or in the care of a babysitter. When the boy accidentally watches the haunted tape, her pursuit obviously intensifies, and the presence of her ex-husband adds the hopeful dimension of a possible reconciliation of the stable family unit. While the film’s title eventually refers to the endless cycle of Sadako’s transmitted suffering as the tape makes its uninterrupted rounds, it seems to also refer to the vicious circle of familial destruction. Just as Sadako’s family degenerated, so too has Reiko’s, and that refraction adds a cool layer to Ringu, a film that’s often as sad as it is scary due to the fully invested performances all the way around. Sanada is especially effective as Ryuji, a brilliant professor whose cool sense of confidence gives way to a quiet desperation as he begins to comprehend the nightmare he’s uncovered.

Of course, Ringu is quite often scary since it’s thoroughly unsettling. Nakata infuses the film with an overbearing sense of dread and soaks the entire film in a somber, low-lit aesthetic that Gore Verbinski brilliantly aped by transposing the proceedings to the Pacific Northwest; there’s an suffocating gloominess here that shades everything. Ringu is hardly a graphic film, as Nakata foregoes overt shocks in favor of mood, ambiance, and disturbing sights and sounds (be it obvious stuff like contorted, frozen-faced corpses or the quiet, desolate landscapes haunted by crashing waves). His centerpiece is the tape itself, a now infamous collection of pure nightmare fuel that takes its cue from Bunel and Lynch. Even though Reiko and Ryuji decode the video’s message, the imagery is an inexplicably strange and opaque transmission with a snuff-like aesthetic that also recalls Cronenberg’s Videodrome (it’s no coincidence that Ringu also inspired a rash of similar technophobic horrors); the video is contradictorily authentic and surreal all at once, a quality that perhaps even prefigures the allure of the looming found footage aesthetic.

Fifteen years and various sequels, remakes, and knock-offs haven’t done much to dilute the power of Ringu, a film that’s arguably more effective now than it was back then in light of so many pale imitators. It’s certainly aged quite well, and it’s hard to imagine the horror canon without it at this point, especially since it was once (somewhat appropriately) consigned to bootleg circles and such until Dreamworks officially imported it and released it alongside its remake in 2003. While that release was solid enough, the studio really did right by this franchise a couple of years later with an anthology release that collected the entire saga up until that point (a fifth film, Sadako 3D, was recently released in Japan). The transfer for Ringu is a little shaky in terms of some artifacts and a general murkiness, but it’s an otherwise solid release that makes for a completely worthwhile addition to any collection. None of the follow-ups quite matched the original, though, so you’d be forgiven if you omitted those. Obviously, the same can’t be said for Ringu, which took the Japanese preoccupation with disquieted spirits and dark folklore to new, positively eerie heights. Essential!

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