Based on the horror/sci-fi book series by Koji Suzuki, Ring is one of the most iconic and influential horror movies ever made. This is undoubtedly partially due to the veritable deluge of American remakes of Japanese chillers incited by Ring‘s Hollywood adaptation, as well as the numerous parodies of that film, but is also down to the fact that it is excellent. It is horror at its most basic, twisting normality just enough to terrorise while remaining eminently relatable. While a killer video tape might now be slightly dated, it is still an idea that will chime with anyone over the age of 25 or so. Ring eschews gratuitous violence in favour of a thick atmosphere of dread and a ghostly tale that targets youthful fears and parents’ worst nightmares alike.
Ring begins with the mysterious simultaneous deaths of four teenagers, all rumoured to have watched a cursed VHS that kills anyone who views it exactly one week later. Investigating the demise of her niece Tomoko, journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) discovers that the stories are true when she stumbles across and sees the tape. Enlisting the help of her ex-husband Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), a psychic university professor, she must discover a way to escape her fate before her final week is over, unearthing the tragic tale behind the video. Their investigation leads them to a small town on the Izu Peninsula, where they uncover the evil force behind the tape; Sadako, a strange young woman murdered by her father for fear of her unnatural ability to kill with a mere thought. In order to avoid Sadako’s wrath the two must discover her final resting place, and attempt to bring peace to the vengeful spirit.
The story behind Ring is really two stories: a grisly urban legend and a more traditional ghost story. Urban legends are a natural ancestor of oral storytelling. Because they are told and re-told over years, and embellished or inaccurately communicated, they become indeterminate in time and place, which means that they could conceivably have taken place anywhere. They can be benign – unlikely secret modes or levels in video games, dubious movie trivia, the existence of strange crytids – or more sinister – haunted houses, alleged serial killers, or supposedly lethal cocktails of Coke and Mentos. Ring‘s cursed videotape, at the outset, fits squarely into the latter category, perhaps based on stories of gore-soaked slasher flicks or graphic pornography slipped into the boxes of children’s movies by malicious video rental staff, intending to shock and mortify. The notion seems like a natural evolution of tales about ouija board sessions or seances going horribly awry, and seems to be a very clear predecessor of obnoxious chain emails threatening terrible consequences for failure to pass it on, as well as the deep, dark world of internet creepypasta. Like all urban legends, the idea of the killer VHS is just plausible enough (cf. “Electric Soldier Porygon”, the Pokémon TV episode responsible for causing seizures in hundreds of Japanese children) and, if it always happens just a few towns over to a friend of a cousin of a classmate, who is to say that it might not be true?
As the urban legend of Ring turns out to be true, the second phase of the movie begins. The question is no longer whether the tape is killing people, but how, and this leads into the ghost story. These too tend to take similar, identifiable forms. Ghosts are often the restless spirits of the dead kept shackled to the world of the living by some kind of unfinished business. According to many of these stories, a haunting can be stopped by appeasement, removing the need for the spirit to linger by offering them closure. Ring uses this popular conception in order to subvert it. The characters and the audience are presented with the whole tragic tale of Sadako and a clear time limit, so that the solution seems obvious: if she can be placated, the deaths of Reiko, Ryuji and their son Yoichi (who also accidentally witnesses the tape) might yet be averted. As it happens, “Sadako’s rage” cannot be so easily sated. The key to escaping her wrath is not to bring an end to the curse, but to ensure that it continues to claim more victims. Indeed, in hindsight, it seems naive to imagine that a trauma sufficient to frustrate death itself could be so easily salved, or that murder by one’s own father could be so lightly forgiven.
For a story with such prominent supernatural elements, Ring‘s strength lies in its grounding in reality. The very premise of the film is strangely mundane; it is not an ancient artifact or a mystical relic that bears the curse, but an ordinary VHS tape. This offers two big advantages over an ornate enchanted MacGuffin. It is identical to millions of other tapes, allowing its evil to hide in plain sight, and it can be easily copied, allowing the affliction to spread. Rewritable media is a true game-changer for the discerning evil witch or wizard. It is also no accident that Reiko and Ryuji have the professions that they do. Not only are they ideally suited to the investigation of this macabre situation, but their search comes with a dreadfully literal deadline.
Even the film’s effects partake in this realism and are all the more frightening for their simplicity. Sadako’s victims are not bloodied, dismembered or deformed, but seem to drop dead from pure terror alone. Their faces are contorted into the widest possible of silent screams, their expressions especially horrific because they are simply the most extreme versions of normal appearances. The grainy footage on the video itself is intensely unsettling in spite of not being particularly graphic or even coherent. The silent and strange images are disjointed and largely incomprehensible, yet feel subtly wrong. The awful silence of the recording is shattered by the sudden ringing of the phone bearing the fatal message, another example of finding horror in mundanity. Even Sadako herself is not especially monstrous in looks, however terrible she is in intent. Her design has become iconic, immediately recognisable to even non-horror fans. Pallid skin, a dirty, white dress and a face obliterated by a mane of shaggy, black hair. Like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, her hidden visage is enough to make her more inhuman, and thereby creepier.
Ring is as much a time capsule as A Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream, unmistakably of its own time, and yet enduring because it relies upon timeless fears. In a world of 24-hour news and viral video, it may even seem prophetic. The sheer saturation of media means that we might never be far from witnessing something horrendous that leaves us forever scarred. In this way, Ring‘s cursed VHS is simultaneously dated and more relevant than ever. For as long as eerie rumours continue to circulate and capture the popular imagination, Ring will retain its rebarbative power. The film is tense and absorbing, and its open ending only serves to sharpen the sting in the story’s tail: some things are not so easily put to rest.
Directed by Hideo Nakata
Written by Hiroshi Takahashi (based on the novel by Koji Suzuki)
Starring Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Rikiya Otaka