The possible advantages of a remake are clear if only we can look past the deep personal offence of daring to meddle with beloved source material in the first place. Translation of a story into a new context can endear it to new audiences, and potentially lead them to revisit the original. Flaws can be addressed, and underdeveloped threads can be explored by shifting the film’s focus. This is a best case scenario; more usually, something goes missing in transit. The Ring is less subtle, less visually appealing and less complex than its Japanese predecessor. Comparisons are not kind, but when the same idea has been executed more capably before, they are difficult to avoid. The crime is not in being a remake, but in being an inferior remake.
The simultaneous deaths of several high school students are rumoured to be the result of a VHS tape that, if watched, kills its victims in seven days. During her investigation of the death of her niece, one of the teens, journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) stumbles across and watches the video, an unsettling pastiche of peculiar black and white images. She enlists the aid of her former partner Noah (Martin Henderson) to discover the truth behind the recording, a pursuit that becomes a desperate race against time when their young son Aidan (David Dorfman) also becomes a witness to the cursed tape.
Perhaps the biggest problem with The Ring is excision. The overall narrative sticks to most of the same story beats, but shorn of the most compelling elements, presumably to appeal to the supposed simplicity of the Hollywood audience. This is in spite of the roughly 20 minutes added to the running time. The only notable addition is the addition of the mysterious character of Richard Morgan (Brian Cox, looking eerily reminiscent of Marlon Brando, circa Superman), as a potentially better analogue to an expositional character in Ring. Potentially, because he is sorely underutilised, despite his role including the film’s most outrageous scene, the epitome of The Ring‘s jarring moments of un-subtlety. Tonally it is at odds with most of the otherwise gloomy atmosphere, but is especially memorable for its needless excess.
The film’s presentation is another departure. The washed-out visuals are clearly intended to resemble the lower quality of a VHS tape, and are effective enough in this direction. But they leave the movie looking drab and uninteresting, as though a splash of colour would detract from the idea that this is a horror film. The exception is a particular image of a tree with red leaves, standing alone on a hall, casting a fiery silhouette against the horizon. These shots are noticeable by their rarity. The recording is another success of the film, arguably more iconic in this form than was Ring‘s. This is in no small part due to the chilling sound design, a quiet hum that rises to a screeching noise, not unlike a scream climbing to an impossible, inhuman pitch. The use of the video’s own footage beyond the characters initial viewings are completely non-diagetic, in contrast to the original film, springing up as a rather patronising reminder whenever its meaning begins to become clear.
Watts does the best that she can with a fairly bland role, occasionally showing some real character (though oddly often as kind of a jerk), but largely is more functional than interesting. She fares better than Henderson, whose alleged college professor is boorish and irritating when he isn’t being painfully two-dimensional. He looks even worse when compared to Hiroyuki Sanada’s wry and brooding Ryuji in Ring. This shift in the male lead may be due to the encroachment of tentative romance into the US version, made necessary only by the trite movie by-laws governing the expected behaviour of attractive people of breeding age. Dorfman manages a mediocre Haley Joel Osment impersonation as the creepy, panda-eyed and singularly unhelpful child-in-a-horror-movie stereotype du jour, and is another symptom of the overall simplification of the story.
The Ring is not a terrible film, especially when compared to some of the truly abysmal remakes of the past few decades. Unfortunately, even taken purely on its own merits, it is only a middling horror, managing only one genuinely chilling scene. Despite its imprint upon pop culture, its reputation is better than its reality, and it feels superfluous in a world where Ring exists. It fails to improve on a movie that is already great, either by being sufficiently different or a worthy peer. Watching it is unlikely to cause your face to twist into a grotesque death-mask as you succumb to terror-induced cardiac arrest, but only because that is far beyond the kind of appeal that The Ring can muster.
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Ehren Kruger (based on the novel by Koji Suzuki)
Starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson and David Dorfman