*Originally written in 2003
Just when horror movies were slipping back towards mediocrity and worse, after the high of Scream and the many lows which followed, Hideo Nakata decided to bring Koji Suzuki’s hit novel to the big screen. The result is the most terrifying movie of the decade, and one of the most chilling movies of all time. Made on a tiny budget the film is relentlessly evil, the tension never gives in, and you will not forget it for the rest of your life. Stylish, borrowing from other films and surpassing them, Ringu is a demon reincarnated as a movie, its effect on us everlasting, ensuring we spread the word…
The film opens with a Scream-like scene and the tension is already high, our wrists put in a deathly grip from the outset. Two teenage girls are discussing a video one of them claims to have seen, saying it is the scariest thing she has ever see. Once you watch it the phone rings, and a voice tells you you will die in seven days. The girl though says she is joking. Then the TV switches itself on and she hears scratching noises. It has been seven days. We cut to a reporter, Reiko Asakawa who is doing a story about the video curse. She investigates some local deaths, including her niece and soon realises that all her niece’s friends are dead too, having watched a mysterious video. Leaving her son behind she goes in search of the video. Eventually she finds it, watches it and answers the ringing phone. Convinced she is going to die she contacts her ex-husband and tries to find a way to save herself. He is not convinced, and watches it as well. However, later that night their son Yoichi also watches, so they all try to solve the curse, uncovering the story of the Yamamuras, in particular – Sadako.
Aside from having one of the most frightening climaxes in movie history, one which the recent remake completely failed to resurrect, there is an eerie atmosphere throughout the film. There are many other moments which add to the atmosphere and build towards the infamous final scare. The last 15 minutes are extremely scary as Reiko and Ryuji search for Sadako and feature some of extremely nail-biting scenes. Everything in the film is designed to unsettle – the unearthly soundtrack reminiscent of Argento and Goblin’s works, the fixed and cornered camera angles so we can never see what is near, the grim surroundings, the complete lack of humour, the use of colour etc. The performances are all very good as well, Nanako Matsushima as Reiko swiftly moves from confident to frantic wreck, and exudes every possible emotion. Hiroyuki Sanada is extremely strong, slowly coming to realise the truth, conveying guilt over his son and remaining both mysterious and strong when his ex-wife gives up. His final scene is perfectly acted, heightening the overall effect. Rikiya Otaka as Yoichi manages to be creepy, but his role becomes more central in the second film. The rest of the cast are all immensely good. The inclusion of the timer is also highly effective, ensuring the tension rises as we know time is running out.
Of course the film has its flaws. Some people will be put off by the slow nature. Some people will feel the need to have every question answered, and Ringu leaves many unanswered – that is the point. If we were in this situation we would be looking for answers – anything to help us, to relieve the fear, something real to hold on to, but nothing is given. As we are left wondering, the film will stay with us, continuing to haunt us over time, ensuring we do not escape the ring. As it was adapted from a novel, certain inherent difficulties arise. In the novel it is a man who is the reporter, his wife is barely around, and his near-sadist friend takes up the Ryuji role, hoping to put some excitement into his life. In the book, beware all reflective surfaces. The curse is more of a disease than a ghost. Nakata takes the best elements, and makes the story his own. There will be some confusing moments, but the constant threat of something happening will mean you will continually be focused on the film.
The sense of isolation is strong, and there is a coldness surrounding the film. Many rooms are blank, places lack expression, and people speak in monotone, and avoid eye contact. Nakata explores Japanese culture and mythology, showing the intrusion of the West via moments which remind us of past films. There is more than one reference to The Terminator – the final shot, the dates, the relentless evil of Sadako, technology backfiring, and it recalls other films such as Videodrome, Eraserhead, Straw Dogs, and there is veiled thanks to Stephen King. (Translate the name of a certain familiar Stephen King town into Japanese). Nakata shows himself to be the new master of tension, and along with Miike, Kitano and others is proving that Japanese cinema is a force not to be taken lightly. I first saw this around 5 years ago, and it is still rewarding and scary today. The themes of abandonment, fear and guilt stay with the viewer, coming out more with each viewing, once the initial fear has gone. This is one horror movie everyone should see, vastly superior to the remake which opted for cheap scares, flashy camera-work and loud noises. This is subtle, both nightmarish and real, and uses one of the most effective themes of horror movies to the fullest – the inevitability of death. We are doomed and there is no escape, but that should not stop us fighting for each other and ourselves, no matter how invincible our enemy.