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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘The Ring’ at 20: Millennial horror that’s still infecting movies today

Daveigh Chase as Samara, the vengeful spirit at the heart of “The Ring.” A folklore demon somehow connected with modern technology became a J-horror staple.

By Beatrica Loayza

If you remember anything about Gore Verbinski’s cursed-videotape chiller, “The Ring,” released 20 years ago Tuesday, it’s probably the whispered threat: seven days.

Or maybe it’s the eyes of a creepy little girl, peering out from behind a curtain of stringy black hair; or the uncanny images — a flaming-red tree, dead horses scattered along a seashore, a finger pushed through a rusty nail — that made up the film-within-the-film. In “The Ring,” any unlucky soul who watches this bizarre videotape receives a menacing phone call as soon as it cuts to static, and in a week they’re kaput at the hands of a soggy ghoul who crawls out of a TV.

“The Ring,” based on the wildly successful Japanese novel by Koji Suzuki as well as the 1998 film adaptation by Hideo Nakata, doesn’t rely on a high body count, or much in the form of blood and guts, for scares. Yet for a generation of horror-lovers, it taps into a familiar feeling of ambient anxiety and inexplicable unease that remains omnipresent to this day.

In fact, it’s surprisingly restrained, unfolding like a waking dream shot through with dread. Set in Seattle and doused in eerie teals and grays, the movie follows Rachel (Naomi Watts), a journalist and single mother tasked with uncovering the truth behind the sudden death of her teenage niece, Katie (Amber Tamblyn), who is found with her face terrifyingly warped, frozen in anguish like “The Scream.” When Katie’s classmates suggest a haunted video is to blame, Rachel tracks it down and watches it, beginning the countdown to her own demise. Through Rachel’s detective work, the story of Samara, that creepy girl, a kind of vengeful spirit, comes to light, but these revelations do nothing to break the curse; only showing the tape to another person can liberate the condemned.

Audiences at the time proved eager to see the tape for themselves. “The Ring” went on to become a sleeper hit, ultimately taking in nearly $130 million domestically and kicking off a string of American remakes of Japanese horror movies, a trend that is among the most distinct and representative of Hollywood in the aughts. Along with the 1999 hits “The Sixth Sense” and “The Blair Witch Project,” the popularity of “The Ring” represented a shift from the fascination with teen-slasher fare that had dominated the previous three decades.

When Verbinski was approached by DreamWorks with the idea of remaking the Japanese film, he was in the middle of reading “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” the surreal epic novel by Haruki Murakami. By the end of the ’90s, Japanese pop culture had made major inroads in the United States — think of the rise of Nintendo and the Pokémon craze. No wonder Hollywood executives pounced on the opportunity to rework “Ring,” then the highest-grossing horror film ever released in Japan, for an American audience. “Ring” was one of the key properties credited with unleashing J-horror, the Western term for the ensuing cycle of Japanese horror films characterized, in part, by a connection between the demons and spirits of traditional folklore and the technologies of the new millennium.

“The original is beautifully abstract and moody, but American audiences demand some sort of resolution or straight path,” Verbinski said in an interview. “They’re motivated to follow bread crumbs, so we created a more linear story. The advantage is, we’re able to mess with those expectations.”

The enthusiasm around J-horror remakes may have been short-lived, but the core of what made “The Ring” so frightening in 2002 — and what made the novel and original film such disturbing portraits of societal collapse in ’90s Japan — is the transferable nature of the death sentence, which makes even the victims complicit. Several American horror movies since “The Ring” have employed a similar formula to critical acclaim and commercially fruitful results. In David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 “It Follows,” a teenager maneuvers to offload her supernatural STD on a sexual partner, who, upon consummation, takes on the spell and is relentlessly followed by a murderous undead entity. “Smile,” the current box-office heavyweight, tracks even closer to “The Ring” by taking the perspective of a cursed woman desperate to find a solution before time — she’s told at most a week — runs out and a spirit that feeds off trauma manipulates her into committing an extravagantly bloody suicide. There’s only one way out for this curse, too: Kill someone else.

Last October, Cristina Cacioppo, director of programming for the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, screened “The Ring” as part of a series dedicated to horror remakes of the 2000s. “There can sometimes be a stigma around remakes,” she said. With “The Ring,” she recalled, “I was very dismissive of it when it came out and thought it’d be this Hollywood version that stripped away everything that made the original interesting. When I finally watched it, I realized it’s very much its own thing — it’s good!”

She also credits the performance by Naomi Watts with elevating the film. At the time, she was a relative unknown who had just broken out in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.”

For Verbinski, the film’s appeal is closely tied to the zeitgeist. Though it was released in 2002, the director and his crew were in preproduction when the events of 9/11 took place, forcing them to move the shoot from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest.

“There’s a random element to the film, a loss of control and disruption of balance that makes it work,” he said. “There’s no moral explanation or sense of one person deserving it over another. It’s scary when a belief system collapses, it leaves you in this existential free-fall.” The film is obviously not a direct result of 9/11, but it makes “palpable a similar crisis,” he added, “that whatever meaning you create from the videotape, whatever progress or discovery you think you’re making, none of that will make you whole.”

Maybe that’s why “The Ring” — even if its legacy includes some truly horrendous sequels and the deflating, if affectionate, parody “Scary Movie 3” — lingers in the mind, especially for those of us who remember its now distant-seeming world of landlines and cassette players.

“2002 was the beginning of that feeling of loss and meaning slipping away,” Verbinski said. “There was a real sense of before and after, but now everything is blurred and we’re swimming in that crisis daily, alone, but still looking for something to share.”

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