A Crash Course in Horror is a monthly column by our self-proclaimed horror movie noob, Noémi Pomerleau. She reviews a classic (or even “new classic”) horror movie from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen it (because, well, she hasn’t).
A couple of months ago one of the last video rental stores in my town shut down for good. They sold off their entire collection of DVDs, Blu-Rays, and — brace for it — VHS tapes. There were a bunch of classics in the collection (I’m going to miss that place a lot) but a friend of mine picked out a true gem – a VHS copy of the movie all about a killer tape.
Luckily I am one of those rare humans who still owns a VHS player. So this month, I sat down with my dear friend and watched The Ring. My apologies to the Ringu purists — I wanted to try out at least one American remake!
The Ring is about Rachel (Naomi Watts), a sassy journalist from Seattle with a creepy son named Aidan (David Dorfman). Rachel catches whiff of a big scoop when her niece and her niece’s boyfriend die under mysterious circumstances. Nobody has the good sense to tell her that it’s distasteful to try and sell a story which hinges on the untimely death of your family member, so she goes off to investigate a rumor about a VHS tape that kills people a week after they watch it. She follows the rumor to a cabin her niece and some friends stayed in, where she finds a tape and watches it.
The tape is bad news! Surprise, Rachel!
Thoroughly creeped out by the tape, Rachel brings it home, where she shows it to her ex, Noah (Martin Henderson). Shortly afterwards, everything starts to go to hell. With one week to go, Rachel must solve the mystery of the tape and set things right — or else.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Ring is DATED. I doubt this comes as a surprise, considering it’s a story based on technology that was obsolete within a few years of its release, but oh boy, it is a real product of its time. It’s not just about the VCRs. Tube TV’s, film cameras, and landline telephones are all major features of the plot. It’s hard not to be distracted by it, and it makes the film a tad less scary.
Having said that, I can’t hate on The Ring‘s plot. It’s impossible to predict how well something will age, and it’s timeliness would have made it more effective when it was released. This concept was worth exploring, and is done very effectively. The ending is particularly strong, probably the best ending to a horror movie I’ve seen thus far. Plus, the “monster” of the movie is truly iconic, whether you know her as Sadako or Samara.
I’m not in a position to compare this to the original Ringu, but I’ve been told it holds up decently. I’m not surprised. Remakes that try too hard to be loyal to the foreign film they’re based off of can end up feeling stilted. Every culture tells stories a little differently, and screenwriters have to take care to make an adaptation their own. Ehren Kruger adapted The Ring from the Koji Suzuki novel and did a great job localizing it. The dialogue feels natural, the characters are well developed, and considering it’s a horror movie that basically involves magic being at work, it felt remarkably believable and grounded. Probably because it was based around the technology of the day, funny enough.
The acting in this film isn’t incredible, but Naomi Watts is a stand out. This film is one of the highlights of her career for good reason. She does particularly well in the moments of terror, never overplaying things, but still clearly frightened. Her co-stars don’t fare nearly so well. Henderson gives a very bland performance — he’s basically an uncharismatic Bill Pullman — and David Dorfman is the token creepy adorable moppet.
Dorfman’s a child, or at least he was at the time, so I can’t be too harsh on him, but I will say that Gore Virbinski did this kid no favours with his directing. Aidan’s supposed to be a little bit creepy, but ultimately harmless. This kid is so emotionless and wooden I thought there would be a twist where he ended up being the villain. I don’t think it’s a real spoiler to say that, because I shouldn’t have felt that way. After I watched it all, it became very clear that it was completely unintentional. It was just that uncomfortable of a performance to watch.
The cinematography is well-done. The entire film is washed out with a tinge of blue or green light. It’s almost as if everything takes place underwater — which is appropriate, considering the importance that a certain well plays in the story. This underwater effect makes even wide shots feel claustrophobic and oppressive.
Adding to this effect, there’s very little music in the film. There’s sometimes quiet piano or sharp strings, but they’re few and far between. This is a common tool of horror movies, I’m starting to realize. Or at least a common tool of most of the good ones. The Ring isn’t the best I’ve seen in terms of sound design, that honor goes to Ju-On, but it’s still very well done. Moments that I would normally expect to be met with a dramatic rise of music are left silent, so we’re left to focus on the horror.
The biggest strength of The Ring is its concept, which makes me excited to watch Ringu to see how it compares. The cinematography and sound design work win this film lots of points, and Naomi Watts is a very capable lead. The little weaknesses of the film are more than made up for by its strong script, story, and monster. It’s definitely scary, although maybe a touch less so now that we’re unlikely to be playing random tapes in our VCRs.
…Because I’m pretty sure I’m one of the only people who still has one.Buy The Ring here!
A Crash Course in Horror updates on every third Saturday of the month. The next update is due on July 16th! If you want to help pick the horror classic I review, just leave a comment below with your suggestion or find me on Twitter (@NoemiPOM)!