RING (sometimes spelled "Ringu," to distinguish it from its 2002 American remake) is a smash hit horror film from Japan, which launched the popular wave of J-Horror films, including sequels, imitators, and tie-in merchandise. The film made its Los Angeles theatrical debut at The American Cinematheque's 2000 Festival of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy films, where the eerie, suggestive effort proved capable of mesmerizing an American audience, with its ominous images and moody soundtrack (presented in unnerving stereo).
RING begins with an urban legend related by one of the characters: A boy accidentally sets his VCR to record a blank station, but instead of ending up with a tape full of static, he plays back the image of an evil woman warning him that he will die in a week. After viewing the tape, his phone rings, and a strange voice says, “You watched it.” Then, a week later, he dies for no apparent reason.
The story is apparently a popular one among teens, who retell it in different variations for a reporter doing a story on the legend. But when a group of friends, who all apparently saw a weird videotape, die simultaneously on the same night, the reporter begins to think there may be some truth to the story. She manages to track down the tape and view it, putting herself at risk, and the rest of the film involves her search to find the source of the haunting in the hopes of placating the angry ghost responsible for the tape.
The result is a plot that unfolds like a good mystery story, with few if any shocks for most of the running time. After the opening scenes (which builds up great tension but cuts away before we see anything happen), most of the horror emerges from anticipation. Particularly effective is the mysterious videotape, which somehow manages not to be a letdown when finally seen, despite the kind of build up that seems impossible to live up to. There is nothing outright horrifying in it; instead, it is a series of incomprehensible images that convey a sense of unease through their very disjointed, fragmented nature (the easiest point of comparison would be to Luis Bunuel’s surreal short subject “The Andalusian Dog”).
When the scare sequence finally does emerge, near the end, it is an effective climax to the careful buildup, which includes Lovecraftian suggestions of isolated seaside communities and interspecies miscegenation. The ending manages both to provide an adequate conclusion to the specific story being told, while clearly implying that the evil force is spreading, with an ever widening circle of people doomed to see the cursed tape.
Director Hideo Nakata’s film is a minor masterpiece—a low-budget horror gem that far exceeds the effective but overrated Blair Witch Project, which earned critical kudos around the same time. Neither remakes, sequels, nor prequels ever matched the impact of the original, which in retrospect seems almost miraculous in its ability to sustain a growing sense of supernatural dread, the like of which is seldom matched by even the most subtle and carefully calculated genre efforts.
Unfortunately, U.S. distributor Fine Line opted to license an American remake instead of giving the original film the wide theatrical distribution it deserved in the U.S. Los Angeles fans who missed the American Cinematheque's exciting screening (a good print, with excellent stereo sound and subtitled Japanese dialogue), missed one of the best horror films that played anywhere in the U.S. that year. Thankfully, video and DVD made the film available for American audiences who never got the chance to see it in theatres.
RING was followed by two sequels, SPIRAL and RING 2, a prequel (RING 0), a Korean remake (THE RING VIRUS), and an American remake THE RING, which itself spawned a sequel, THE RING TWO, which was directed by Nakata.
RING is substantially different from its source material by Koji Suzuki, which downplayed the supernatural in favor of pseudo-science, suggesting that the phenomena portrayed were the result of psychic powers. In the novel, the "cursed" videotape is metaphorically likened to a virus that infects and kills the viewer after a precise incubation period (a concept made literal in the literary sequel Spiral, which was filmed as RASEN). The film adaptation added numerous touches that placed the story more in the tradition of Japanese ghost stories and movies. Of course, the biggest addition was the spectacular freak-out ending, in which the vengeful ghost of Sadako unexpectedly emerges after the characters think they have laid the malevolent spirit to rest.
These changes created almost insurmountable narrative speed bumps for the sequels, which faced the unenviable task of attempting to adapt Suzuki's subsequent novels while also retaining familiar elements from the first film. Consequently, RASEN, RING 0, and the much later SADAKO feel like puzzles with pieces that do not fit; RING 2 avoided the problem by working from a completely original script (though it ended up hitting several of the same plot beats as RASEN).
RING (a.k.a. "Ringu," 1998). Directed by Hideo Nakata. Screenplay by Hiroshi Takahashi, based upon the novel by Koji Suzuki. Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatari, Hiroyuski Sanada, Yuko Takeuchi, Hitomi Sato.
Original review copyright 2000 Steve Biodrowski; revised and updated 2015