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RING
1997
Written by Hiroshi Takahashi and directed by Hideo Nakata
96 Minutes
Unrated

You might be surprised at how difficult I found Ring to rate after rewatching it. Make no mistake, it remains one of my favorite horror movies of all time, but it's definitely a flawed masterpiece. However, in comparing it to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which shares many of its fundamental flaws while being hella-fuckin'-balls-to-the-wall awesome, I was forced to conclude that Ring is still definitely a four star horror film. It defines the genre, and helped produce a subgenre that resulted in work like the Ju-on series.

I remember when the American remake was announced, fans of this film on the internet were up in arms and asking why they couldn't just release this out here instead of remaking a classic, neglecting to note that the American film would be the fourth (!) version of this story and that this film was actually the second. In a rare fit of shrewd perception, I felt that Ring (horribly mistitled here as Ringu) would fail dismally in America because of how uniquely Japanese the film is. Cut to the future when Ring was released here to help cash in on The Ring, and I was largely right. An alarming number of viewers were bored and/or just outright didn't get it.

Those that did get it, however, largely immediately understood the importance of the film. Nakata's Ring is an exercise in atmosphere, a brilliantly-stitched film that somehow manages to be greater than the talents of its director and screenwriter. Nakata is a serviceable director (Dark Water is godawful, and Ring 2 is interesting but almost embarassingly disjointed), and Takahashi is an equally serviceable screenwriter, sharing his strengths and failures with Nakata.

I'd like to draw the comparison with A Nightmare on Elm Street again, because I feel it's apt. Wes Craven's film suffers from mediocre characterization, some dismal acting (Ronee Blakley, we're looking at you), and a confused second act (Dream clinic? Seriously?) Nakata's Ring suffers exactly the same problems: the main character, Asakawa, is badly written and Nanako Matsushima's performance is grating and erratic. The second act, though the best of the different versions, still lags compared to the first and third.

Yet both films can almost coast entirely on their central ideas and conceits, and mercifully, both films are directed remarkably expertly. Nakata's film is a pitch-perfect exercise in creeping dread, with a gradual building of scare scenes resulting in the now iconic twist ending. Though I imagine not knowing how it will end would be absolutely terrifying, even knowing how it does doesn't make that ending much less chilling. Sound design and cinematography are absolutely stellar across the board, and Kenji Kawai's soundtrack ranks among his best work.

If Nakata's direction is going to be credited with turning what could've been a fun film into one of the best horror films ever made, we must also credit Hiroshi Takahashi's screenplay for distilling the mediocre novel into something lean and fluid. Takahashi widely sidesteps the common failure of adapting a book to the screen by taking the core of the story and burning away the excess. Ring remains the shortest of the adaptations, and its brevity serves it well, concentrating the horror into a lean and relentlessly unnerving running time. Changes from the novel produce minor dividends at worst and pay off in spades at best. Takahashi's version of Ryuji Takayama is worlds apart from the novel's, and is a much more likeable and tragic figure; veteran actor Hiroyuki Sanada drives the character home, and his portrayal carries the scenes where Nanako Matsushima's performance as Reiko Asakawa fails.

The choice to make Takayama psychic is one of those things that seems to puzzle the hell out of American audiences, and if you're not steeped in the culture it'll feel arbitrary. But Takahashi and Nakata set it up fairly well, and it works in the film, allowing the story to remain streamlined while creating a subtle adversarial relationship between him and Sadako.

And finally, Rikiya Otaka is the most adorable child ever as Yoichi. When a child is that cute, acting talent largely becomes irrelevant, but he handles his scenes very well and even when Asakawa doesn't seem to care enough about him, we do.

I could go on and on about this film. Nakata and Takahashi play a "not of this world" subtheme to the hilt, producing frightening suggestions about the nature of Sadako and creating what is easily the most unnerving cursed video in the franchise. The other ones are nowhere near abstract enough, but Nakata and Takahashi's feels genuinely unearthly. It's a testament to their skill that the cursed video and many elements within the film achieve a kind of otherworldly quality that is seldom seen in horror and hasn't been read since Lovecraft.

Ultimately, despite writing this massive essay about Ring, my review borders on unnecessary. Viewers capable of enjoying the slow burn and allowing the film to wash over them will walk away having experienced some of the best the genre has to offer. And the people who don't like it...well, they're just missing out.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.