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THE RING

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox, David Dorfman
Director:  Gore Verbinski
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  New Short Film, Trailers
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  March 4, 2003

“Before you die, you see the ring…”

Film ***

Rarely has so chaotic and messy a movie been so effective.  The Ring will scare you…but ultimately, it may not completely satisfy you.

It’s like looking at individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that are all well-crafted and conceived, but that in the end don’t fit together.  There are a few key questions you will ask yourself after the brilliant opening sequence.  The problem is, you’ll still be asking yourself them at the end.  It’s a loosely played structure that works okay for horror, but is frustrating for a mystery.

And the mystery is what the story hangs on.  It begins with an urban legend styled tale about a videotape that supposedly kills.  You watch it, the phone rings, a voice tells you “seven days”, and then seven days later to the minute, you’re dead.  Seemingly the stuff of morbid fantasy, until a group of four teenagers who watched the tape all end up dead seven days later at the same time…no explanations.

One of those kids is the niece of reporter Rachel Keller (Watts), whose unusually bright little boy Aidan (Dorfman) seemed tuned in to the fact that she knew she was going to die.  Learning of the tape, she begins the investigation that leads her to it.  She watches (and for the first time, we, the audience, see it too), and the phone rings…

With the clock ticking, she enlists the help of Aidan’s estranged father Noah (Henderson), a video techie who works with her to piece together the strange collage of images on the tape and what, if anything, they might mean.  But in the meantime, something truly horrific happens.  Aidan watches the tape.  Now, Rachel and Noah aren’t just racing to save themselves, but their son as well.

I don’t want to delve into details about the story, because some of the twists and turns are intriguing.  Some aren’t so hard to figure out.  And some, as mentioned, are left completely unresolved.  This film is based on a Japanese movie coming from a horror novel by Hideo Nakata, and one can only wonder if that movie managed to piece itself together in a more satisfying way.  The good news is that fans who want to know can find out…Dreamworks has released that film, Ringu, on the same day as The Ring.

Does The Ring scare?  YES.  I felt my nerves unraveling more than once over the course of the viewing.  Director Gore Verbinski seems to have a knowledge of the vocabulary of horror movies, but rather than use it in tired or conventional ways, he uses it to mess with our minds.  You constantly think you know what’s coming, but only because you’ve seen too many horror films.  Then, the things you don’t expect happen.  I mentioned it earlier, but it deserves repeating that the opening sequence is quite a stunner.  In fact, a day after watching it, I felt an urge to watch it again…and TWO days later, I wanted to watch it again still!

But the mystery drives the story, not the horror.  The horror is merely well crafted dressing draped over a shabbily made table.  In order for the film to work, the mystery has to intrigue, and it does.  But to leave so many questions open is a bad payoff for the audience’s emotional investment.  Ehren Kruger, who crafted the satisfying thriller Arlington Road, should have given this screenplay the water test before turning it in, so he could have spotted the leaks and fixed them.

However, the horror side has its own payoff.  It won’t answer your questions, but if you want to walk away from a movie feeling like you’ve gotten the pants scared off of you, at least you won’t be disappointed in that department.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Director Gore Verbinski is the creator of the famous Budweiser frogs.  Say it after me… “SCRIPT…WRITE…ER…” 

Video ****

Dreamworks never fails to deliver a quality DVD.  The look of The Ring is key to its atmosphere…the story takes place mostly in Seattle and the film has a constantly cool, about-to-rain feel to its colors, which are deliberately hued down for effect.  The imagery is striking in detail; light to dark contrasts are well defined and balanced throughout.  Darker scenes, of which there are a few, don’t fall prone to graininess or evidence of compression.  Highest marks.

Audio ***1/2 (DTS ****)

The audio is likewise strong, although this film doesn’t make quite as conventional a use of sound as some horror movies.  The atmospheric effects are very subtle; most of the punch comes from sudden loud jolts that will vibrate your living room sofa and keep your subwoofer awake.  But when the effects are there, they work wonderfully, whether it’s a bit of rain or thunder behind your shoulders, or the slashing static of a television in front of you.  Both 5.1 offerings are good, but the DTS has better dynamic contrast, and a little more capability in presenting the shrillness of certain sounds…the kind of differences discriminating horror fans will appreciate.

Features **

Labeled “Don’t Watch This”, the disc contains a newly constructed short by Gore Verbinski that seems to include some deleted scenes.  In some areas, it points toward an answer or two, in others, it raises more questions.  I actually enjoyed a frame-by-frame study of it for extra clues.  In addition, the DVD has trailers for Ringu, Catch Me if You Can and 8 Mile.

Summary:

Chances are, you’ll pick up The Ring for a good scare alone, and you’ll get it.  But you may find yourself more interested in the unfolding story, and in the end, a little disappointed that it wasn’t more cohesive and true to itself.  But flaws aside, it’s still effective enough to merit a recommendation.