Friday, November 19, 2004

The Ring

(2002) *****

At last. My final flick, which I'd planned days in advance. I took a break to catch my breath and started her up at about 11:45. Man, what to say about this movie...

“All you need to make a good horror movie is a little boy walking up some stairs.” How’s that? Not enough? Okay.

I feel like the key to this movie's horror is handed to us very early on, in a line that doesn't come across as very insightful. It comes from the hapless Katie, and it's some girl babble about the millions of magnetic waves that are hitting your brain all the time. That right there is the dark core of Samara's influence. Not so much that she has the ability, both alive and dead, to burn thoughts and images directly into your mind, but that these thoughts and images come from somewhere else. I feel liked Katie's comment suggests that we are all receivers of these broadcasts in the ether -- something like a semblence of mysticism tailored for the West. The only signals that are dangerous are the ones whose point of origin is wherever the hell Samara came from.

And where is that exactly? Is it the realm of the dead? Is it Hell? Whatever it is, it's beyond horrible and it's real. Part of the trick of The Ring is to ground this phenomenon in a hard, real world that doesn't seem open to other realms. By doing that, the movie imbues the horrible influences of Samara with more solidity and, because we're so real in our thinking, we've got absolutely no defense. (I think the movie Unbreakable does something similar, although not nearly as effective, by infusing a land of cold reality with something fantastic.) Of course, that heightened reality is an illusion, and so the cinematography also manages to evoke the feelings of a grim, grey dream. The perfect setting.

I don't want to turn this into a "Ring is better than Ringu" article, because I'm going to have to watch both flicks again to vivisect that idea properly. I will point out that everything I just said about Ring is completely neutralized in Ringu, thanks to the clumsy psychic phenomena displayed all throughout and, most importantly, the wispy reference to Sea Goblins. Sea Goblins? Are you shitting me?

So, being on Samara's hit list is the scariest thing in the world. For a whole week you know it's coming, not so much because of the phone call, but because your head just gets more and more stuffed with the dark ichor of her wrath. I'd say it's almost a relief when she climbs out of the TV, but Jesus Christ do we know that's not true. After I got in a fender bender last year, my shrink pointed out that a bad thing happening is made so much worse when you can see it coming and you can't stop it. When the oncoming car is some unknown, unstoppable doom emerging from the cracks in reality, well, that there is some fine-grade horror.

Okay, here I go again, but: One of the Ringu gripes I hear about Ring is that you actually see Samara's face. But I wanna say, fuck, that little reveal is nothing compared to the stuff Ringu decides to drop on you. Even if the exact nature of the Sea Goblins (which I can't even type without rolling my eyes) is left murky, look how much better it is to not have that in there at all! And, we get a big honkin' flashback about how Sadako has the ability to give people brain hemmorages from across the room. BOOORRRING!!!

One really masterful plot angle that Ringu does employ is keeping our attention off the girl for a huge chunk of the movie, and I love the way they do this in Ring, too. We're so ready to place Anna Morgan as the creepy face from beyond, since Samara's hardly even in the video.* It's a deft switch, and when it comes it comes like a tidal wave. Suddenly Brian Cox is muttering about "the things she shows you" and how she won't be whispering things to him anymore. His demeanor may be all I’m-a-farmer-getting-things-done, but his ghastly suicide makes it clear that she got to him as much as anyone.

* God, thinking about Samara’s brief appearance in the video is giving me chills as I type this. Okay, mad props to Ringu for the scary face hidden by hair thing. It’s totally dope. But I still don’t think it’s the right move to make hiding her face some kind of rule.

The trick to tapping into fear of the unknown isn’t not telling, it’s telling just enough. H.P. Lovecraft was enamored with Not Telling; tons of his stories rely on a slow, mysterious build that saves the reveal until the shocker final sentence (which modern readers often see a mile off). Personally, I always need to be in just the right mood to absorb his writing properly. When he works, it’s a uniquely tasty experience; when he doesn’t work, it feels like he’s being too miserly with the details. There’s the times when they don’t show you enough (Lovecraft, Blair Witch also comes to mind), and times when they show you too much (cough! cough! seagoblinscough!), or a wrong thing that, even in a deliberately foggy context, just doesn’t make any sense (Xtro is full of moments like this, where each subsequent action taken by the aliens kind of rewrites their whole nature.)

And then there’s times when they do it just right, like the quick cut that shows us what Katie’s mother found when she got home. Why is she so mutilated? Who cares, it’s freakin’ terrifying. And she hid in the closet! That’s the stuff of nightmares, when the menace is something lurking right there in your room, by the corner of the dresser. Bob from Twin Peaks was great at that. It’s the vibe made from the bad dreams you’d have when you were a kid and you were sick, and it’s the raw stuff of fear. Hiding from Michael Myers in the closet is damn stupid, but with Samara you might as well.

Everything in this movie is painted with the deftest of strokes. I remember the first time I saw it, how wowed I was when she pulled the fly off the screen, and then right on cue the blood rolled out of her nose. I said “nice” out loud. And nothing beats the second nosebleed cue, when Aiden sits up and says “you helped her?” Oh, what a moment. I was ready to accept the happy ending, that this was all about righting a terrible injustice. Turning it around like that is one of my favorite cinematic twists. I cherish every second of Noah’s encounter with Samara, and I love the glimpse you get of her face. She’s not just a dead girl, she’s a fucking monster. Whatever it is that’s driven her since her unnatural birth is finally in the open, and it literally kills you to look at it.

Compared to that, Sadako’s eyeball left me pretty cold. I’m just sayin’. I certainly like what they were doing, that the curse is activated by something you see. Your eyes are the curse’s gateway to your head, and so the “ring” turns out to be in Samara’s eye, perhaps burned there by looking up the well for seven days. The idea of seeing something deadly works perfectly with a little girl whose face is obscured by hair (thankyou Japan! thanks Ringu!), I just feel that in Ringu they pull an H.P. Lovecraft with the reveal. Too little.

By the end of the movie, the idea of Samara and what she's become is a thing of perfect horror pitch. I think of her as a free-floating burn -- not a fire, but the raw potential of a horrible burn wound, out there somewhere, never sleeping. While alive, she was a representitive for something so terrible it drove horses mad just to be near it. Now she is that thing, whatever it is, and she's merciless and invincible.

This is the scariest American movie ever made. Period.