Decoding "The Ring"

As last year's addictive horror hit reaches DVD, a critic probes its reflective surfaces, its murky depths and its icy postmodern core. (You now have seven days!)

Published March 18, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

"Horror beyond psychological tolerance cancels enjoyment and nullifies catharsis. The film becomes a nightmare from which it is impossible to awaken after leaving the safety of the theater, an unmastered trauma that continues to plague the mind. Pictures like 'The Exorcist' or 'Night of the Living Dead' have been extremely effective in spawning raw panic, but they also irrevocably violate our childlike faith in the movies not to harm us."

-- Harvey Greenberg, "Movies on Your Mind"

Earlier this month "The Ring" reached video stores nationwide, and despite a persistent buzzing in the ears from Peter Jackson's latest "Lord of the Rings" fly-by and the throatier rumbles of the dogs of war, thousands will catch the strains of its lethal siren song. If nothing else, this collective mobilization of die-hards and dark-side junkies serves notice that some horror films can thrive in any cultural climate, even an anti-terror campaign extending to Middle-earth.

A remake of the 1998 Japanese release "Ringu," itself an adaptation of Kôji Suzuki's 1989 novel "The Ring," has crossed media and continents in its successive incarnations, proving to be an irresistible force. Despite mixed reviews, "The Ring" belongs to the class of horror film that becomes part of our cultural vocabulary, like "Psycho" or "The Exorcist," and marks a major leap forward for the genre. Yes, this film delivers an all-ages scare within the confines of a PG-13 rating, and yes, it features masterfully orchestrated effects that can blanch even the heartiest filmgoers. It also might be the first instance in the history of American cinema in which audiences are urged to become publicists under the threat of death.

But what separates Gore Verbinski's "The Ring" from the usual genre dreck is a sophisticated and sustained assault on the viewer's imagination, informed by a radical strain of postmodern thought. Let's put it this way: If "Jaws" tapped into the instinctual font of the medulla oblongata, this film stabs slightly higher in the cerebral cortex, conveying a charge no less dreadful for being heady.

The premise of the film should be familiar by now: There's a videotape that metes out indiscriminate death to viewers, and finally one's only recourse is to propagate the tape's existence and add to the death toll. After the "Scream" films established the popularity of self-reflexivity in the genre (Ehren Kruger, screenwriter of "The Ring," also wrote "Scream 3"), it was only a matter of time before the truly sinister applications of hype were discovered. But the film's theoretical underpinnings are less surprising than we might assume; at least since Immanuel Kant, discerning audiences have acknowledged the close proximity between the terrible (or the terrifying) and the sublime, and what we have in "The Ring" is a film that smartly plays both sides of the divide.

As such, "The Ring" deserves an in-depth look at its treacherous surface. While it's customary to preface such a tell-all analysis with a disclaimer -- to spare the folks who haven't yet (cue the ominous music) seen the video -- in this case I don't think it makes any difference. You can settle in for a screening fully knowing what's in store and "The Ring" will still burrow into your brain, destabilizing the cozy experience, and usher you finally to the limit of endurance. This is a film that retains its bite, no matter what rational precautions we might take.

Simply for the purposes of orientation, a quick recap of the players is in order. First, there are Katie Nurick (Amber Tamblyn) and Rebecca Kotler (Rachael Bella), two teens victimized at the outset. Our heroine and Katie's aunt, Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), assumes the role of sleuth, unraveling the tape's murky origin, in no small part because her son, Aidan (David Dorfman), is also at risk: He's been channeling messages related to the mystery, and his eyes, looking ever so slightly digitally enhanced, convey an acute terror at what he knows. There's Noah (Martin Henderson), primarily a hunky A-V expert and secondarily Aidan's father, who does his best to help Rachel but ultimately can't. Finally, there are the Morgans, a family of horse breeders on remote Moesko Island: Richard (Brian Cox) is the somewhat irascible, sole surviving member. His wife, Anna (Shannon Cochran), immortalized on the offending video, has thrown herself off a cliff; Samara (Daveigh Chase), the daughter, we learn, had an adverse effect on horse breeding, served a brief stint in a psychiatric institution, was murdered by her mother (who shoved her, partly asphyxiated, into a well, thereby serving up the film's trademark image), and is currently enjoying an active afterlife as the generator of murderous art-house videos.

A Profile in Terror

In part, the unusual power of "The Ring" stems from its studied manipulation of the genre's conventions, both old and new. The opening scene, for example, positively oozes with clichés -- two sacrificial teen girls, home alone and clad in school uniforms that expose plenty of bare flesh. Much later, once Rachel has followed the clues to the bottom of Samara's well, airing her story and (she thinks) putting Samara's spirit to rest, we're treated to the played-out survivor scene -- Rachel huddled in an Emergency Services blanket while the guardians of civilization exhume the petite remains. In general, the film rivals recent predecessors like "The Sixth Sense" and "Stir of Echoes" in its liberal doses of therapeutic concern for a middle-class family in distress.

What distinguishes such moments in "The Ring" might best be illustrated by a single vignette that is at once homage to and commentary on such genre standbys. As Rachel closes in on the mysterious origin of the videotape, she arrives on Richard Morgan's doorstep, plying her reportorial know-how to get Morgan to talk. In the course of the interview, Rachel reveals her irrational suspicions about the videotape, at which point Morgan's standoffish façade visibly erodes. He begins to encroach on Rachel's personal space, clutching a telltale meat hook in his hand -- the butcher's trademark from "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

Before delivering the bloody coup de grace, however, Morgan asks her if she's shown the tape to anyone else. As soon as he learns about her bootleg copy, the threat he poses dissipates and he puts down the hook. The implication here is that Morgan knows the rules of Samara's evil game (Rachel will be spared), and that the slasher-film death he proposes to deliver would be a kindness compared to the horror that Samara dispenses.

Like F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu," John Carpenter's Michael "Halloween" Myers and so many other fright-film Grim Reapers, Samara has mastered The Walk: stiff and serenely unhurried, as if her biorhythms were still calibrated to the grave. And like so many of her movie-monster kin, Verbinski's Samara exemplifies the value of withholding, of less is more, the incipient terror of an averted face. But unlike any ghoul in recent memory, with the possible exception of the Blair Witch, Samara seems both satisfyingly omnipotent and horrifyingly omnipresent.

How does Samara get to Moesko Island in the first place? The circumstances are vague: illegal adoption? Virgin birth? Like the images on her video, she isn't made, she just is. Like a god or a demon, she is inconceivably mobile; no matter where you are, or how far you roam after viewing the tape, she'll always get you, right on time (even if she has several other conflicting appointments; four teen victims all die at 10 p.m.).

Scoffers familiar with the late-'80s flop "Shocker," or for that matter with the Spielberg-produced "Poltergeist," might wonder what Samara's powers would amount to without the luxuries of the video age. She's the first supernatural killer who's willing to leave a voice-mail message, but the film never flinches at the specter of parody that waits somewhere off-screen. Just the opposite. Samara isn't limited to the vehicle of television; she's capable of telepathic communication with Rebecca Kotler (in the psych ward) and Richard Morgan, as well as dream visitations to Rachel. Judging from the messages Aidan channels, simply to hear about the tape's death sentence is to be infected by it. In addition, the rules that Samara appears to establish -- you watch the tape, receive a confirmation phone call (a second "ring") and you die seven days later -- become increasingly less reliable as the film progresses. For example, it doesn't matter whether you answer the phone, and by film's end the seven days themselves seem arbitrarily chosen, calling to mind another seven-day span in which universes were brought into being (or in this case razed).

Here, in crude form, we begin to glimpse the profundity lurking in and around the edges of "The Ring."

Finessing the Genre

Horror films often work best when they target pervasive societal preoccupations, local or global bugaboos that set the populace on edge. Vampire legends often emerged in communities afflicted by tuberculosis, plagues or other nasty wasting diseases. "The Ring" samples several small portions from the contemporary smorgasbord of paranoia: The taboo of premarital sex, the evils of infanticide, and even the anti-tobacco crusade periodically appear as surrogate explanations for the narrative we're witnessing. But these are largely false leads, distractions, gestures in the direction of social relevance.

The film's primary target is of course technology. Television is literally a weapon in the film, perhaps most pointedly knocking Rachel off her feet when she should really be holding her ground. Richard Morgan dies by electrocution, after wiring himself up and plunging into a brimming bathtub. The idea is extended to include the media in general when Morgan compares the reporter's task to the transmission of "sickness" (another kind of vampirism). But such an ideological agenda, if sanctimoniously pursued, might result in a much sillier film: a cheap attempt to exploit the latest hysteria.

Instead, "The Ring" generates the most energy through its handling of one last genre staple. Much has been made about the ways in which horror films violate the boundaries of civilized existence: boundaries between rational and irrational, between natural and supernatural, between life and death. Frequently, this breaking down of borders is explained as a metaphor for similar tensions within the human psyche, at least according to Freud's model of ego and id, conscious and unconscious. While "The Ring" does take this well-traveled path, it does so without giving Freudians much ammunition. Rather, "The Ring" presents a much more compelling kind of border crossing, and does so with maximum subtlety, which further exacerbates the sense of terror.

When Samara comes calling for Noah seven days after he watches the tape, we see her first climbing out of the well, and then out of the television set itself. It would be tough to imagine a more literal instance of border dissolution, an image grading, with awful consequences, into reality. Most viewers will intuitively recognize that the same pattern exists throughout the film, Samara's dread approach being only the finale to the cycle. The images on the cursed video -- of the ladder that leads nowhere, of the Morgan house and the Moesko Island horses, and most notably of the fly (whose wings still twitch when the tape is paused, as if it is just pretending to be paused) -- regularly bleed into Rachel's reality, culminating with her sojourn to the bottom of Samara's well. Verbinski is expressly violating the reassuring boundaries that presumably separate us from the events in a movie. Rachel says, "I think that before we die, we see the Ring." Did you notice those little black discs that flicker periodically on the margins of the screen?

Tales and Details

What else in "The Ring" makes so many of us squirm until seven post-viewing days have elapsed? By way of an answer, we should note that this film is smarter and more cagily constructed than most horror films. It's of the involuted school of "Sixth Sense" creator M. Night Shyamalan, meaning that the linear action of the plot (Rachel's search) is subsumed by a nonlinear order of recurrence (the images from the tape). As in the evil tape itself, every scene in "The Ring" is a composition and almost every detail counts. At the Shelter Mountain inn, before Rachel locates the video, the desk attendant subjects her to a lame card trick, claiming to guess the card she's drawn. After several wrong guesses, by which time Rachel gets her hands on the tape, he holds up the seven of spades, which Rachel disingenuously confirms is the card she drew. A death-suit seven, fancy that. In the barn-loft chamber where Samara was imprisoned by the Morgans, the wallpaper has a horse-head motif, reflecting not merely her fatal effect on the equine species but also the terrifying episode with the runaway horse aboard the car ferry.

An even better example occurs when Rachel steps out on the balcony of her apartment, while Noah is inside watching the fatal tape. This scene of Seattle apartment towers with their sweeping geometric precision (a compound of apparently self-replicating lines) is visually striking, beautiful in a way but cracked, surreal and charged with menace. As Rachel scans the neighboring buildings from her balcony, she's allowed voyeuristic glimpses of her fellow city dwellers: each place she looks, there's a TV set on and the residents are talking on phones or obliviously working out on their exercise equipment. One woman steps out on her balcony to smoke; when she spots Rachel, the two exchange a sinister glance. Here in microcosm is the film's broader agenda: The open windows are themselves transparent and eerily traversable screens, providing a foretaste of Samara's climactic entry into Noah's bachelor digs.

But Rachel's view from the balcony also reminds us where we've been. Throughout the film, we're inundated with shots through dry or rain-drenched windows, reflections in mirrors or panes of glass, instances of screening and forkings in reality that subtly accrue weight as they remind us of the ultimate permeability at stake in the film: that of the cinema screen itself.

In this regard, it turns out that poor old Freud is relevant after all. In his 1919 essay "The Uncanny" (a piece of literary criticism on E.T.A. Hoffman's short story "The Sandman"), the good doctor attempts to track the mechanisms in irrational tales that disturb us; among them, he identifies what he calls "reality testing," moments in which the characters reassure themselves that their fundamental assumptions about the world still hold, temporarily normalizing the natural order. On her second viewing of Samara's tape, Rachel crouches in front of the monitor, baffled by the fidgeting fly, and presses her finger on the glass, verifying that it's a simulation, an image. But the borders don't hold. On her next viewing of the tape, Rachel again starts picking at the fly and this time peels it from the glass; while Rachel develops a photogenic nosebleed, the fly immediately goes airborne, now free in our world. Reality is in flux.

In fact, the subliminal level on which "The Ring" operates reaches hair-raising proportions. Regarding point of view, Verbinski is better than most in positioning the camera such that it situates the viewer's sensibility within the drama. At times, our perspective aligns with that of the character: In one early example, Katie crouches in front of the troublesome TV and glimpses a tremor in the blank screen. She wheels around to see what's behind her and the camera shows us what Katie sees (but not Katie): the inoffensive bookcase. Of course, what she fears is inside the screen, not behind her. When the disorienting, hyperspeed death arrives, we see Katie's rapidly wilting face rushing toward us, not Samara. In the same vein, consider one of the video's images as seen by Rachel: a static shot of an empty chair. Later, when Rachel arrives at Samara's hayloft dormitory, we find that, not only have the images on the video merged with Rachel's reality, but also -- as we see Rachel and the chair reflected in the blank television screen -- we realize that the video footage positions us inside the screen, in the dark well of meaning where Samara reigns.

Horror films have long exploited the complex identifications that take place within the viewer. In part, we like scary movies because they give us a safe environment in which to confront that deepest wellspring of human anxiety, our own mortality; thus we identify with the victims. But even if we insist that we take no pleasure in the actual carnage typical of such films, it is still our taste for this violent brand of entertainment that ultimately generates the body count; hence, we identify with the source of menace. In this regard, "The Ring" is more successful than most films in having it both ways.

Beyond the sly camerawork, our leading lady herself plays both roles. Rachel is victimized by Samara but becomes her instrument as well. One could argue that dying in "The Ring" is itself a conspiratorial act, a process of becoming Samara. The hideous death masks we see deliver almost the same shock to the viewer that Samara doles out to the victims. And the victims start resembling Samara as well. Maybe Rebecca in the psych ward provides the clearest living instance, with her institutional drapery and long black tresses pointedly frazzled. Or look at the drawings that Aidan creates after Katie's death. In conference with Aidan's understandably concerned teacher, Rachel identifies the dead girl in black crayon: "That's Katie." But isn't it really Samara, or both of them at once? None of this suggests that becoming like Samara by dying is empowering in any way; it only tightens the grip of the nightmare.

But the psychological tensions here still don't quite fully explain the awful wallop this film packs. It's one thing to "perform" or allegorize the viewer's anxieties, no matter how cleverly, and quite another thing to project a sense of dread that endures in many cases beyond the seven-day grace period. (Think of the icy tune Samara sings just before her mother clamps down with the plastic bag: "When it's over, it's just beginning.")

Drowning in the Shallows

So how else does "The Ring" do it? Maybe we'd better have another look at that tape. Consider that when Rachel prepares for her first viewing of the video in the Shelter Mountain cabin, she is already, unknowingly, in the middle of one of the film's images: that flaming tree whose sun-tinted leaves make it seem as if the room is submerged in a glass of burgundy (or that more precious burgundy of human vintage). It's as if pushing "Play" only triggers a preexisting force; the logic of the tape exceeds the actual viewing of it.

Consider that when Aidan views the tape, we catch a glimpse of the chair that sat still for Rachel, but now it's levitating and spinning rapidly. Does the tape change with every individual viewing? This apparently endless editorial revision is worrisome: Like the victims, we rely on the tape to provide order in the film's universe, however diabolical. Now even this reassurance disintegrates.

Consider also that another image on the tape -- the writhing maggots that slowly resolve into human figures thrashing in a watery hell -- has a potential "real" counterpart in the horde of flies that ascend when Rachel cracks the seal on the sarcophagus in Samara's well. Between the tape's image and the film's event there appears to be an organic continuum (those maggots mature into adults) rather than an existential divide.

And finally consider the audio static the tape generates, which is linked with water when Rachel hops the ferry to Moesko Island and inadvertently drives a horse to horrible suicide in one of the film's most frightening sequences. Just after the panicked horse plunges overboard to be in the propellers, the sound of the churning water fades, grading into the sound of the tape's audio static. Water is elsewhere associated with Samara's presence; it floods the hall outside Katie's bedroom door as she trembles at the prospect of what's inside. A glass of filtered water causes Rachel to cough up an EEG cord in an unappetizing dream sequence, and in the same dream, water surrounds the chair where Samara awaits Rachel's approach. As the characters drag themselves around rain-drenched Seattle, we begin to suspect that Samara pervades the atmosphere, is elemental, ubiquitous, which begins to extend the parameters of the film's reach considerably. The depths of the well are everywhere.

On the broadest level of the narrative, too, "The Ring's" false ending goes a long way toward disabling the viewer's defenses. After all Rachel's scrupulous clue collecting and her ultimate discovery of the circumstances of Samara's death, the violins kick in to consecrate the demon's eternal rest and the Keller family's renewal. But Samara remains implacable, right on time for her date with Noah. We can only conclude that Samara's murder fails to explain the genesis of the tape, or even its particular images: These are only inexplicably correlative manifestations of, as Katie eloquently puts it, "something else." What is "the Ring"? Is it the sun-rimmed lid of the well? An oval mirror? A circle on a pad of paper? The dread eye of Samara herself? This expansiveness leaves us feeling overexposed. Yes, the onslaught is survivable, we think in the film's last scene, as Rachel directs Aidan's fingers toward the copy buttons. But what do they survive to? The same kind of persecution that drove Richard Morgan into his bathtub with a power cord around his neck, or that landed Rebecca Kotler in the asylum? We can't be sure, but we suspect the worst.

The Bottom of the Well

Since none of the plot, strictly speaking, really matters in "The Ring" -- it's all veneer, all surface, all narrative sleight of hand -- we are sometimes subjected to teasing incongruities. These are more like rabbit holes than holes in the plot. At the instant of the false resolution's disintegration, when Aidan learns that his mom has liberated Samara's remains, he gasps, "You helped her? You weren't supposed to help her!" This suggests that Rachel has transgressed some universal law, has somehow made things immeasurably worse.

In fact it doesn't make any difference whether Rachel "helped" Samara or not. Earlier in the film, when Rachel breaks in on Aidan's viewing of the tape, we see at the tail end of the video footage that Samara is already emerging from the well; there the tape breaks off, interrupting Samara in midshamble, her forward advance presumably to be completed in seven days' time. Samara's bones may be imprisoned, but her posthumous self already travels freely. If there's any good news for the Kellers, it's that things can't get any worse. Still, Aidan's misdirection shouldn't be taken lightly; just as Rachel's search is her attempt to explain and thereby resolve Samara's reign of terror, this is Aidan's own stab at comprehending what he's up against. And he's equally misguided.

In fact, this snippet of dialogue effectively transports us to a still deeper level of "The Ring," leading us toward its chilly postmodern core. Throughout the film, just as the virtual images of the tape migrate into actual experience, the dialogue is regularly implicated in the same pattern. In one minor instance, when Noah takes his leave at the film's false bottom, he tells Rachel, "Call me tomorrow. And the day after that." She does, but not to discuss china patterns; rather, she dials frantically to warn Noah of his imminent demise.

All films are inherently multilingual, communicating on several levels: imagistic, supratextual (narrative), and textual (dialogue), to name the primaries. "The Ring" consciously operates on, and ultimately destabilizes, all of them. The thrust of this three-pronged attack is particularly evident in one of the film's most jarring moments. While Rachel and Ruth, Katie's mother, discuss the inconceivable circumstances of Katie's death, Ruth says, "I saw her face," and instantly we are subjected to the shot of the closet-bound corpse, in a state of truly hideous decrepitude. Just as Noah's naive "Call me" engenders a call, Ruth's phrase engenders a face. In both cases, the words exert a reality-collapsing force like that of the cursed video images; they literally shape what happens, or at least what we see. Here, the words call forth an image meant to frighten us to death; they are the delivery system of terror, the envelope, or, if you will, the videotape: Samara's calling card. Language is her tool too.

For those who had the pleasure of studying linguistic deconstruction, it should be clear that here "The Ring" is tapping in to some ex-cutting-edge philosophy, particularly those French pooh-bahs who warn us to be suspicious of language, suggesting it's more our foe than our friend. Suffice it to say that "The Ring" offers a postmodern paradox in its treatment of language. The best and perhaps most resonant illustration involves Samara's seven-day dispensation. When she hisses, "Seven days," into Rachel's phone, she makes possible this particular film, with its measure of false hope. The dictate is both creative and destructive in the same breath; like God, she calls a narrowly circumscribed universe into existence, but one in which everyone is doomed.

"The Ring" takes the implications of such thinking to a final unsettling level. In the film's first scene, Katie confesses that she has seen the accursed tape. With the utmost gravity, she tells the story of watching the video with her chums, then segues into a passing imitation of the death agony -- before breaking into laughter at the expense of her mortified friend. She's lying, kidding around, play-acting. But insofar as this film's dialogue carries the force of fate, we must consider the possibility (and I have to say this now, before a sequel renders the thought obsolete) that Katie never visited Shelter Mountain and never saw the tape until she says she did. Does the tape even exist before Rebecca proffers her hushed incantation of the urban legend? In these moments, we find ourselves trapped with the characters in a disturbing cycle where the fictional has a way of proving true, despite our denials, prevarications or evasions. Apply this nicety to your experience of watching the film itself, and you might acquire an unhealthy distrust of casual conversation, as well as your TV set.

Here's the tricky part. If what the characters say has the ability to shape reality, then why all the missed swings at the piñata? Why does Rachel's laborious account or Aidan's moral outburst or, for that matter, Noah's initial skepticism fail to save any of them? Consider that none of the characters is precisely wrong. Aidan says, "You helped her?" and strikes upon the double entendre that Rachel has indeed helped Samara, by making a copy of the tape. When informed of the rash of teen deaths, Noah tries to allay Rachel's obsession with the tape, insisting the fatalities are "not because of a video." Yes and no; it's not the tape exactly that's to blame, but rather the waterlogged damsel it allows to enter your world (and to change it). Finally, we should remember that Samara, as Aidan learns to appreciate, is the black sun irradiating this film's tortured atmosphere. In that light it's hard to hope for anything like salvation.

None of this is meant to detract from the sheer visual potency of the film, its high-tech scares, the ancient magnetism of its archetypal imagery or even its broader compositional ability to defamiliarize the mundane world, to knock our perception off-kilter. Instead, what the foregoing attempts to illustrate are the myriad nuances that elevate "The Ring" to a rarefied cultural status and, collectively, might begin to explain its withering effect. Maybe what's most surprising is that Samara herself remains a figure adequate to the full scope of this film's horror. Yeah, she's pint-size and retiring. But she can carry whatever it is she's dragging out of that well.

By Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

MORE FROM Bruce Stone

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Horror Movies