Monday, October 14, 2013

Movie Analysis: The Ring

I've been intermittently interested in ghost/horror and haunted house stories, so I recently rewatched The Ring. I originally watched that with some friends in Chicago, thinking it would be a silly film--a remake of a Japanese horror film has to overcome my prejudice against remakes. (Even good directors, like Christopher Nolan, don't always improve films by remaking them. Original Insomnia forever!)

This time, while I found the film as creepy and atmospheric, I also thought it felt a little slow; and has some plot holes and issues that can't be ignored. To wit: I got a little scared watching it at night at the gym by myself at the beginning, but as it went on, I found myself getting less sucked into it. Perhaps that's partly because the ghost story has the structure of a mystery--as many ghost stories do:
  • Something mysterious happens, possibly with a supernatural explanation--sometimes with some expendable secondary characters that can show that the ghost means business
    • Examples (with some elasticity to their representativeness): Jaws, Scream, Ghostbusters--all start with some prologue
  • Someone gets involved in the search for the answer to the mystery; since the rational response to a monster is to run the other way, this detective character should have some reason that they can't say no
    • In Jaws, it's his job to deal with this monster; in Ring, the detective herself might be the next victim... and then it's her ex-boyfriend and son who might be the victims after her
    • Often, the research portion of the ghost story involves calling in experts, whether that's shark-experts like in Jaws or ghost experts like in Poltergeist
    • Research also involves old microfiche or newspapers, often asylums or scary hospitals
  • The detective solves the mystery
Now, in many ways, The Ring is a pretty by-the-numbers ghost horror story:
  • In the prologue, we hear the legend of the tape from two teenage girls, one of whom gets brutally killed by the ghost; 
  • The detective has a family reason for solving the crime (the dead girl was her son's cousin and good friend) and a career reason (she's a reporter) and then a personal reason (she might be the next victim) and then a parenting reason (her son watched the cursed tape too); 
  • We get hints of weirdness--the strange photographs of the victims-to-be, the horse that commits suicide on the way to the island, the fly coming off the screen of the video, the weird bruise, coughing up hair, the mysterious father standing around with a hay hook, the mentally-off child Darby repeating the scary things that Rachel says, etc.;
  • There's lots of research--finding the tape, digging through old asylum records, going to talk to the dad, etc.
The Ring adds some nice touches to this formula, for instance, the thematics of bad parenting. So the detective is really more careerist than a mom, whereas the ghost's mom only ever wanted to be a mom--and neither of them does a really bang-up job. Sometimes, the film is a little broad in the way it brings this up, as in Naomi's kid always calling her by her first name. But at least there's a theme here and a warning, of sorts, which every horror film needs: listen to children... up to a point.

There's also some clever twists to the usual images of horror film; for instance, the crossed-out faces aren't just crossed-out faces, they're representations of evil Samara's long hair covering her face. Similarly, when the editor tries to fire reporter Rachel, she doesn't beg for her job or try to tempt him with this story--she just flat out says that she can't be fired because of this story. And while the film doesn't start with a countdown, once Rachel watches the video, we get a nice reminder of the ticking clock here by the days being announced as she runs out of time. Ring also nicely twists the usual ghost story that would end with the discovery of the solution; but here, after Samara's body is discovered and her story full told... she still kills because she's just an evil child. (Which is something that's pretty common in living child films, but comes as a twist to ghost child films.) There's also a real question about the mystery here: the basic facts of the story aren't clear until they're clear. Is Samara alive? Where is she? If she's dead, who killed her?

All that said, on re-watch there's a couple of plot issues that make re-watching a less enjoyable experience. Does that matter? I'm not so sure, since those issues only come up on rewatch. For instance, Rachel is haunted by memories of the film and by strange things happening to her... but if she's broken the curse by making a copy of the cursed tape, she shouldn't be experiencing these effects? Worst of all, Rachel's kid Aiden is a little psychic and knows that Samara is evil--so why doesn't he tell his mom that at some earlier time? I mean, you may be a kid who treats his mom like an equal, but you'd still maybe drop a hint about the evil child.

Also, while the cursed tape is suitably creepy and the distorted photographs are fun, the attempt to connect Samara to media seems forced.

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