Ringu (1998)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:



The Gorgon



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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"Hamtaro's on again... noooooo!"
Ringu is a Japanese horror film about a videotape that kills anyone who watches it. Let the Adam Sandler jokes begin!

Okay, there really isn't such a thing as a videotape that kills people who watch it. Not even Little Nicky, or a compilation tape of 1-800-COLLECT commercials, or Nukie. Sure, watching those tapes will make you want to kill Adam Sandler, Carrot Top, and yourself respectively, but the videotape itself won't be doing the killing. It's a good thing, too: we can do without the lawsuits.

Two teenage Japanese girls are at home alone, exchanging the usual gossip. Masado is telling a story she heard about videotape that a group of kids watched, showing a woman who said, "You will die in one week." A week later all the kids were dead. The other girl, Tomoko, is upset by this story, because almost exactly a week before something similar happened to her. She and three friends were at a vacation bungalow and put an unmarked tape in the VCR. After the surreal tape ended, the phone in the bungalow rang, and no one was on the line.

You got your Kenny in
my horror movie!

The two girls, in typical teenage girl fashion, move on to discussing boys. But a few minutes later, something horrible happens to Tomoko.

A few days later a reporter named Reiko Asakawa interviews some high school students about the rumor of a cursed videotape. None of the students have any specific information about story, except that it may have actually started on the peninsula of Izu. One of the girls claims that a couple of the victims of the curse were in the paper just a couple days before.

Reiko looks in the paper and is surprised to find that a couple necking in a car did die mysteriously. Moreover, Reiko attends Tomoko's funeral (Tomoko was Reiko's niece) and finds out that all three kids died on the same night, and that they may have known each other. Another teen they knew died that same night in a motorcycle accident. Amazingly, no one has noticed that four teens all died in the same city at the exact same time. This scenario also requires a shocking lack of curiosity on the part of the reporter Reiko, who has not even asked her relatives how Tomoko died.

"...and that's why you don't
leave your contacts in overnight."

Her inquisitiveness finally aroused, Reiko tracks down the bungalow where Tomoko and her friends stayed. There Reiko finds an unmarked tape, and despite being one of the few people who has reason to believe the tape will kill her, she watches it anyway. The tape is full of disturbing images: large black eyes displaying kanji characters, crowds of people writhing in pain, and a guy with a handkerchief on his head pointing into the distance. The tape ends, and the phone rings. Reiko answers it, and someone on the other end tries to sell her aluminum siding.

Just kidding. She actually hears the buzzing sound from the tape. Seriously freaked out, she runs to her estranged ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada). Ryuji watches the tape too, and becomes convinced that his ex-wife is right about the tape. When their son Yoichi also watches the tape, they become desperate to find a cure to the curse that will kill them all in a week. Reiko and Ryuji begin tracking down the clues on the tape, a quest that leads them to a small fishing village that was once the home of a woman who could see the future. She had a freakishly deformed daughter with a scientist who was studying psychic phenomenon, and that child, Sadako, disappeared after her mother committed suicide.

Insert your own
Poltergeist joke here.

We won't say too much about what happens in the second half of the film so as not to ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn't seen one of the several versions of this story that have been written, filmed, televised or drawn. Ringu was originally a novel (and sequels) by Suzuki Koji, and it was filmed for television in 1995. But it was this 1998 version that was huge hit in Japan, spawning three movie sequels, comic books, and remakes in Korea and the U.S.

Ringu is a stylish movie that exists to build tension. It starts with the great hook of a videotape that can kill you. There's nothing like the promise of an everyday object or activity turning deadly to get your attention. The main characters then unwrap the mystery of Sadako slowly and against a deadline. Like most recent Japanese horror films we've seen, the atmosphere is rather reminiscent of The X-Files (and the teaming of a skeptical woman and laconic man doesn't hurt), but for this kind of story it works. What really sets Ringu apart, however, are two terrific scare scenes towards the end. These scenes are largely responsible for the film's reputation. Not that the reputation isn't deserved – Ringu has a palpably frightening presence that is practically unknown in Hollywood flicks. Frankly, it's the creepiest film we've seen since Audition, which shares Ringu's dimly lit, surrealistic visual language.

Another day, another lousy
Babelfish translation.

On the minus side, Ringu also has a feature of many Japanese genre films: lazy writing. Character motivations rarely make sense, and the screenwriter tries to fit every supernatural concept he can think of into the story, no matter how illogical. Sure, a certain level of suspension of disbelief is necessary in any supernatural story, but Ringu pushes it constantly. For instance, little Yoichi claims that Tomoko's ghost told him to watch the tape. While the idea of a ghost haunting a child is a much-loved motif, why would Tomoko ask her cousin to do something potentially fatal? The movie's ending is also a horrible cheat on so many levels. Reiko suddenly remembers something she heard at the beginning of the film (in a scene we saw, but what she remembers wasn't shown) that makes everything she did after realizing she was cursed null and void.

Being based on a novel that already had a sequel, there was a built-in follow-up to the film. Incredibly, it opened the same day as Ringu in Japan. (Japanese film studios seem willing to take risks that would make even the most maverick of Hollywood execs blanch.) Based on Koji's novel of the same name, the movie Rasen (Spiral) was apparently of a wildly different tone (we haven't seen it) and was not well received. The producers of Ring made another sequel that ignores Rasen called Ringu 2 (2000). It is the worst kind of sequel, as it simply features two new characters who go all the places we saw in the first film as they follow the trail of bodies. Towards the end they find Yoichi, who has developed psychic powers, and enlist the aid of a researcher who matter-of-factly tells them that ghosts are absorbed by fresh water. The movie ends in a flurry of pseudoscience and a silly dream sequence. There are some creepy bits, and a great subplot about the possible bad consequences of not watching the tape, but the movie is barely worth watching.

Reiko explains the origin of
the Goosebumps books.

In 2001 Ringu 0: Birthday hit screens in Japan. Primarily the story of a British drummer who joins a band that becomes the most popular in the world, there is a subplot about Sadako as a teenager. Despite her freakish appearence in all the flashbacks in Ringu and Ringu 2, we're now told that she was beautiful high school student. This would have been a shocking twist, but the Japanese poster for the movie spoils the secret of what's going on. Ringu 0 plays like a lame Carrie rip-off until the final few minutes, when it plays like a better Carrie rip-off and Sadako finally goes on the killing spree we've known was coming since early on.

We've also seen the American remake of Ringu titled The Ring. Freed from the influence of the novels, The Ring streamlines the story, changes the ending, and drops all the supernatural elements not directly related to the Sadako character. The Ring goes for more of an atmosphere of dread than the original movie, and is actually less explicit in showing the results of Samara's (the renamed Sadako) curse. It can be argued which version is better, but The Ring mostly takes the best parts of Ringu and makes up a story that fits it all into a coherent framework.

The best part is: we saw it seven days ago and are still around to write about it!

Review date: 10/18/2002

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