THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Ring is built around the idea of an urban legend that turns out to be true. It opens with two teenage girls discussing a videotape that is supposedly making the rounds. According to the legend, anyone who watches it immediately receives a phone call telling them they will die seven days later. The girls joke about the tape, but one of them, Katie (Amber Tamblyn), has seen it and did receive a call. They figure it must be some kind of a prank until Katie suddenly dies.

Naomi Watts as investigative reporter Rachel Keller watching the mysterious videotape in the thriller The Ring
The tragedy severely affects her young cousin Aidan (David Dorfman). At the wake, Aidan's mother - a Seattle newspaper reporter named Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) - overhears some of Katie's friends talking about the supposed videotape. They claim to know several other people who watched it and died a week later. Rachel uses her investigative skills to see if the tape really does exist. She quickly tracks down a copy and watches it. The tape contains a series of disjointed images that suggest some kind of hallucinogenic nightmare. The most striking of the images is that of a ring of light shining through blackness. As soon as Rachel pops the tape out of her VCR, the phone rings. A voice whispers to her: "Seven days."

Rachel makes a copy of the tape and shows it to her friend Noah (Martin Henderson). He is very skeptical, but agrees to help Rachel investigate further. Their search leads to an old farmhouse, whose owner (Brian Cox) might be able to provide some answers if he were willing to speak. Each day of discovery adds to the mystery, each road both leading to answers and more questions. By Rachel's seventh day - mere hours before she is scheduled to die - she makes a startling discovery that suggests an almost inconceivable horror.

The Ring is based on Ringu, one of the most popular Japanese movies of all time (it has been referred to in the press as Japan's equivalent of The Blair Witch Project). For America, the film has been remade by Gore Verbinski (The Mexican), and he's a good choice for the job. This is a horror story that relies heavily on atmosphere and visual style. There's not really any violence or bloodshed shown here; it's more about getting the audience to create horrific images in their own minds. Verbinski makes certain that the videotape is disturbing without actually being graphic, and that's true of the movie as a whole. He gives The Ring a slow, methodical sense of foreboding, as though something evil is running under the surface, waiting to burst out.

For example, we see the tape early on. It makes no more sense to us than it does to Rachel. Then, as the movie progresses, the characters stumble upon the real things that inspired the images on the tape. The more this happens, the more you feel that Rachel is getting closer to the source of evil. Verbinski even tosses in a few subliminal shots of the ring for added effect. In the end, a flashback sequence ties all the images together in a shocking explanation of their meaning.

There are a lot of really ominous scenes in The Ring. The most intense for me was one set aboard a ferryboat. Rachel's presence sends a horse into a fit of frenzy. It smashes its way free from the carrier and royally freaks out. It's no fair giving away what happens, but the payoff is truly ghastly. The scene is creepy because, again, it creates an impression of evil lurking unseen. Too many horror movies want to show you everything. The most effective ones (Signs is another) understand the benefit of giving you just enough material to assemble things in your own mind.

I enjoyed The Ring in the same way that I enjoyed Vanilla Sky and Mulholland Drive (another movie that starred Naomi Watts): as a puzzle. The story keeps going down unexpected roads, making it impossible to predict where it will go. The tape's images serve as pieces of the puzzle, and eventually we understand their significance. Then - just when you think the puzzle is complete - one character realizes that there's still a piece missing. This revelation leads to a final scene that is chillingly nihilistic in its implications. When you really stop and think about it, the last scene in this film is the most frightening of all.

If I have one complaint, it's that the screenplay (by Ehren Kruger) doesn't answer the key question of how the tape originated. Everything else more or less fits together, but since the tape is such a crucial element in the plot, I think there should have been at least a perfunctory explanation of where it came from and how the images got on it. There is one throwaway line that hints at a possibility, but it comes and goes so fast that it never really satisfied my desire for a more plausible answer. The same thing goes for some references to the fact that Aidan is able to pick up signals from the dead. It's not entirely clear where this ability comes from.

Even if the big picture has a few things that don't quite add up, I enjoyed The Ring on a moment-by-moment, scene-by-scene basis. It's eerie atmosphere sucked me in and kept my eyes glued to the screen. Naomi Watts makes a good center for the story; her part often consists of giving "Oh, now I get it" looks at the camera, but she does it in a way that invites the audience to follow along on her journey. And what a journey it is. The Ring is a mind-bending blast of eerie atmospherics and trippy visuals.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Ring is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, language and some drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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