A cautionary tale of both temptation and technology, The Ring proves an atypical kind of thriller from the slasher films that are too predictable to be scary. The Ring sets a tone and addresses themes that aren't usual for the genre, and even when it strains for effect, it's an eerie experience.
The Ring begins in the fashion of an urban legend, as high school girls Katie and Becca (Amber Tamblyn and Rachael Bella) talk up a rumored videotape one night. One claims to have seen it and explains that after it's over, you receive a phone call saying that you'll die in seven days. The girls' teasing conversation gives way to genuine trepidation, and then the inexplicable begins to happen.
We fast-forward a few days to Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter and workaholic single mom who seems not nearly as grown-up or responsible as her young son Aidan (David Dorfman). Aidan ties his own tie and sets out his mother's black dress for the funeral of Katie, one of the girls from the first scene. Rachel was the girl's aunt, and she begins investigating the strange circumstances of Katie's death.
Katie was one of four high-schoolers who died at the same hour of the same day, and all had watched an enigmatic tape at a mountain cabin. Rachel retraces their footsteps and soon sees the tape for herself, which is initially a bit of a letdown. Beginning with a ring effect like a solar eclipse, the video shows a succession of black-and-white images, from bland shots of ladders and chairs to freaky footage of horses dying on a beach. It's like a cross between the landmark art film Andalusian Dog and an Eternity commercial.
But odd phenomena begins happening to Rachel afterward: She receives a spooky phone call, and her face is distorted in photographs, just like the dead teens. At one point she freeze-frames the tape and finds that she can remove a fly off the video screen, although it originally looked like part of the recorded image.
She enlists the help of Noah (Martin Henderson), the scruffy videographer who fathered Aidan, and they begin piecing together an actual mystery from the tape's details. A shot of a lighthouse and a blight to a family horse farm gradually point to a creepy little girl -- who may or may not be alive. Despite their skepticism, Rachel and Noah both grow convinced that the tape's curse is real, and not only are their lives at stake, but Aidan's as well.
The plot turns on the spread of copies of the tape, but ironically The Ring itself is a copy of an earlier movie. In 1998 Hideo Nakata's superb thriller Ring began a trend of stylish Japanese horror films, which can be hard to locate in the States but have a well-deserved cult status. In remaking Ring, American director Gore Verbinksi at times follows the superb original film shot by shot, especially in the first half.
The Ring applies its themes with a heavier hand, with Rachel's ordeal in part teaching her a Valuable Lesson in being a better mother. In her first film since her remarkable breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts gamely plays Rachel as someone who can't see herself as a mother: She'd rather bum a cigarette off teenagers than discuss her son's problems with a teacher. She and Henderson both have trouble breathing life into the forced-sounding dialogue of Ehren Kruger's script, which has lines like, "Can you pretend for a minute that I don't read Video Geek magazine?"
The film fares better in cultivating paranoia against technology, having the most ominous, static-filled television since Poltergeist. While Noah first watches the tape, Rachel looks at the high-rise apartment building across the way and sees that a wide-screen TV commands every room. Usually in supernatural stories, an evil presence will possess a person or a place, and it's an intriguing wrinkle to see one infect a communications medium.
In both films, the unearthly motivations can be a bit murky, and the American treatment provides some welcome simplification. But even the best moments of the new version were done better the first time. The most haunting moment of the Japanese film involved a figure, shown from a distance, crawling out of a well, and the remake's comparable scene can't match it. Of course, a second-generation copy is never as crisp as the first. The Ring takes an unusual angle to provide some solid scares, but held against the original, it's a ringer.