Thought-provoking horror can rarely be found in American cinema. Of late, only M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs) has helmed Hollywood “genre” vehicles (jargon for action, horror and sci-fi) with consistent intelligence — and success — across our mundane, flat Earth, toward and over the edge into the unknown. But Shyamalan has established a sui generis territory seeming to claim both the fantastic and loose-ended wilderness of Hitchcock (The Birds comes to mind) and the melodramatic fantasyland of Spielberg — though Shyamalan unknots his plot lines to tie them in neat bows by the end.
Director Gore Verbinski’s The Ring plots a course less traveled, bravely direct and unrepentant, into a realm of mysteries. It partially unravels them, but leaves us in a free-falling state bordering on jaw-dropping awe. The trip starts inauspiciously enough with a scene that parodies screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s scary movie, Scream 3 (2000). Two nubile girls, Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella), are at Katie’s home alone. The sky dark and not another house in sight outside the window, the girls sit on Katie’s bed still dressed in their high school uniforms. “Have you heard about the videotape that kills you when you watch it?” Katie asks. “The telephone rings and you’ll die in seven days.”
It seems like the current version of the scary campfire tale — the credulous urban legend — until the phone rings. And the television mysteriously flickers into a gut-wrenching focus of terror, the kind we haven’t seen since little Carol Ann fell through the screen in the Spielberg-scripted Poltergeist 20 years ago.
This teen-slasher overture, though, is just a red herring that swims against undertow of this mystery, generating voltage for subsequent shocks. The Ring is an unlikely detective story. And Katie’s Aunt Rachel (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive), an investigative reporter, becomes an unlikely detective with a personal cause: She’s seen the tape that her dead niece watched and believes she has seven days to live — unless she can assemble those nightmarish images into a cure of meaning. Like a postmodern Alice, she trips down through something not as innocuously absurd as a rabbit hole or a looking glass, but into the last image on the videotape, the ring, and the horror that flows through it.
If you’re familiar with the French surrealist cinema and the Freudian and Jungian psychology that Verbinski’s images tap into, The Ring offers a deeper resonance. Between the lines and the frames lies an allegory on the evils of media. Very smart. And very scary.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].