It’s the film that spawned a mega movie franchise, eventually having both Western and Korean remakes produced, single-handily sparked the ’J-Horror’ movie trend in in the early 2000s, gave birth to a horror icon and even was the basis for what is now known as one the worst video games of all time. I am, of course, talking about Ring; based upon the novel of the same name by Koji Suzuki. The original movie was released in January 1998 and quickly became the highest grossing horror film. That success continued into Hong Kong – becoming the highest grossing Japanese film in that country at the time – and eventually the West where, following its success, its main villain, Sadako, has now become part of our culture. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ll likely have seen many anime, film, TV or video games replicate her design: long black hair covering the face, inhuman body language, and the original shock of her coming out of the television set is now as common knowledge as Darth Vader being Luke’s father in Star Wars and Aerith dying by Sephiroth’s hand in Final Fantasy VII. The trend of J-Horror movie remakes and releases has long since died down but Sadako’s influence can still be felt, with even the most recent Charmed reboot having a monster-of-the-week’s design that is heavily influenced by her, so seeing this brand new 20th anniversary restoration of the original Japanese classic is a welcomed revisit provided by Anime Limited. But can this movie still hold up by today’s standards, or is it a late-90s relic, best left forgotten?
Reiko Asakawa is a reporter, investigating a recent phenomenon where a group of teenagers have mysteriously died after having watched a video in Izu 7 days earlier. As she attends a funeral for her niece, she realises her own family was one of the victims. She eventually tracks down the cursed video, and proceed to watch it herself. Believing she has now only 7 days to solve the mystery and lift the curse, she enlists the help of her husband Ryuji as the curse slows starts to take over their lives.
When this film was originally released, the West’s horror landscape was mostly gore-filled slasher films from A Nightmare on Elm Street (plus its numerous sequels) to Scream, so at the time, Ring’s more restrained approach to horror was a breath of fresh air and perfectly timed with the others of its ilk such as The Blair Witch Project coming out at roughly the same time. Ring’s take on horror is the exact same reason why it’s aged incredibly well; from the very first scene the film draws you in with its minimalistic sound effects and quiet scenes of the first teen victims trying to hang out like nothing is wrong, but the body language says something completely different. We never see the true horror that is lurking until the final moments of the film but the tension is forever building in every single moment, allowing small releases here and there in key scenes to give the audience some minor relief but still keeping them gripped throughout. The investigating and eventual finding of the tape, the ticking clock mechanism of the curse with days going by, the spreading of the tape and travelling from one place to another to find out the truth; it all builds and builds to one beautifully executed ending that feels earned, unlike other horror films that try to have one last cheap scare to upset the audience. Ring is a perfect example of not needing blood or gore to be considered a horror, because it’s the build-up and anticipation of what lurks behind the next corner that can be far more horrifying than any special effect could provide.
This is all wrapped up with an edgy and fantastic sound design by Kenji Kawai, who’s no stranger to horror, having worked on the original Devilman Crybaby and When They Cry anime series. There are not many tracks in this movie, but you’ll notice plenty of odd-handed sound effects like scraping, electrical charges, echo-y children laughing that seem to be not linked to any visual action, but either something off-screen or a reference to what a character is thinking or feeling. It’s these unexpected sound effects that really help build the atmosphere, and make you really notice when it’s suddenly really quiet, or a track does kick in when the horror is reaching its peak.
Saying all that though, it’s still a 20-year-old film so what was scary back then is not always guaranteed to be considered scary now. As the horror is mostly restrained to the mood and tension building, Ring largely avoids this problem aside from two minor instances. The faces that the victims pull when they die is quite comical, largely reminding me of the over-the-top reactions that the heart-attack victims had in the Death Note series. Also, the various ‘ghosts’ that appear in the movie have a visual representation of having white cloths over their heads; you can see what the team were going for, but they just look like random dudes with hotel-quality towels over their heads. But with the story and tone gripping you like it does, having two minor visual distractions does not break the horror spell Ring casts over you at all.
Luckily, the outdated technology of VCRs and square TVs are not the most horrific scares of this movie; Ring is the epitome of slow-burn horror with its 20th anniversary screening being a delightful reminder of why it was such a big hit back then. Forget the countless remakes, sequels or homages over the years; this is a classic that has aged very well and is worth revisiting.
Special 20th anniversary screenings of Ring are in UK cinemas from 1st March, purchase your tickets here.
Out on DVD/Blu-ray/Limited Edition Steelbook/Digital Download from 18th March.