In roughly 2003-ish I went over to a friend’s house at night. Some of his other acquaintances were already there, getting ready to kick back and watch a movie called The Ring. It had come out in cinemas the previous year, and the only thing I knew about it was that it involved a cursed video-tape that killed people who watched it, and that despite that rather goofy premise it had a reputation for being scary as all get out.
On a whim, I decided to stay and watch it with them. Two hours later it ended, and everyone in the room glanced around and laughed nervously. Someone got up and turned on the lights. No one was very enthusiastic about walking home. At the time I had a TV in my room; I turned it around to face the wall before lying in my bed with the lights on until the sun started to rise, a routine that I repeated for the next two nights.
I guess you could say the movie had a big effect on me.
Our story actually begins in 1991, when Japanese author Koji Suzuki released a horror/mystery novel named Ring, about a journalist who investigates the mysterious deaths of four teenagers and runs afoul of a video-tape containing surreal and frightening imagery that kills anyone who watches it seven days later. The book spawned a TV movie and series before being given the full theatrical film treatment courtesy of director Hideo Nakata, who kept the same basic premise but changed much of the movie’s back-story to be more overtly supernatural.
In the film version the main character is a woman named Reiko whose niece is one of the tape’s victims, prompting her to look into the deaths by putting her journalistic investigation skills to use. Recreating the teens’ final days leads her to a remote cabin, where she finds the cursed tape (which you can see here if you want) and watches it.
A series of increasingly spooky occurrences convinces Reiko that the tape curse might be legit, and she enlists the help of her ex-husband to investigate the tape’s origins, a mission that becomes more urgent when their young son watches it as well. That investigation leads to Sadako Yamimura, a girl who was murdered by her father and thrown down a well due to her psychic powers causing terrifying visions and hallucinations in the people around her. That well turns out to be resting underneath the same cabin where Reiko and her niece viewed the tape… and wouldn’t you know it, one of Sadako’s powers was the curious ability to project images onto physical mediums. Her spirit is taking its revenge from beyond the grave, and her victims have a very short window of time to find out what she wants and how to stop her from coming to claim them.
This article is mostly going to be describing the different approaches taken in adapting the Ring story between versions, so let’s start with what was changed in the transition from book to film. Ring the movie is far more famous than Ring the novel or its multiple sequels, and with good reason; Nakata made smart narrative choices in giving the protagonist more of a personal motivation for investigating the tape, and streamlining its origin by removing the odd idea that the curse is a combination of supernatural powers and smallpox. Also not ported over was a strange and unnecessary edgelord element to the original story where the ex-husband character (originally the male protagonist’s friend) is implied to be some sort of sociopath who regularly rapes women, and Sadako’s murder is precipitated by a failed rape attempt at the hands of a doctor after he discovers that she’s intersex.
But the movie’s biggest change, and the one that probably single-handedly launched Sadako to horror stardom, was the inclusion of the infamous climactic scene where she crawls out of a TV to murder Reiko’s ex-husband via psychic heart attack. This scene is– to put it delicately– pants-shittingly terrifying if you don’t know it’s coming, as well as being a rare piece of completely original imagery in the horror canon.
I’ve talked multiple times before about the differences between western horror and south-east Asian horror, borne of each regions’ unique cultural backgrounds and storytelling traditions, and I think it’s absolutely true that these differences go a long way toward explaining why Ring had such a big impact on jaded western horror viewers, whether they encountered it in its original form or via the remake. Many of those distinguishing elements are strongly represented here: you’ve got your Yurei-inspired ghost girl with long black hair, the supernatural threat being more of a curse than an entity trying to spook you, said curse being caused by the anger and rage of the dead affecting people indiscriminately regardless of whether they had anything to do with the ghost’s situation, and a threat that can only be deflected and never truly defeated. This last fact probably made the film’s brilliant final twist, in which the characters believe that they’ve successfully banished Sadako only to discover that they very much haven’t, all the more shocking.
But even divorced from cultural novelty, Ring is just a really smart, creepy, well-made horror movie on every level. Even just the opening scene (which the American remake copies basically shot for shot despite making many other changes to the movie) is a masterclass in building tension and fear, so much so that it’s worth talking about in detail.
Two high school girls are in a house at night. One of them talks about an urban legend doing the rounds among Tokyo’s radical teens: a mysterious videotape that kills whoever watches it after seven days. Cleverly, the description of the tape given here is similar enough to the actual curse that it gives us an early explanation of how it works, but different enough that it plausibly feels like something that’s gone through several layers of the memetic grapevine.
The other girl becomes frightened, and nervously explains that she herself watched the tape in question on a trip to a remote cabin seven days ago; after a moment of fear she bursts out laughing, and claims that it was just a joke. Then the phone rings downstairs.
It’s just one of the girls’ mother, but it serves two important functions: it demonstrates that the girls are on edge despite how they were just joking around a moment ago (and thus indicates to the audience that we should be on edge as well), and it tells us that they’re alone in the house, which increases the tension.
The girl who originally told the tape story goes to the bathroom, leaving her friend behind in the kitchen. The TV turns on by itself. She slowly approaches it and turns it off, obviously scared, and starts to leave. The TV turns on again, this time accompanied by strange noises. She slowly turns around…
And, well, the scene kind of falls flat because the movie indicates that someone has been Sadakofied with a really cheap black and white emboss effect that looks like it was made in Photoshop, but the buildup is awesome even if the payoff hasn’t aged well.
From there the movie wastes very little time as our heroine begins investigating the tape curse, and it’s this element of investigation that’s one of the movie’s biggest strengths. In terms of volume there actually isn’t a whole lot of spooky activity or paranormal shenanigans present compared to most horror movies, but the fact that for most of its runtime it operates much more as a mystery lets it build an atmosphere of tension and dread despite the absence of ghosts popping up to harass the characters. By contrast, a movie that was solely about the cast being spooked would struggle to fill in this time, and would probably succumb to the temptation to over-indulge on jump-scares and ghostly apparitions as a result.
An excellent example of the film’s subtlety and superb atmosphere-building is the scene where Reiko actually watches the tape in the same cabin as her niece. The room is reasonably well-lit and not particularly spooky. The imagery on the tape, while unsettling, isn’t terrifying. After viewing it Reiko sees something reflected in the TV screen, which on a second viewing the viewer will recognise as Sadako but which is hard to make out as anything concrete the first time through. Then the phone rings, and when she answers it she hears the same eerie scratching sound that played over a portion of the tape.
None of these individual components seem particularly frightening on their own, but the scene so effectively builds an atmosphere of fear that you absolutely understand why Reiko instantly believes that she’s been cursed despite no definitive evidence that something supernatural has taken place.
Above all, Ring is a restrained, intelligent horror movie that’s far more sophisticated in terms of it’s construction than it’s initially goofy premise might imply. It had such a big impact for a host of very good reasons.
The American remake follows a plot setup more or less identical to the original: a journalist investigates the mystery of the killer tape after her niece falls afoul of it and ends up watching it herself, her son Aidan follows suit, they track the origin of the curse to a dead girl with psychic powers. Except this time our heroine is named Rachel, Sadako Yamimura becomes Samara Morgan, and the whole thing takes place in a version of the north-western United States that’s drenched in permanent rain.
On the surface The Ring might seem like the sort of shot-for-shot remake that’s often derided as unnecessary. The first half of the movie in particular follows its source material to the letter, often recreating scenes more or less verbatim: Reiko’s sister shows her the closet she found her daughter’s body in followed by a jump-scare flashback, Rachel’s sister also shows her the sister she found her daughter’s body in followed by a jump-scare flashback; Ex-husband Ryuji watches the tape while Reiko goes out onto a balcony and looks at the rain, ex-husband Noah watches the tape while Rachel goes out onto a balcony and looks at the rain.
But there are also important differences that give the remake its own sense of identity. Samara’s backstory is given a hefty dose of ambiguity, changing her from being the daughter of a famous psychic to being adopted by a childless couple, with her ultimate origins and the source of her powers left entirely unexplained (the scene where this information is conveyed to both Rachel and the audience subtly hints at the idea that the Morgans may have acquired her through dodgy/supernatural means without outright saying so). In the original movie Ryuji is blithely asserted to have mild psychic powers, thus explaining why his and Reiko’s son claims to have been contacted by the ghost of his dead cousin; this is removed in the remake, but at the same time Aidan’s ghost-sense is ramped up to the point that he seems to be aware of Samara’s presence from the beginning of the movie, exhibiting some of the symptoms of the tape curse long before he ever watches it himself. His pale skin and creepy, emotionless demeanor are very similar to (although not as extreme as) Samara’s behaviour when we see video footage of her in life, which seems to imply that he has a weaker version of her psychic abilities, perhaps tempered by the fact that he’s growing up in a stable and loving home instead of with people who fear and resent him.
More important than story details is The Ring’s sense of style. The movie is drenched in fog and rain, featuring locations overgrown with mold and damp, which gives the whole thing a powerful atmosphere of dread. The symptoms of the tape curse are much more intense and overtly supernatural (including a dream sequence where Samara shows up in Rachel’s house long before she’s actually introduced into the plot), and Samara’s victims appear horribly decayed and rotted as though they’ve been submerged in water, rather than just having expressions of intense fear. There’s a lot more spooky imagery in general (including the tape itself, minus some unfortunate CG elements that haven’t aged well), such as an ingenious extension of Sadako’s abilities in the form of a pre-ghost Samara creating eerie X-ray like images with her powers.
The fact that we get some insight into Samara when she was alive is sort of a focal point of the differences between the two versions. In Ring we get very little in the way of flash-backs to Sadako’s life, and her face is never seen apart from a single eye right at the end when she comes to claim her latest victim; by the time the American remake came out, this had become as iconic to the character as Superman’s weakness to kryptonite, and the fact that the remake broke the rule by clearly showing us Samara’s face in interview tapes from a psychiatric hospital was met with anger by fans of the original. Personally, I think it was a smart choice for two reasons: firstly because implying (as the later Ring sequels do) that Sadako kept her face covered by her hair at all times is kind of silly, and secondly because it helps humanize the character.
Sadako/Samara in both incarnations is an inherently tragic figure, but I feel like the remake pushes this angle a lot harder by focusing more on her unhappy life with the Morgans– where she was forced to sleep in a barn because her adoptive parents couldn’t handle the psychic visions she was (accidentally?) causing them to have– and her time interned in a hospital whose staff are implied to have been at best not particularly kind to her, and at worse outright abusive. This also helps to explain why her ghostly revenge plot targets anyone who comes into contact with it rather than just the handful of people directly responsible for her torment… which now that I think about it is very similar to how Alessa in Silent Hill is portrayed.
Also, the pissed-off death glare Samara delivers right before she takes out Noah is, in my opinion, way scarier than the weird eye thing Sadako does in her equivalent scene.
Whenever a movie and its remake are compared, some consideration has to be given to the order in which they’re viewed. Do I like The Ring more than its source material simply because it’s the form in which I first encountered the story? There’s probably some element of that at play here, but even accounting for precedence, I’ll argue that the American version is the more stylish, more atmospheric and just plain scarier version.
The Ring Two
After the commercial and critical success of The Ring, a sequel was inevitable. What no one saw coming is that it would be directed by the original movie’s Hideo Nakata, and that it would suck harder than a black hole.
The Ring Two borrows a few scenes and plot points from Nakata’s own follow-up to the Japanese original, but is otherwise a new story that sees Rachel and Aidan living in an anonymous small town, trying to get over the events of the first movie. That proves harder than anticipated, as the tape curse is spreading (implied to be due to Rachel’s decision to create a copy at the end of the first movie in order to deflect Samara’s attention away from Aidan), and when she begins investigating a new victim it turns out that Samara isn’t quite done with her yet.
The end of The Ring seemed to imply a natural direction for a sequel to take, ending on Aidan’s unanswered question of what will happen to whoever watches the tape copy. Sounds interesting! Let’s find out! Maybe the new victim will try to track down the origins of the tape again and find Rachel, questioning her decision to endanger someone else’s life by passing on the curse. But no, instead we get an unimaginative retread where Samara decides to possess Aidan so that Rachel can become her mother, or something.
A major problem on a conceptual level with making a Ring sequel is the question of what to do with Samara. Repeating the first movie’s slow burn isn’t an option, as audiences will go in expecting her and might get bored if she doesn’t show up for half the movie. The Ring Two’s solution to this problem is to have her pop out of the darkness like a haunted jack in the box in damn near every scene, which rapidly drains her of all sense of fear or mystery.
Nakata decided not to stick with the oppressive, gloomy atmosphere of the first remake, which only highlighted how important that movie’s aesthetic was. There’s an absolutely ruinous scene where Rachel returns to the farmhouse where Samara lived (and met her fateful demise) to find the formerly damp, dreary building swaddled in bright sunlight and being peddled by a hi-larious comedy real estate agent.
So what happened? What want wrong?
The depressing answer might be Nakata himself, who went on to not really do anything decent after Ring. It may be that that movie’s success was due mainly to the strengths of the source material coming through, and having a lacklustre original story to work with revealed his own deficiencies as a director.
Whatever the case may be, the story isn’t over just yet. A long-gestating third movie in the remake series is imminent and a review of it was going to cap off this post, but it was delayed to January mere weeks from release (always a promising sign), so we’ll need to wait a bit longer to see if there’s any life left in the franchise.