Everyone has that one film that can quote entirety. For some, that film is The Princess Bride. For others, that film is Pulp Fiction. For me, that title belongs to Gore Verbinski’s 2002 film The Ring. Quiz me, I guarantee I can recite the first half-hour verbatim before faltering. As an eleven year old dissatisfied with the Halloween specials on the Disney Channel, The Ring welcomed me into the horror genre. I watched endless premieres on HBO, own a DVD copy scratched beyond repair, donned the black wig for multiple haunted houses. I ritually avoid closed shower curtains ever since a dream where Samara opened one, grabbed my arm, and whispered the iconic line ‘seven days.’
Based on the 1998 Japanese film Ringu, in turn based off the Koji Suzuki novel Ring, Verbinski’s film inspired the era of American remakes of Asian cinema. Without this film, others such as Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge or Walter Salles’ Dark Water would not have received such popularity. The Bravo miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments of All Time listed the film at #17 on their countdown, while Chiller named the film the scariest of the last decade. So what about this film resonates with eleven-year-old girls and horror critics? How do we blur the line between objective analysis and subjective nostalgia? This question can be answered by examining the first and last scenes of the film as parallels of each other, gripping audiences without their full realization.
The Ring, at its essence, is a ghost story. Asian horror emphasizes power of the supernatural over the natural realm. The influence of spirits involves a complete sensory experience, rendering human beings powerless against their manipulation. Comparatively, the American cultural narrative boasts dominance over the supernatural world, reducing ghosts to tame creatures in American cinema. Translating cultural elements for American audiences present challenges for any filmmaker. This challenge is the reason why the 2005 sequel The Ring 2 failed miserably despite hiring Hideo Nakata, the director of the original Japanese film. Verbinksi succeeds in maintaining thematic and structural integrity of the previous film within the opening scene. Here, students Katie and Becca (Amber Tamblyn, Rachael Bella) discuss a mysterious videotape that kills anyone within one week of initial viewing.
The Tape holds destructive qualities that will ultimately kill Katie, forcing her journalist aunt Rachel (Naomi Watts) to investigate The Tape herself. Katie and Becca never fully reveal the images on said tape, fueling audience imagination long before Rachel plays it on the VCR. Their swapping of spooky tales establishes meticulous timing; with limited information, audiences will not see the actual tape for another half-hour, investigate its origins for another hour, or discover the watchers’ fate until the very end of the film. Like Rachel or Noah (Martin Henderson) later on, audiences are compelled to pursue the mystery, even if it means acknowledging the inevitability of death. The slow reveal not only bears connection with the original film, but also classic horror films such as Cat People or The Wolfman. Our imagination often aids in amplifying the terror on-screen.
This scene also adds a layer of deception through Becca’s description of The Tape. She mentions to Katie that, during The Tape, “this woman comes on, smiling at you, right? Seeing you, through the screen.” Her quote references Anna Morgan, the doomed mother who many characters believe created The Tape. Becca’s perspective fools audiences into a false sense of security until Rachel’s discovery of Samara Morgan, Anna’s daughter. Suddenly, the truth no longer offers protection due to its malleability. Audiences spend the film believing that, with each day passing, they draw closer to solving The Tape’s secrets. The contradictory ‘truths’ of Becca and Rachel shatter the illusion. As a result, the supernatural reigns supreme in its ability to shift importance according to individual perceptions and simultaneous versions of the truth.
In the second half of the scene, Katie descends on her fatal journey down into the living room, then back upstairs to her room. Verbinski’s command of structural aesthetics makes the journey one of the most terrifying scenes of the film. Katie’s steps are slow, careful, and heavy– matching her growing horror at the sight of television turning on to static. The camera closes in on Katie to restrict audience perspective the periphery, forcing us to only see what Katie sees. We jump when the fridge lingers open or when a shimmer runs across the television screen. Her walk down the hallway back toward the stairs becomes longer, heightening our sensitivity. The blue-green coloring of the film submerges the scene in water symbolism, echoing the constant rainfall of Seattle, the marshy acres surrounding Shelter Mountain Inn, and the mold damage in key locations that signaled the film’s largest clues. Moonlight splashes along the floor, reflecting the perspective of Samara looking up into the closing of the well. By the time Katie places a hand on the doorknob, our imaginations drown in the intricate web created within this very scene.
The parallel to this scene is the climax of the film, the classic scary moment where Samara emerges from Noah’s television. So much about this scene terrifies, from the breaking of the fourth wall to the terrifying reveal of Samara’s gaze (a moment where I still need to shut my eyes). Once again, this scene offers another moment where safety appeared assured after Rachel’s discovery of The Tape’s true creator, only to have her son Aiden (David Dorfman) eerily reveal that “[she] weren’t supposed to help her.”
Samara’s disjointed body movement resembles the physical manifestation of static as she approaches the television. Each defined step mimics the steps Katie took to her death at the beginning of the film. Her fluid transition from the television into Noah’s studio compliments the water spilling onto the floor; a symbol of the cyclical events that has brought audiences to this final moment. Samara is relentless, unmerciful, resonating Aiden’s conundrum on the inevitability of death. The stunningly opaque water surrounding Noah’s body reminds audiences of the water dripping from Katie’s doorknob as she enters the room. The Tape’s omnipresence offers no escape for audiences as they delve deeper within the microcosm of the film.
The location of Noah’s death highlights an interesting comment on the presence of technology. We know his profession as photographer, and he dies amongst his camera equipment, demonstrating how technology symbolizes both expression and isolation. The seductive force of technology influences us and can cause our downfall. Technology serves as the needed bridge between American and Japanese cultural elements. We may not feel the dominance of the supernatural, but we can feel the authority of technology. Such is the recurrent nature of fear, retaining power through the change of its structure and interpretation.
Each year, The Ring always makes its way onto my horror movie queue. My mom still makes fun of me for my continued fear, but she had The Exorcist to frighten her as a child. However, the longevity of this film within my mind rests with being able to build upon my nostalgia with analysis. Quoting the film makes for a fun Halloween party trick, but explaining significance behind these quotes keeps the films’ importance in my mind.