Cold call: Naomi Watts in 'The Ring'
DreamWorks Pictures

The new horror film The Ring tells the urban legend of a videocassette filled with images so disturbing, so gruesomely enthralling, that anyone who watches it is doomed to drop dead from fright. (No, it's not the director's cut of Glitter.) In a pre-credit sequence heavily redolent of the Scream franchise, two teenage girls at a slumber party try to spook one another by relating the video's m.o.: After you watch the cassette, you get a mysterious phone call; then, seven days later, you die. At this point, we in the audience are likely to wonder: 1) So Death calls to confirm? or 2) Isn't that the sniveling kid sister from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? or 3) Gee, Blockbuster is really cracking down on late returns, huh?

Naturally, since they're stuck in a Big Empty House, one of the pre-pubes has already watched the cursed video. At least she has some precognition of her fate: "With all the magnetic waves in the air and stuff, we're losing, like, 10 times as many brain cells as we're supposed to," she tells her friend. Like, sorry, hon, Too late.

Given the dramatic buildup, it's a bit of a letdown when we finally get to see the video for ourselves. Grainy and in black-and-white, it's filled with portentous symbols such as dead horses, creepy-looking women, and lots and lots of squirming bugs. If not pleasant viewing, the video doesn't exactly induce tremors of terror, either. Actually, it looks like it could be one of David Lynch's student films.

Speaking of Lynch, The Ring stars Naomi Watts, who played the wholesome blond cipher in the director's Mulholland Drive. At the risk of sounding catty, I'd say Watts made a very convincing blank slate in that surreal noir, and she's similarly convincing here as an intrepid reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Watts's character is the workaholic single mother of a boy with uncannily dark eyes and a mild case of the Shining. The kid's creepiness, while not insubstantial, is slightly undercut by his resemblance to another precociously morbid boy who communed with the spirit world. Watching The Ring, you may find yourself thinking, "Okay--so you see dead people. Now what?"

The boy's blooming psychic powers represent the broadest departure from the original Japanese version of the story, of which The Ring is an otherwise loyal remake. Based on a novel by Koji Suzuki, who has been called the Stephen King of Japan (as a compliment, one assumes), the Japanese Ring was a huge hit in the late '90s, spawning two sequels and a 12-part television series. Compared with its new American incarnation, that initial film was an unsettling low-budget affair. Yet you could also understand its popularity, since the story felt grounded in both Japanese folklore and the febrile imagination of a 16-year-old schoolgirl. And given that The Ring is basically a cautionary tale about the horrifying omnipresence of television, it made sense in the technology-mad Japanese context. Even so, the original film already feels curiously dated: I mean, who even has a VCR anymore? Analog is, like, so last month.

While it's juiced up with some scary CGI, the American version has lost something in the translation. The director, Gore Verbinski, doesn't seem to have a particularly sensitive ear for cultural nuance (though his last film was called The Mexican). But you can't blame him for that; he seems to be one of those directors with no personal style, and he leaves no detectable fingerprints here. Indeed, aside from transposing the setting to drippy, gray Seattle, his version is, for the most part, a shot-by-shot remake of the original. What hurts The Ring is the fact that, when you cut through the ominous atmospherics, it's silly as hell. What is that cursed videotape, anyway, if not an update of the hoariest of campfire stories? Subjected to even the most casual inspection, the film's premise collapses into comedy.

Despite repeated underlining by Verbinski, the film's point about technology's inescapable nature fails to carry much weight. In one scene, Watts's character steps onto her balcony and sees TVs flickering in all of the city's windows. Later she deduces that the restless ghost behind the videotape has been driven to murderous revenge because of television. The apparent message--that TV steals America's children--felt dubious back when Spielberg proposed it in Poltergeist. (I, for one, watched a lot of it growing up, and I haven't killed anyone with my telekinetic powers recently.) Twenty years later, any Hollywood movie condemning television's moral rot remains fundamentally absurd--like a swine complaining about the messiness of its pen.

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