When Japanese author Suzuki Koji first penned "Ring", the opening chapter of a literary trilogy, little did he realize that this horror novel would become a cultural phenomenon, both at home and around the world. With a premise that sounds like the stuff of urban legends, where watching a certain videotape results in death after seven days, "Ring" has spawned three successful feature films (the first being the 1998 film "Ringu"), a radio drama, and two television series in its native Japan. In addition, "Ring" inspired the 1999 South Korean-Japanese co-production entitled "The Ring Virus", which was essentially a remake of "Ringu", and was pilfered in the recent William Malone shocker "FearDotCom", which revolved around a 'killer' web site ('you download, you die!'). And just in time for Halloween, Dreamworks SKG has come out with its own version of "Ringu", entitled "The Ring", which brings together the talents of director Gore Verbinski ("The Mexican"), scribe Ehren Kruger ("Scream 3") and rising star Naomi Watts ("Mulholland Drive"). And though Japanese-horror purists will likely pooh-pooh all over this Hollywood remake, "The Ring" actually ends up being an effective, atmospheric, and surprisingly coherent horror film.
"The Ring" kicks off with Seattle journalist Rachel Keller (Watts) investigating the sudden and mysterious deaths of her niece Katie (Amber Tamblyn, seen recently on the "Evergreen" episode of UPN's "The Twilight Zone") and three of her friends. Not only did they all die at the exact same time, but they also all appear to have died from unexplained heart attacks. In speaking with her niece's schoolmates, Rachel hears some scuttlebutt about Katie and her friends having died because they watched a videotape while they spent a weekend at a cabin, after which they received an enigmatic phone call telling them that they have one week before they die. Rachel takes a trip to the cabin in question and there she discovers the videotape, an 'art film on acid' containing enigmatic and disturbing imagery. Within seconds of having finished watching the tape, the telephone rings and Rachel learns too that she has only seven more days to live.
With potentially only one week remaining before she succumbs to the videotape's curse, Rachel enlists the help of her ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson of "Windtalkers"). Together, they investigate further, and find that the tape is connected to a long-dead woman named Anna Morgan (Shannon Cochran) and her daughter Samara (Daveigh Chase, who voiced Lilo in "Lilo & Stitch). Unfortunately, this knowledge does not bring them any closer to finding out how to break the seven-day curse. Furthermore, the stakes are raised when Rachel's quietly precocious son Aidan (David Dorfman of "Bounce") becomes 'infected' by the video.
Though "The Ring" essentially retreads material from the 1998 Japanese film, Verbinski skillfully ratchets up the tension gradually as Rachel and Noah's investigation unfolds, while his visual style, which makes good use of gloomy Washington vistas, imparts an atmosphere of imminent doom to the proceedings. Particularly chilling are the disturbing montage on the cursed videotape, the horrifying scene that the tape's victims see before they die, and the film's grim ending, which reveals that because of Rachel's curiosity, a Pandora's Box of misery has been unleashed upon the world.
Kruger, working from the original Suzuki novel and the Hiroshi Takahashi script for "Ringu", actually does an excellent job in adapting the original material, making "The Ring" engaging, even for those familiar with the story's previous incarnations. While many of the elements will be 'old hat' for fans of the Japanese franchise, including how the victims' faces appear distorted in photographs after being cursed, the details of the investigation, and how the curse is eventually broken, Kruger adds a few new wrinkles of his own. The 'revenge from the grave' aspect of the story, the rationale behind the videotape's curse, and the parallel drawn between Samara's sad fate and the dysfunctional relationship between Rachel and her son Aidan are just some of the angles that Kruger beefs up in "The Ring".
Performance-wise, Watts follows up her impressive breakthrough in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" with a sympathetic and credible portrayal of the determined Rachel, and becomes the emotional lynchpin to the film. In contrast, Henderson delivers a relatively bland performance as Rachel's partner-in-crime during the investigation. As Rachel's son, Dorfman delivers an unforgettable mix of intelligence and creepiness, though at times, he seems to be channeling Haley Joel Osment from "The Sixth Sense". Finally, Brian Cox (who played Hannibal Lecter in the original version of "Red Dragon", "Manhunter") is sufficiently malicious as Richard Morgan, a man with a shady past who becomes a key piece of the investigation.
Overall, the filmmakers have done an admirable job in adapting the classic Japanese horror film for American audiences. "The Ring" offers plenty of creepy thrills and visceral chills that will keep audiences on their toes, even for those already familiar with the original Japanese film. With Verbinski's atmospheric direction and Kruger's script that actually hangs together quite well, "The Ring" is a polished supernatural mystery, making for a truly infectious horror film.