There was a time when every horror flick out of Hollywood seemed to be adapted from a Japanese (or otherwise Asian) work. Though that trend has since petered out, the 2000s saw many marquee titles that had some sort of Eastern influence—The Grudge, Dark Water, and Pulse being some of the more prominent examples. The film that sparked the genre's East-to-West movement was The Ring, the 2002 Gore Verbinski adaptation of the Japanese original, directed by Hideo Nakata and released four years prior to the American version. The Hollywood remake was a smash hit, and its popularity opened the gates to all manner of J-horror films. Nakata’s Ring soon developed its own following in the West, and it is now lauded by horror aficionados as a genre masterwork that pioneered a new wave of horror filmmaking. I find myself a little bemused by the whole Ring phenomenon because, while the Japanese film’s influence was surely widespread, I don’t think either version is particularly good. In fact—and I’m sure this makes me an outlier—if forced to choose, I’d go with Verbinski’s take.
The argument, if there is to be one, would come down to the two films’ differences in style and atmosphere. But, from the outset, both films fail on one count: their story. We cannot pretend that the plot of The Ring is any good. Both versions follow the same structure, and both are unconvincing. It is as follows: there is a tape, urban legend has it, that supposedly causes death in seven days to anyone that watches it (the tape is a short, grainy montage of mysterious and disquieting images). A journalist (Nanako Matsushima/Naomi Watts) decides to investigate the matter after it is rumored her niece’s death was caused by the tape. Sure enough, she views the tape and finds that it does promise imminent doom, and she sets out with her ex-husband (Hiroyuki Sanada/Martin Henderson) to find a way to lift the curse before her time is up.
Both films are lousy with plot holes and bizarre leaps of logic. In both cases, the film ends up scuttling itself before too long, and the audience slowly loses interest. The Japanese version, for instance, leans on an enormous deus ex machina. Fifty-eight minutes in—and out of nowhere, it must be said—it is revealed that the ex-husband has mind-reading powers, and he essentially solves the mystery of the tape just by thinking about it. How helpful! (And asinine!) Even grosser is the ending, identical across both films, which renders all that comes before irrelevant. The journalist finds that all you have to do to escape death is to copy the tape and show the copy to someone else, thereby making her massive quest to solve the mystery (she goes so far as to dig the remains of a skeleton out of a well) senseless. It’s a massive non-sequitur, and if it was that easy, the film should have ended ten minutes in. There’s simply no point to it all.
Proponents of the Japanese Ring must therefore fall back on its atmosphere, but I cannot find any grounds for their arguments. “Atmospheric,” “creepy,” and “scary” are all adjectives that are bandied about with regards to the Japanese version, but there’s no evidence of any of that in Nakata’s film. For one, it’s not particularly dark—its narrative is neutral in tone, and visually the color palette is balanced. There are plenty of daytime exteriors. Strolls through the forest and along the beach would presumably break up whatever “scary atmosphere” the film had, if it indeed had such a thing. Nakata shoots in an ordinary fashion—in fact, at times he almost becomes utilitarian in the way he directs—and his camera is wholly unthreatening. It is still and unassuming, or phrased another way, it’s simply bland. Furthermore, the only unnerving thing about the film is the death-inducing video tape, which provides some legitimately freaky images. I suppose that some might be troubled by the film’s conclusion—a demonic girl emerges from the television set to kill the ex-husband—but I personally find nothing scary about a little girl with long black hair, and the way the character is dressed (in a white robe with her face covered by her hair) renders her inert. Though my knowledge of Japanese folklore is insufficient, I suspect that such a figure has more connotations for a Japanese audience and would therefore have more impact in the film’s native country, but I question why Western audiences would be scared by a faceless, wiry figure.
By contrast, Verbinski enjoys more success in generating atmosphere with his style. We might parallel him with Nakata: Verbinski’s film is dark, with a palette limited to grays, blues, and sea greens, all washed out so that they are sickly, as if to mimic the color of vomit. It is a morose sight, and the film maintains this throughout, which is more suited to a horror film and to the film’s narrative. Verbinski is a fine director of exterior scenes, and he demonstrates a good eye for style throughout—see the two exterior shots of Naomi Watts on the balcony of her building. Sadly, the director’s various flourishes don’t amount to much. The script is hell bent on telling its story as summarily as possible, and there’s no room for introspection. I do get the sense that Verbinski would have liked to do more with this picture, but his small attempts are rebuffed by the meager narrative, so it all ends up being for naught. Despite the director’s wasted efforts, we can at least say that the American Ring is more stylistically accomplished and more visually voluble than the Japanese version.
Verbinski also trumps Nakata on the horror imagery. There’s little that’s actually horrific in Nakata’s Ring, but Verbinski presents us with sights that are legitimately troubling. In one disturbing sequence, Naomi Watts vomits up a long piece of string. I could not ascertain the significance of the string or how it got into her in the first place (better left unsaid, I suppose) but it’s freaky nonetheless. Beyond that, Verbinski’s demonic girl is marginally more disconcerting than Nakata’s. At the very least, Verbinski fleshes out her character more and gives her stylistic traits that are memorable. She leaves trails of water everywhere she treads, for instance, a reference to the fact that her body was thrown into a well. These small details aren’t of any great consequence, but again, it makes the film more visually interesting than the Japanese original.
If we were to keep score, Verbinski would come out ahead by a small margin, simply because he is more artistic than Nakata. Indeed, it’s interesting that it was Nakata’s film that spurred on this East-to-West horror trend, for the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) and Takashi Miike are much more capable directors of horror than he. (Kurosawa’s Retribution is one of my favorite Japanese horror films, and is far superior to Ring, though it never received a Hollywood adaptation.)
But these are lightweight horror films. They do not resonate with the viewer in the way that something like The Shining does. The Shining might seem a lofty goal, perhaps too high a watermark for something like The Ring to reach, but the disparity might not be as great as we imagine. A good writer could make inroads with the material here, but these pictures are not well written, and they never live up to their potential. Consider, for instance, the moral quandary at the heart of the film. In order to save herself from the curse, the lead must copy the tape and show it to someone else, thereby condemning that second party. This is, in fact, a difficult question: is it just to doom another individual to save yourself, even if there is the possibility that they can in turn save themselves by showing the tape to another person? Indeed, this is how the journalist actually survives—by showing the film to her ex-husband, she works her way out of the curse; of course, he ends up dying. In a way, she murders him. It’s an interesting moral issue, and one the film completely ignores, obviously to its detriment. Had it traded in the mystery mongering and crazy plot twists for some narrative with substance, The Ring might have enjoyed more success.