Universal has just released the blockbuster horror film The Ring on DVD. And in an uncharacteristically generous gesture, they've also released the Japanese film on which it was based: Ringu. Both movies are decently scary. But while they follow the same story, the different approaches that the movies have make for two very different films.
The gimmick is that somewhere there exists a videotape that, when watched, begins a seven-day countdown to the viewer's death. Once the time is up, the victims are found dead, grimaces of horror on their faces. Naturally, one of the first people killed is the relative of an investigative reporter. The next thing you know, this reporter -- a single mother in both films -- watches the tape.
The Ring is the more substantial of the two films. The reporter is played by Australian Naomi Watts, who, although only in her mid-thirties, acts as though she's battling middle age. This gives the film some nice thematic richness, as we observe the effects of ambition when joined with experience. The role of a mysterious father also explores the ways in which unresolved parental guilt finds fertile soil in children. But these developments burden the movie with something a good horror film should avoid: too much information. There's nothing scarier than the unknown, after all. However, the American filmgoing audience must have payoffs if it's going to be asked to think. So there is an eerie scene on a boat that unfortunately crosses the line into grimly humorous gore. The ending strains credulity. And in order to flesh out the little girl who resides at the center of both films, The Ring makes the capital error of letting her speak.
Ringu may be less of a movie in what it attempts, but it succeeds with greater consistency. In Ringu, events are kept abstract and supernatural. The main character isn't a heroic sleuth as much as she is a desperate mother, propelled from one fantastic moment to another. But maybe Hollywood rightly assumed that an American audience -- so in love at times with the likes of Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, and yes, even Paul Hogan -- would never tolerate a vulnerable Australian. So The Ring sacrifices Ringu's clean intelligibility for effect. But Ringu is in Japanese, meaning you have to read subtitles. Translation, it turns out, is a vicious circle.