The Ring (Japan, 1998)


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about just how important The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998) – and that’s it’s name, “Ringu” was devised by DreamWorks to differentiate it from the 2002 remake – is to contemporary horror. You can see its influence in all sorts of recent releases; Mama (Andreas Maschietti, 2013) is particularly steeped in J-horror tropes, The Ring especially. Everything spooky and uncanny about 2000s horror seems to come from Nakata and his fellow J-horror filmmakers. But it was also a huge shift in how people thought about horror. Non-American films have always played a pivotal role in the horror genre as a whole, but, a number of English and Italian horror classics were co-produced by American studios or distributors, and were, of course, in English. The gialli of Bava and Argento were marginal, even within the genre; drive-in and grindhouse fare in the 1970s when horror was moving into the mainstream of public consciousness, and into the multiplexes. Although Bava’s 1971 film Twitch of the Death Nerve (known under several other titles, including Bay of Blood) or Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) seem to directly prefigure the slasher films, for example, John Carpenter, Sean Cunningham, and co. have never, to my knowledge, acknowledged an influence. (And, indeed, I spoke with one critic who had interviewed them extensively, and his report is that the Americans claim to have never seen any of the Italian films.)

The Ring  marked the first time that the center of gravity of the horror genre really moved outside of the United States, although the US took a couple years to catch on: The Ring‘s appearance coincides with the release of two of the most profitable horror movies of the last few decades, The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999), along with an influx of studio money into horror and horror-ish projects like House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting, The Mummy, Stir of Echoes, Stigmata, etc. Motivated, I can only guess, by the great success of the Scream franchise, the end of the decade saw the studios throwing a bunch of expensive, unconvincing CGI effects at big movie stars, and providing big-budget marketing campaigns to back them up. The Sixth Sense featured a big movie star, Bruce Willis, and was backed by indiewood studio Miramax. It would make an obscene amount of money. The Blair Witch seemed to open up another possible path, a horror cinema that returned to the no-budget independence that produced the now-canonized masterpieces of the genre in the 1970s. Of course, Hollywood learned from Blair Witch not that it should seek out innovative independent projects, but that it should focus more on internet marketing. Shyamalan, meanwhile, continued to make “event” movies that hang on a gimmicky premise and, although he still has his champions among critics, he is no longer the bankable name he once was. More important than that, however, is that Hollywood never figured out how to replicate The Sixth Sense‘s success. Even with such excellent Shyamalan-esque films as The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001) and The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001), Hollywood seemed to move on quickly, growing preoccupied with importing monsters and other tropes of horror into action movies and teen-oriented movies (including supernatural romances, obviously).

The Ring provided a path away from the morass that plagued horror at the turn of the millennium, and not just because of its aesthetic value – though it is, of course, incredibly effective and quite beautiful at times. Its worldwide success was not the singular, unrepeatable event that Blair Witch was, nor was its appeal focused on the celebrity auteurship of director Hideo Nakata, as The Sixth Sense was. The Ring introduced a style, a way of conveying creepy atmospherics, that could be built on by other films from Japan. But it also made room, somehow, for films that have almost nothing to do with its style. Without Ring, Kenji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale or Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Happiness of the Katakuris probably wouldn’t have received the international attention they did. Similarly, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s surrealist horror films might have been consigned to the art house if The Ring didn’t help to create an audience for J-horror around the world.

ith the arrival of VCDs and DVDs, The Ring and other J-horror films were able to reach a broad global audience. The success of these films would help to create an audience – and a brand – for international horror in America, Britain, and elsewhere in the west (i.e. not the only places with money, but places that have a lot of money), and that would pave the way not just for other Japanese films, but also for films from Thailand, South Korea, even France. A demand and for non-English language horror films emerged and became, at least among modestly budgeted productions, commercially viable. If J-horror established a creative center for the genre outside of the US (and proved that there was an audience for non-English language horror in the English-speaking world), the idea/brand of the “Asia Extreme” film[1] helped to establish horror as a fully international genre in the 2000s. That is to say that the horror fan – and the horror filmmaker – would be just as enthusiastic and informed (if not more so) about current productions from across the globe as in his or her own country, and that the exchange between films that defines the genre freely crosses boundaries. The viewing habits of horror fans in the digital age ensures that the genre maintains a fully international character without neglecting the specificities of national cinemas. [2] There is really no way of the “torture porn” genre as being the product of any one nation: its DNA is equal parts Miike, Park Chan-wook, Lucio Fulci, and Wes Craven, and its initial offerings come from South Korea, France, and America (where two Australians expanded a short film into Saw in 2004). Similarly, the “found footage” films, seemingly a delayed attempt to follow up The Blair Witch Project, is both studio (Cloverfield) and independent (Diary of the Dead), and if the style’s signature franchise (Paranormal Activity – the first film was directed and produced by an Israeli, btw), the brilliant [REC] films are produced in Spain, and in Spanish. I don’t want to go overboard here, but so much of this could happen because The Ring helped to establish an audience for kinda weird “foreign” movies, sometimes even very arty ones. Distribution outlets for smaller, non-American horror films encouraged and funded further genre productions, etc etc.The Ring is also a singular phenomenon, however. It’s been remade in several different countries, has had four (now five?) sequels/prequels in Japan, and one in the US, and the image of its ghost, Sadako, face covered in wet, stringy hair, has become as iconic as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Something about both the concept, gimmicky though it is (it slams together several urban legend-type stories, though it never quite feels incoherent), and the image of that ghost, is powerful enough to have really dug itself into the genre’s foundation.

Why did Ring burrow so deeply into the genre’s collective imaginary? I’ve been thinking through the technological aspect recently. For one thing, it was perfectly poised on the precipice of digital technology, dealing primarily with analogue – VHS, celluloid photography, telephones before the transition to cell phones had become ubiquitous – but using it to express concerns more specifically about the digital. The images on the videotape are produced not through indexical photography but are generated spontaneously by the ghost Sado. The rapid proliferation of the video’s curse, spreading like a virus (to quote the title of the South Korean remake of the film[3]), reflects not just anxiety over the digital spread of information but a geographically dispersed digital presence. The film is largely built around a traditional mystery narrative, in which the reporter Reiko attempts to decode the video’s cryptic images in order to find the originating source. Once she has discovered Sado’s identity and linked her with the videotape, the film narrows its mystery to one of location: Reiko frantically attempts to find Sado’s body so that the ghost can be put to rest and, assumedly, the vengeful spirit soothed before she falls victim to the curse. Of course, the discovery of the body does nothing to halt the curse’s deadly progression: there is no physical location to which the curse or the images on the videotape correspond. Furthermore, Reiko and her son are only spared because they participate in the continued spread of the images and the curse they bring with them; they survive because they make a copy and show it to another. Not dissimilar to another late-90s film that was initially successful but became a hit on dvd (although, course, The Matrix franchise saw considerably greater success), The Ring articulated a new set of anxieties associated with the digital age. The ghost and its threats follow a digital logic, plaguing a set of victims stuck in analogue thinking, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that The Ring would become one of the releases that established Tartan’s successful and influential “Asia Extreme” dvd label at the time that the dvd viewing and collecting was becoming widespread.

[1] Joan Hawkins and Chi-Yui Shin have written about the ideological and aesthetic limitations of Tartan’s Asia Extreme DVD label. In general, the company’s film choices do not necessarily reflect the best or even most popular films of their home countries – some of these releases were outright flops at home. In general, as Joan Hawkins has argued, international distribution favors gimmicky premises and exploitation plots, while removing the films from the specific national context in which they originated. This process overlooks certain kinds of filmmakers and give simplified, distorted pictures of diverse national cinemas. See Hawkins (2009) and Shin (2008). Certain kinds of films, and certain filmmakers,

[2] Indeed, the trend has been to identify and celebrate national movements, grouping contemporaneous genre filmmakers together under rubrics like, for example, J-horror or “New French Extremity.”

[3] The Ring Virus (Kim Dong-Bin, 1999)

One response

  1. A terrific analysis of one of the best horror films in the last 15 years. You make a great case for Its great influence in the genre.

    March 15, 2013 at 1:24 am

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