The Ring is a horror film built around a videotape so sinister that anyone who watches it dies in seven days. The best thing about the movie, which is a very elegantly crafted piece of gothic snuff hokum, is the way it teases and intrigues us with the revelation of what’s on that tape. In the terrific chiller of an opening sequence, a 16-year-old girl who has viewed the demon cassette meets a grisly, fear-frozen fate. The setting — a sprawling home late at night — and the clever alternation of real and fake scare tactics make for a fun, if obvious, attempt to give the audience that ”Scream”-y shocks-and-yocks feeling. But as the girl stares at a malevolent TV screen, our glimpse of what she sees exerts a fascination that extends beyond mere jolts. What image, after all, could be so terrifying that it kills you?

Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), a Seattle newspaper reporter, is desperate to find out. She has learned that her niece — the girl in the opening scene — viewed the tape with three friends in a woodsy motel cabin, and that all four of them died one week later. Rachel finds her way to the motel, and it’s there that she discovers the tape and watches it. As it unspools, we see staticky gray and white images (a glowing ring; dead horses and a wriggly centipede; a mysterious woman standing before a Victorian mirror; a shot of what appears to be a person getting disemboweled through the throat) that resemble something out of an old surrealist nightmare. It’s like ”Un Chien Andalou” or the famous opening sequence of ”Persona” turned into a macabre ”Blair Witch” head trip. Rachel takes the tape to her office, copies it, and begins to replay it on an editing machine, where she finds hidden clues along the sides of the images and, at one point, freeze-frames a shot of a housefly that turns out to be…an actual live, buzzing fly that she lifts right off of the tape. How’s that for hidden Satan?

”The Ring” is a remake of a 1998 Japanese horror film, and the American director Gore Verbinski uses the electromagnetic ”nowness” of video to give archaic omens a creepy charge. Unfortunately, the omens themselves remain stubbornly old hat. As Rachel stitches together their meaning, we realize that we’ve been hoodwinked into watching a fairly standard undead mystery in grainy video drag. The movie pulls other cheap tricks, like giving Rachel a beady-eyed psychic son (David Dorfman) who’s the latest example of what has become a ”Sixth Sense” cliché. That said, the twists keep on coming, and Verbinski shows a fine-tuned gift for calibrating and manipulating viewer expectations. Naomi Watts, coming off her triumphant good girl/nasty girl performance in ”Mulholland Drive,” proves that she can hold the screen every bit as enticingly in a conventional genre thriller. Blond, full-lipped, and wholesomely sensual, with a rare ability to make fear look strong, Watts has a live-wire charisma reminiscent of the young Debra Winger. She just about vibrates in response to whomever she’s on screen with, and the audience watching ”The Ring” shares that tingle. B

The Ring
  • Movie
  • 115 minutes