Video Killed the Star
Starring Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by Ehren Kruger, based on Hideo Nakata’s screenplay and Koji Suzuki’s novel. Rated PG-13.
Hollywood meets J-horror in a decent remake of The Ring.
By KRISTIAN LIN
An art lover who treasures paintings by the old masters knows that original works are best appreciated in the museums where they hang, wherever they may be. Going there can be impractical, though, and if it is, there’s no shame in looking at a good copy. The Ring is a good copy; it’s a remake of Hideo Nakata’s wildly popular 1998 Japanese horror film, which isn’t widely available in America (though that may well change if this movie’s a hit).
It begins with an urban legend about a videotape that causes people to die exactly one week after they watch it — a different kind of snuff film. Seattle reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) is prodded to investigate it by the horrible and medically inexplicable death of her 16-year-old niece (Amber Tamblyn), who claimed to have seen such a tape in her last days. After discovering that three of the girl’s friends died in different places at exactly the same time, Rachel runs down the videotape in question and watches it herself. It’s about one minute long and filled with abstruse imagery — her video-geek friend Noah (Martin Henderson) sees it later and comments dismissively, “Very student-film” — but soon thereafter, she starts to see the tape’s images in her everyday life. That, plus other strange occurrences, convince her that the tape’s power is real, and she sets about solving the mystery of its origin before her time runs out.
The premise may sound schlocky, but it taps into a centuries-old tradition of ferocious Japanese folk tales about ghosts of murdered people who return to take vengeance on the living. Nakata’s film, adapted from a novel by Koji Suzuki, brought the tradition into the modern world by having a ghost act through a videotape. (The little girl clad in white with long black hair hanging down over her face, an apparition seen in both the original and the remake, is a very Japanese representation of a ghost.) The original film was also a high point for Japanese horror movies, which have had little exposure in the West. The main audience for “J-horror” is teen-age girls, so those films tend to be lighter on violence and heavier on creepy atmosphere and slowly accumulating tension.
The most crucial thing about the remake is that director Gore Verbinski observes the restraint dictated by J-horror. Many horror films, from Hollywood and elsewhere, are structured episodically — exposition, scary scene, more plot development, fake scare, real scare, etc. This movie doesn’t lack for scares in the beginning and middle, but it builds toward a single scene in which the videotape’s secret is spectacularly revealed — don’t get up to leave early, because this movie has a whopper of a false climax. Verbinski increases the ominous ambience through tiny but unsettling details, some borrowed from Nakata (photographs of tape watchers grotesquely distorting their faces) and others created anew (a little girl’s room set up in a barn loft, the place’s cleanliness and good lighting only underscoring its isolation from human contact). He displays an affinity for the genre not hinted at by his previous movies, the clunky but engaging kids’ film Mouse Hunt and the mostly unpleasant romantic thriller The Mexican.
The biggest change from the original is the look of the picture. Where Nakata’s film adopted a largely realistic visual style, the remake is lush and somber. Verbinski borrows elements from What Lies Beneath and The Others, but he clearly owes his biggest debt to M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli soaks everything in gray, and the artfully disturbing tableaux are painstakingly composed. It’s too bad that the director occasionally strains for metaphor and gives some parts the emptiness of a portentous music video.
Some of screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s additions shade over into the bombastic, such as one character’s suicide by electrocution and a spooked horse running loose on a ferry. By having the film take place in big American houses, Verbinski loses the claustrophobic quality of Nakata’s film, which staged its scares in tiny Japanese apartments. He also mishandles the time element; we get titles that count down the days that Rachel has left, but the first five days speed by while everything seemingly happens on day six. The constantly overcast Seattle skies contribute to this by making morning and evening look identical. New Zealand actor Henderson is flavorless as the male lead, and Watts looks lightweight in this setting, which is odd considering what she did in Mulholland Drive.
Still, the important issues are whether the film is scary and how well it holds up on a second viewing. It achieves both ends. Verbinski’s style is effective even though it’s derivative and at times unsubtle. He doesn’t quite have Shyamalan’s polish or timing, but he works up a lather of dread and suspense that’s rather Shyamalan-like. He also manages to preserve the chilling elements of Nakata’s vision, making this film a useful introduction for American audiences to J-horror. He’s no original, but The Ring shows him to be a pretty fair imitator.
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