How effective is Gore Verbinski’s atmospheric new thriller? It had me believing a piece of film can indeed exert a sinister power over a person who views it. After all, critics as normally perceptive as Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman and Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir have watched “The Ring” and come away hailing it as a triumph, comparing it to classics like The Exorcist, “Un Chien Andalou” and The Sixth Sense when, in fact, the film’s a mindless mess. Now that’s some spooky video voodoo.
Naomi Watts takes a wrong turn off Mulholland Drive and winds up lost in nonsense as a Seattle reporter whose niece has just died mysteriously. Her sister begs her to get to the bottom of her daughter’s death and, the next thing you know, Watts has figured out that the girl’s unexpected demise came exactly one week after she watched a particular tape. Faster than you can say Fear Dot Com, she’s got her hands on the thing and slammed it into the nearest VCR. Of course. Having just learned that watching the tape may well result in unstoppable otherworldly death, what intelligent journalist who’s a single parent with a young son wouldn’t watch it as soon as possible? While you’re at it, don’t check to make sure Jason’s really dead. I’m sure he’ll still be laying there when you turn around a minute or so from now.
Sure enough, Watts views the eerie recording-a short black and white montage of unsettling images which looks more than anything like a home movie made by David Lynch-and, immediately upon its conclusion, gets a phone call. Lifting the receiver to her ear, Watts is terrified to hear the voice of a young girl uttering the words “seven days.”
Knowing full well the ominous meaning of the message (she has only a week to live), the reporter does what any credible character in a critically acclaimed horror film would do: she brings the tape to her estranged husband (Martin Henderson) and stands by while he watches it too. Well, that ought to do wonders for their relationship.
The movie is not short on spooky sounds and images. There’s something almost Kubrickian and evocative of “The Shining” in Verbinski’s direction here. No, what the movie is short on is brains. Brains and believability. Think I’m being unfair? Consider this: as soon as she dooms the father of her child, Watts races home to leave the deadly video unguarded by the entertainment center where the tyke can pick it up and pop it in when he gets up the next morning. Why doesn’t she just hold a public screening and wipe out the rest of Seattle while she’s at it?
Believe it or not, I haven’t even gotten to the really braindead part. There’s a murdered little girl at the heart of the story and she’s responsible for the videocassette of death. The girl was killed roughly mid-century so it’s not clear what kind of sinister stuff she did to keep busy prior to the invention of the VCR. Or whether she has plans to upgrade to DVD. All we know for sure is that the young lady possesses virtually unlimited supernatural powers but has chosen to confine the havoc she’s wreaked from beyond the grave to a snail-paced campaign of murder by film short. As embodiments of pure evil go, this kid ranks as maybe the laziest in movie history.
Given his resume (“Mouse Hunt,” The Mexican), it’s not surprising that Verbinski fails to earn comparison to the cinema’s immortal directors of horror. What is surprising is that he’s earned as many kudos as he has for a film which proves so undistinguished an assemblage of joybuzzer jolts and genre cliches. Watts is extra-watchable and, as I say, the filmmaker does achieve a style and tone the script never comes close to living up to. Otherwise, Verbinski’s adaptation of the 1998 Japanese hit “Ringu” misses the mark almost completely. The scariest thing about this festival of loose ends is the thought of just how much must have gotten lost in the translation.