friday night movie club

In The Ring, the House Haunts You

Making a grand entrance in The Ring
Making a grand entrance in The Ring Photo: DreamWork Productions

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection — the first in a special, monthlong celebration of horror — comes from film critic Alison Willmore, who will begin her screening of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of The Ring on October 2 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead at next week’s movie here.

The Ring is a haunted-house movie in which the house itself has become almost incidental. The one in the movie is actually a pain in the ass to find, tucked away on an island off the Washington coast, where it sits in the shadow of a lighthouse whose beam bathes the windows in intermittent brightness. When reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) does eventually reach it, following the trail of clues included in the mysterious VHS tape whose curse she’s under, she’s barely let in the door by its solitary resident — Richard Morgan (Brian Cox), who seems to spend his days doing chores on behalf of horses who’ve long since died. She has to come back under cover of darkness and sneak in to find evidence of the trauma that’s inevitably at the center of these movies.

There’s always trauma, and in The Ring, it involves a little girl with psychic powers, and the adoptive parents who slowly shattered under the strain of dealing with these abilities and locked her away, in more ways than one. The house this family once shared, with its warren of shadowy interiors and sagging porch, is creepy. The barn out back, with a hayloft that was transformed into a juvenile oubliette, is even creepier. But Rachel didn’t actually need to travel all the way out there to understand that. The details were all right there on the tape she watched — the ladder leaned against the wall, the lone chair, the horses, the oval mirror on the wall, the man at the window, all making a domestic-nightmare fragment into an evocative collage of Buñuel-esque imagery. The trick of The Ring is that you don’t need to go into the haunted house to get menaced. Watch the tape, give it seven days, and the haunting will come to you.

Hideo Nakata’s 1998 movie, Ringu, is one of the high points of the Japanese horror wave of the ’90s and ’00s, and I’m one of the philistines who prefers the U.S. version anyway. Gore Verbinski’s 2002 film is arguably the only non-terrible entry in the dismal list of Hollywood remakes of J-horror hits, in part because it puts some actual consideration into localizing and translating the original film’s concept into the context of the gloomy American Northwest. But Verbinski’s version, while glossier and more expensive, also trimmed down the number of psychic characters and a whole backstory involving a character who was falsely decried as a fraud. What’s left is a leaner, cleaner movie about a woman who thinks she’s playing by the rules of one kind of horror movie — the kind where a ghost wants closure and can be laid to rest — only to find out, too late, that she’s part of another narrative entirely.

The Ring is a total failure as a technophobic movie, though I don’t think it ever set out to be one in the first place. VHS was already well on its way out when The Ring premiered in theaters. Landlines, the other key aspect of the curse’s process, weren’t quite there yet, but the idea of their eventual outdatedness was on the horizon, something that could be seen coming. There’s a scene midway through the film in which Rachel, who lives with her son, Aidan (David Dorfman), in a glassy high-rise, looks at the neighboring tower from her terrace and sees living room after living room of residents with their televisions. But it’s not a shot that feels intended to be scoldy — parenting is much more the movie’s central concern, and its big fake-out, than screen time or modern disconnection. Rather, as Rachel looks into all those little dioramas of apartments, with all their devices, what she’s looking at are vulnerabilities — at ways in.

Which is the idea that still makes The Ring scary, long after the technology around which it revolves has passed from use. It’s the idea that there’s actually no distance between that sleek condo tower and the remote island ranch house, or between the suburban home in which the film starts and the rundown mountain cabin where the curse has its origins. Samara (Daveigh Chase), the malevolent ghost, can move between them seamlessly — can come right through the screen, bringing all her rage and all the wrongs that were done to her along with her. In a haunted-house movie, there’s always the possibility, however difficult, that you could escape, walk out the door and away from whatever terrible thing is trapped in the key location. In The Ring, bright modern spaces become just as frightening as moody shacks in the woods built on top of murder sights. There’s no getting out of the haunted house when you bring the haunted house with you wherever you go.

The Ring is available to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Prime Video, and iTunes.

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In The Ring, the House Haunts You