Anatomy of a Scene: Ringu (1998) vs. The Ring (2002)

I’ve never seen The Ring. You might wonder why I call myself a horror buff even though I haven’t watched maybe the most iconic Western horror film in the last decade—oh, scratch that, The Ring turns 12 this year. Regardless, yes, it’s iconic and no, I haven’t seen it, primarily because I was still a big wuss back in ’02, with the only things resembling horror under my belt then being Alien and Ghostbusters, the latter telling you how big a wimp I was.

Another contributing factor was the overwhelming opinion within the community that any American remake of a Japanese horror film is bound to pale in comparison to the original. I don’t believe this is a statement about horror remakes in general: John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and most recently Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead are all great and all of them remakes, re-adaptations or re-imaginings of some kind. But when someone from the West does try to reinvent a film or television show from a very different culture, I think there is an inherent risk of changing or even being completely oblivious to the context in which it was created. Cracked’s Robert Brockway pointed this out rather succinctly in a pair of articles about the perpetually-in-development American remake of Akira.

What’s funny is that I can’t tell you if the same issues apply to the American take on The Ring, again in large part because I still haven’t watched the whole thing. That being said, I have watched a single scene—undoubtedly its most famous moment—and while I can’t comment on the entirety of Gore Verbinski’s stab at remaking Hideo Nakata’s unsettling Ringu, I can say he screwed up one big part.

A bit of personal history with Ringu and the books on which they’re based: I didn’t get around to seeing or reading them, respectively, until last year, and while I don’t think they’re scary in the same sense that The Blair Witch Project or House of Leaves are (those being my baseline for “terrifying,” for future reference), I really can’t overstate how unsettling the series is. Spiral, Kôji Suzuki’s first sequel to his original Ring novel, contains one of the most deeply disturbing twists I’ve encountered in any work of horror. The books also play around with the concept of ideas-as-virus that, as a big fan of Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts, I couldn’t help but love. I plan on reading his third book in the series, Loop, sometime later this year.

Nakata’s first Ringu film remains the only entry in the franchise I’ve seen as of this writing. I honestly found it better than its companion novel, switching out the original main character for one I found more empathetic and heavily altering the secondary protagonist so he was no longer a creepy maybe-rapist. It also introduced my favourite part of the series: the image of Sadako Yamamura (or in the case of the American flicks, Samara Morgan), crawling out of the television to literally scare people to death. In the novels, Sadako starts off as a psychic image capable of transmitting a new, incorporeal strain of smallpox which, while really cool, can’t really be conveyed visually. The film’s interpretation is the scene embedded below.

Rather than simply telling you why the scene works as well as it does, I’m first going to show you its American counterpart, the one part of Verbinski’s remake that I actually have seen.

Now, few things are more subjective than what we find scary. For a lot of people sudden jump scares are what does it for them, though I personally find they piss me off more than anything. It all comes down to our individual fears and even experiences, so the idea of a horror film that scares everyone equally just isn’t compatible with human psychology. But, call it a gut feeling, I believe most of you thought the first clip was the more effective of the two or, at the very least, felt the second was lacking something. So let’s break it down and try to find out why.

The problem certainly isn’t in the concept, as both the original scene and its American interpretation hit the same plot points: guy is by himself in his apartment, guy notices something is wrong with his TV, girl unsuccessfully tries to warn him, creepy thing crawls out of television, creepy thing reveals its hideous face and scares the guy to death. The idea of an image on our TV screen coming to life and trying to kill us is unsettling on an almost primal level. We’ve known this ever since we were little, when a parent told us that the scary or violent stuff in a movie or show is just make-believe. Sadako/Samara crawling out of the cathode ray tube is a massive violation both of our perception of safety as well as fundamental laws of the universe. So the basic idea is sound on both sides of the Pacific.

It’s not the acting, either. I mean, I’ve liked Hiroyuki Sanada a lot ever since I saw him in Sunshine and I would really like to cast him in a movie one day, and I’ve never heard of this Martin Henderson fellow, but both do a fine job of portraying a dude scared out of his mind and at a complete loss about what to do, only able to obey that “flight” instinct that’s been with us ever since the early days of our species. So neither version rings false—pun truly not intended.

(Digression: I think more horror movies should have males in the lead roles. I don’t think we’re being discriminated against in that regard, and in fact I think it’s quite the opposite. A great deal of popular horror cinema is based around women being pursued and victimized by any number of monsters or slashers, so seeing a guy put in that position, as in Brad Anderson’s Session 9, is both refreshing and neatly subversive.)

At this point we come to cinema’s grand undefined term, mise en scène, or how everything is put together. The settings of both scenes factor heavily into how effective they are. In Ringu, Sanada is alone in his small, one- or two-room apartment, the time of day and the curtains leaving his place in almost total darkness. Henderson is similarly alone, but his apartment looks about the size of a small warehouse, and the comparatively brighter lighting, suggesting mid-afternoon with overcast weather, is a lot less intimidating. While both guys are screwed from the start, Sanada seems genuinely trapped in his dark, claustrophobic apartment while it looks like Henderson could have easily dashed to the exit had he not backed into an equipment rack. The differences don’t seem huge on paper but in execution they can hugely affect the atmosphere of the scene. Verbinski’s take on the scene also semi-frequently cuts to Naomi Watts’ protagonist attempting to rush to Henderson’s rescue, and so the sequence feels less claustrophobic and less personal.

And the American version of the scene is just overdone. I admit I’m biased: minimalism isn’t just one of my favourite words; it’s one of my favourite approaches in horror. Nakata’s original Sadako take is the acme of doing more with less. The only real special effect involved is having Sadako emerge from the television screen, with most of the scene’s horror coming from actor Rie Inō’s creepy, exaggerated movements and that final, bone-chilling shot of her eye and ashen skin. Meanwhile, Verbinski puts too much into his version: Samara teleporting around the room like a particularly creepy Nightcrawler, the flickering static effect all over her body, Henderson knocking over his equipment and crawling bleeding over broken glass. Verbinski also makes the mistake of showing Samara’s face in full, and she looks crabby more than anything. The whole scene is so saturated with details it either distracts or detracts from the overall horror.

In the end, I can’t comment on The Ring as a whole, but if its most iconic scene says anything it’s that you can’t throw too much at an audience without dulling the horror. Horror can be incredibly simple: a background shadow suddenly moving of its own accord, a stranger’s eye peeking out through the crack between door and jamb, a sight unseen but so horrifying it drives whoever sees it to madness. Gore Verbinski, on the other hand, threw everything at the wall and very little seemed to stick.

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