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Halloween Retrospective: The Ring, Volume III

Welcome to the third and final part of our retrospective of The Ring, covering all major adaptations of Koji Suzuki’s novels. In this volume, we shall be reviewing the international adaptations, including the underwhelming Korean film, the creepy American trilogy, and the surprise British radio play (yes, really!)

The Ring Virus (1999)

The first international adaptation, The Ring Virus was a joint production between Japan and South Korea. Directed by Kim Dong-bin, the film is an amalgamation of the novel and 1998 film, with the intention of turning the horror elements into a mystery. The end result, however, is as dull as dishwater. Devoid of anything tangibly entertaining, The Ring Virus is just shoddy on all counts. There is wooden acting, a convoluted script, and any sense of fright or drama are void. Not to mention, the bright, contrasting use of light and colour that just renders the movie free of any atmosphere.

Hong Sun-joo, a single parent and journalist – played by a stone-faced Shin Eun-kyong – discovers her niece and her three friends died on the same day. She chooses to speak to Dr. Choi Yeol (Jung Jin-young), a disgraced surgeon-turned-mortician, who claims he sensed the teenagers died by supernatural causes. After reading a cryptic pager message in her niece’s room, Sun-joo tracks down and watches the worst incarnation of the cursed videotape. The footage is tinted blue, with the abstract imagery hidden under warped footage, making it almost unwatchable. The subliminal music video from Ring: The Final Chapter was better!

Sun-joo and Choi set out to unravel the mystery behind the videotape, especially when Sun-joo’s daughter watches the tape too. They are aided by Sun-joo’s colleague, Mr. Kim (Kim Chang-wan), who gathers arbitrary backstory on the Korean incarnation of Sadako Yamamura, named Park Eun-suh – played by Bae Doona, who has appeared in several projects by the Wachowskis, most notably in Sense8, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. Eun-suh doesn’t have much of a presence in the film. Her most notable achievement is murdering a pervert spying on her in the shower.

The movie is dragged down by what can be described as a lack of effort. Sun-joo responds to everything with this dour, annoyed glare, even when experiencing horrific moments. Chol is a poor substitute for Ryuji Takayama, even if they try to give him a meaningful backstory regarding a risky operation that led to the death of a child. The character treats the whole curse as a game, finding increasingly silly sleeping positions throughout the movie. The two leads have zero chemistry, acting bolshie and irritable around each other.

It is the production quality that really drags the film down. The use of bright lights and colours is atrocious, sapping the intended scary scenes of any tension. The staple scene of Eun-suh emerging from the TV is just awful, filmed using one ground-level static shot in a brightly lit room.

The Ring (2002)

At last, we reach the American remake, The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski. Film producer Walter Parkes stumbled upon the 1998 film and was so enamoured by what he saw, he managed to secure the rights to adapt it less than a week later. Although very different from its older Japanese cousin, The Ring captures the atmosphere and haunting sense of foreboding that made the original so successful. It is an unnervingly quiet film at times, whilst visually accompanied by an ever present bluish-green tint. There are a couple of unnecessary jump scares, but there are some surprisingly effective ones that serve the plot. However, if you’re a fan of horses, this might not be the film for you.

As you might guess, it follows the story beats of most other adaptations of Ring. Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) investigates the sudden, unnatural death of her niece Katie (Amber Tamblyn) – who meets her end in the film’s excellently paced opening. Learning Katie and three friends all died simultaneously, Rachel is drawn to a remote mountain inn where she finds the cursed videotape, perhaps the most frightening of all its incarnations, even it does look a bit like a college student’s thesis film. Realising she has seven days to live, Rachel recruits her ex-boyfriend Noah Clay (Martin Henderson) to help her uncover the tape’s origins. Things only grow more dire when their peculiar son Aidan (David Dorfman) also watches the tape.

Sadako’s counterpart is Samara Morgan, a creepy, little insomniac played by Daveigh Chase, who is also known from Lilo & Stitch and the English dub of Spirited Away. Her backstory is very different from Sadako’s. For once, she lacks control over her psychic powers, driving her foster parents Anna and Richard Morgan (Shannon Cochran and Brian Cox) to near insanity. After some time in a psychiatric hospital and then murdering her parents’ beloved horses in an act of childish jealousy, Samara inevitably is thrown down a well by Anna. The screenplay works well to deceive the audience into believing Samara is a sympathetic, isolated child who does not mean to harm others.

Naomi Watts portrays a very different protagonist from Reiko Asakawa; Rachel being strong-willed and stubborn, though is able to nail a desperate mother. Martin Henderson doesn’t quite have the same screen presence as Noah, since he doesn’t work directly with Rachel to investigate the tape until halfway through the film. Aidan is sometimes even creepier than Samara, often compared to Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. The key difference is that Aidan refuses to share what should have been important information to Rachel until its too late.

Samara’s iconic emergence from the television rivals that of Sadako. Samara’s waterlogged ghost is textured with the flickering quality of a videotape and teleports to frighten her victims. These effects were created by make up legend Rick Baker, who also crafted Katie’s malformed corpse when it is teased in the movie’s best jump scare. At times, watching the film is similar to watching a Hitchcock movie, though that might be because the film pays numerous references to his films, such as Rear Window and Psycho.

The success of The Ring led to a brief frenzy to remake every Asian horror film with limited success. Two sequels and a short film have subsequently been created, although none of them quite match the quality of The Ring.

Rings (2005)

Perhaps the most unique piece of media in the franchise, Rings is a short film that serves as a prologue to The Ring Two. Only sixteen minutes long, it serves as a gripping little corner of the Ring universe. In the wake of Rachel releasing Samara’s tape into the world, a subculture has formed across America called “Rings”. A circle of teenagers each take turns watching the videotape and spend their allotted seven days recording what they experience. If it all becomes too much, they pass the proverbial baton onto the next person in their rings. The ultimate goal is to survive past day seven and to see what happens. Those involved are well aware that people die on day seven, so it’s a little odd why they would keep participating when there are only two outcomes. I guess spooky videotapes were all the rage in 2005.

Our intrepid or foolish lead is Jake (Ryan Merriman) who joins his local ring in order to get close to his crush Vanessa (Alexandra Breckenridge). Apparently no one bothers to tell him just what he’s getting into, as the manipulative Vanessa really wants to see someone make it to day seven. Mostly told through stylistic montage and increasingly wild visuals, Jake’s week goes from trippy to terrifying. Soon he is being stalked by Samara or vomiting up awful-looking CGI centipedes. When his “friends” deny him a way out, Jake desperately finds a way to escape death, even attempting to play the tape in an electronics store, only to be kicked out by a knowing security guard.

Rings is a pretty good psychological film, carrying obvious messages about peer pressure and the downside of addiction (with supernatural twists). The intrigue of the cults are revisited in both The Ring Two and the 2019 film Rings.

The Ring Two (2005)

Hideo Nakata, famed director of the 1998 film, takes the reins for the sequel, attempting to bring the Japanese tone of the franchise to the west with admirable if flawed results. Rachel and Aidan moved to Astoria, Oregon following the events of the first film. However, that also happens to be where Jake is trying to convince a young Emily VanCamp to watch the videotape. He fails and dies, attracting Rachel to the scene, where she has an unwanted reunion with Samara, before burning Jake’s copy of the tape.

Samara isn’t too pleased with this, breaking away from her own grounded rules to outright possess Aidan to make Rachel her new mother. The slow build up to this revelation drags, but we have bigger concerns, like getting attack by a herd of crazed CGI deer. Props for trying to come up with new scares, but nothing will top the suicidal horse in the first film. When it becomes clear what is happening, Rachel turns to her new colleague Max Rourke (Simon Baker) for help. However, Max assumes Rachel is abusing Aidan, leading to his hospitalisation. Rachel sets out to uncover the rest of Samara’s history, leading to Evelyn, Samara’s birth mother, fittingly played by Sissy Spacek, whose role as Carrie may have influenced the franchise. Evelyn warns Rachel the only way to save Aidan is to exorcise Samara via drowning.

Even with Nakata at the helm, The Ring Two struggles to find its own identity, especially with its scares. There is one scene where Samara (as Aidan) uses her powers to push a doctor to commit suicide, but it fails to be even remotely scary – as we don’t actually see the horrific imagery the doctor is being subjected to. There is nothing hair-raising when two people are literally just staring each other for a full minute.

The film takes the time to flesh out Samara a little more as a person, reminding us that she is a child in some respects looking for a mother. Once rejected, Samara abandons her last shreds of humanity and becomes a nightmarish, wall-crawling monster. However, the film’s dramatic end is hampered a little bit when Rachel delivers a one-liner that feels very out of character for her. David Dorfman, on the other hand, excels playing double duty as both Aidan and Samara, now providing the necessary answers, whilst depicting Samara as a sympathetic character. It’s a shame he quit acting, but nowadays he is a successful attorney, working at the US House of Representatives.

Rings (2017)

The latest film in the American continuity, Rings feels like a soft reboot, yet takes the time to further expand Samara’s backstory, and even has a rather ambition opening and ending. The rest is a bit of a drag, attempting to recapture the tone of the original, but offers dull characters and a predictable plot.

The movie starts with Samara bringing down a frickin’ plane, thanks to two passengers who watched the tape. The question is why are people still watching videotapes in 2017 in an age of streaming services and DVDs? Elsewhere, a university professor named Gabriel Brown (Johnny Galecki) finds a copy himself, rebooting the Rings cult from the short film, in order to connect to the afterlife. Amongst his test subjects is Holt (Alex Roe), whose girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz) comes looking for him when he cuts off ties with her. Discovering what Holt is involved in and after witnessing Samara clambering out of a flatscreen TV to kill another victim, Julia watches the tape herself to save Holt.

However, instead of facing a seven day deadline, Julia is presented with a special edition of Samara’s tape, which captures the style of the original but not the nauseating experience watching it. Julia and Holt set off to track down Samara’s corpse, which was meant to have been buried at the end of The Ring. They reach Sacrament Valley, home to Samara’s mother Evelyn, to find and cremate the bones.

As soon as Vincent D’Onofrio shows up as a blind priest named Galen, you know he is the badguy. One of the most despicable characters in the franchise, Galen imprisoned and sexually assaulted Evelyn, being Samara’s father. Rather than burying Samara, he hid her bones in the walls, believing that cremating them would unleash Samara’s evil spirit. Too late for that. In one of Samara’s finest moments, she appears from a swarm of cicadas and restores Galen’s eyesight just to kill him. Happy daddy’s day!

Of course, it wouldn’t be Ring without a dramatic plot twist. In this case, Samara chooses to make Julia her new host, and finally fulfils her dream of going viral on the internet. I’d love to see a continuation of this storyline, something which Ring often chickens out of to stay in the familiar.

BBC Radio Four’s Fright Night Radio Play (2015)

Believe it or not, I only discovered that this adaptation existed a couple of weeks ago. A surprise British adaptation of the original novel, Ring is transformed into an hour long drama that manages to transition between media rather well. It was adapted by the talented playwright Anita Sullivan.

Instead of Kazuyuki Asakawa, we have British journalist Mitch Hooper (Matthew Gravelle), who moved to Tokyo with his wife Toni (Eve Myles). As you might guess, the peculiar deaths of four teenagers prompts a curious Mitch to retrace their steps and finds the fateful videotape – which is apparently still in use in a modern resort. Soon, Toni and their infant daughter both watch the tape, causing Mitch and his friend Ryuji Takayama (Akira Koieyama) to find the tape’s maker.

The radio drama serves as a miniature reunion for Torchwood fans – with Naoko Mori doubling as both the drama’s narrator and as the whispery voice of Sadako. Matthew Gravelle also appeared in a minor role in Torchwood’s first season, so its triple the reunion. The play alludes to events happened in the 1990s in relation to the curse, but never elaborates on them, leading to the question what happened back then, when Sadako’s timeline remains the same as in the novels.

The drama’s use of immersive binaural effects creates an often chilling performance, especially whenever Naoko Mori delivers what should be normal stage directions in hushed tones. The novel is streamlined to fit into its 60-minute slot, making the pacing robust, and the scares thick and fast. The novel does not include Sadako’s emergence from the TV, so instead Ryuji is terrified to death by imagining his own body rotting away to the bone whilst he is still alive.

The Ring has also been adapted into several manga and a couple of dodgy video games. Despite having had its day, the franchise remains steadfast in finding new ways to explore Sadako’s story. Much like how the curse is spread, Ring continues to be adapted in new ways for audiences to find and share.

By reading these three volumes, you have been cursed. The only way to survive is to share or comment on the article via our Twitter page! She never sleeps…

About the author

Mark Russell