Cinema Signal:

Ghosts of the Northeast

. "The Ring"

This very slick horror flick deals with ghosts and apparitions but never in film literature have we seen the undead harness modern technology for the work they perform on the living. These creatures are, after all, from gospel origins in past centuries, so how do they get so adept in transferring their dark powers through electronic media to a TV screen and then dial the phone? Dare we point to the minds of their modern creators, screenwriter Ehren Kruger and director Gore Verbinski, who bent to the will of temptation in bringing a modern populist appliance to the ancient concept of unruly spirits?

Two issues raise up: this is Steven King territory with, perhaps, a bit more dimension. It certainly challenges anything he's written, emphasizing greater character shadings and subtlety. Where King tends to give us standard stereotypes, we have here characters who only appear for a moment to be stereotypes.

Second, is its use of TV as a vehicle of doom too similar to a film that beat it to the boxoffice: "Feardotcom". Yes, the power behind the tube is different in this application, but the theme of dooming the onlooker is identical. Is this a copycat concept? Probably not, since it originates from it's own unique source, which is the work of Koji Suzuki who wrote the book and Japanese films made from it, including a sequel and a prequel. Its success had to come to the attention of an American film company, and Dreamworks stepped up. The important thing is that someone who's seen the former need not fear a viewing of the latter. "The Ring" is worth seeing for its fine use of the medium, and its greater clarity through the corridors of a creepy surreality.

"Have you heard about this tape that kills you if you watch it?" Becca, a suburban teenager asks her friend Katie while they're killing an evening in Becca's room. After deriding the concept that Katie herself has viewed the videotape, the phone rings and a voice says, "You will die in seven days." The girl giggles and then notices... Katie isn't giggling. She's not even smiling.

For good reason. She and three friends watched it with her during a vacation up at Shelter Mountain Inn, a sinister cabin hideaway in the Pacific northwest. All die rather excruciating deaths exactly one week later but not before Katie asks her aunt, newspaper reporter and single mom Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) to look into it. Any doubts Rachel had when first asked to take the TV threat seriously dissolves in light of the multiple deaths. This is something she has to investigate.

Intrepid is the word for her as she looks deep into the origins of the videotape and its viewing, tracing it back to the Inn where she absconds with the tape for further study by her friend Noah (Martin Henderson) a video whiz and potential lover. The lack of human fingerprints or a video fingerprint of any kind chills the pair and gets them onto a trail of clues and connections that take them closer and closer to the core of the mystery, tingling the senses with images that weigh heavily with icy dread.

Horror fiction depends on alternate realities and arbitrary powers. The common failing, for those of us who aren't so ardent in our love of the genre that we accept anything, is consistency. Since the writer can create anything, you look for the rules of the fictional world and the limits of those who operate in it. Too often the creator writes himself into a corner that he gets out of by a last act changing of the rules. This is cheap and belies limited talent. "The Ring" is better than that. Except for the fact that it makes no attempt to explain how an evil spirit managed to harness a videotape in this manner, it pretty much lives by the rules it sets up in the beginning and following through with a convincing journey into the terror of resolute evil.

It couldn't have had a better actor to pull this off than Naomi Watts who, we think, is in a rare circle of talents who create characters well outside themselves. After a demonstration of what acting is in the splendidly revealing Mullholland Drive, in which she switches to a completely different character than her main one, utterly convincingly, she follows up by demonstrating this intelligent, caring mother and relentless reporter stepping into a threat whose potency rises with each discovery. She skillfully lends credibility to the venture.

Brian Cox as Richard Morgan, the key to the mystery is fine; as is Jane Alexander as Dr. Grasnik. The cinematography by Bojan Bazelli is thoroughly atmospheric, making a sharply incisive visual contribution to the theme of demonic powers.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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