(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 9
5. The Ring, dir. Gore Verbinski
For once, I don’t have to recount my first time watching a movie. I already did so a few months back, on this very blog. The movie was The Ring, and I was scared as hell.
The most recently made film on my list, it’s very much a product of the genre’s history. The Shining, Hellraiser, Jacob’s Ladder, The Blair Witch Project, Shivers, Videodrome, Candyman, Psycho, Rear Window, The Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Scream, Poltergeist, and The Sixth Sense are all referenced (as are creepy moments in Fight Club, Blow Up and The Conversation, for that matter). Astoundingly, though, the film manages not to be at all derivative or lazy. It’s simply too relentless for that.
This is a film that deploys the Monumental Horror Image with almost unbearable regularity; to paraphrase a famous review of Stephen King’s It, The Ring is to the Monumental Horror Image what the Sears Roebuck catalog is to things to buy. A chair, a ladder, a television set, a tree, a well, a mirror, a girl, the ring itself–they all stand there in the center of the screen, mute indictments of normality, sanity, reality itself. They should not be, and yet there they are, over and over and over again, each time imbued with more menace than the last.
This is also a film that embraces the horror of the small detail, the little things that just don’t seem right: defaced pictures, distorted photographs, a fly on the TV screen, unexpected phone calls, static on the television. (It seems safe to say that this film will have caused more people to have nervous breakdowns when the cable goes out than any movie since Poltergeist.) Just as the monumental horror images shatter our composure, these “minimal” horror images undermine it. No scene is “safe,” because the filmmakers establish that horror can be found anywhere, in anything. (Especially, thanks to one of the all-time great shock moments in film history, in closets.)
It’s interesting to note that they do so from the very beginning of the film. I’ve found that many of the best horror films begin with a long, slow build-up of tension, with some hints of the horror to come but very little actual action in that direction. Here, however, we’re only five or six lines of dialogue into the movie before the central horrific conceit is introduced. Sure enough, the opening sequence doesn’t end without claiming a victim.
The filmmakers are also smart enough to tie the discovery of horror directly into the plot, which is essentially a search for information. The protagonists are a reporter and a videographer, and the instruments they use to capture and convey information are lushly fetishized throughout the film: lines of type, pens, paper, videocassettes, televisions, editing decks, telephones, cell phones, answering machines, files, microfilm, frames of videotape, photographs, cameras, hands and fingers (with which we write and type and press play and record), and, of course, eyes. With televisions, telephones and a videotape as its central vehicles of horror, this is a prime example of Information Age anxiety in art.
But the most disturbing facet of this intensely disturbing film is, as is often the case with great horror, one of cruelty. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of obvious that all horror is about cruelty: “Look at what we’re doing to your precious status quo. Look at what we’re doing to everything you believe. We’re destroying it. We’re destroying you.” But this is a different status quo than that of the small towns and suburbs that are so often the locus of horror. I’m not referring to the traditional business wherein the kids who smoke pot and fuck get chopped to pieces by the masked killer–no, not at all. This isn’t rebellion that’s being punished by the motiveless agent of horror–it’s a whole new status quo that’s being destroyed, one of leveling, of comfort, an “I’m OK, You’re OK” world. Our hero, Rachel, is a foul-mouthed absentee parent who has her son Aidan call her by her first name. The kid’s father, who Rachel insists must “grow up,” talks to Aidan as though they’re on the same level: “I just don’t think I’d be a good father,” he explains to the little boy the same way he’d explain it to Rachel, or to one of his buddies. Moreover, Rachel views the terrifying supernatural occurrences that befall her as a mystery she can solve, preferrably with comforting life-lessons about love and acceptance. She believes that heartless psychiatric workers and a domineering, abusive patriarch are to blame for it all, and that the murderous “sickness” that has infected her world can be soothed away through understanding. The filmmakers aid us in buying into this, slowly transforming the movie into a relatively traditional beat-the-clock mystery.
In the end, though, we understand nothing.
I won’t go into it any more than that–I don’t want to spoil this film, which should be viewed as unspoiled as possible–except to say that depictions of evil and malice as purposeless and uncompromising as this one are rare, perhaps mercifully so. Mockeries of goodness, of the soporific means of understanding the presence of badness in our world that we feed ourselves, are rarely this vicious, this unrelenting, this frightening. We’re scared, alright. And we’re more scared still, because we’ve been shown that the presence of that which scares us will never, ever end.