Video Kills the Streaming Star? Reflecting on Hideo Nakata's The Ring (1998)
With the state of all things, we are seeing the legitimate questioning of the relevance of cinema, it's current lack-ness and it's longevity as a form. And for most film-lovers, this is perhaps the scariest thing this Halloween. With originality in itself bizarrely unoriginal and the nostalgia train blinding the business decisions of studio execs and worse still the attention span of the average viewer, remakes and reboots reign supreme. And this year we're seeing not only a reduced release schedule, but a pretty disappointing line-up of all the kind of films that have me rolling my eyes and prematurely turning in my grave. Because this films have me ready to climb in that coffin and enjoy an eternal rest.
If going to the cinema (which I urge all of you to do despite minimal worthwhile releases - save our arts!) is gonna be a problem this year, why not catch something that still packs a slow-burning, long-lasting discomfort that will from deep-rooted dread in the middle of the night as you stare at your pile of washing and hope it's not a demon you've pissed off. If you're thinking 'That sounds like my kind of Saturday night!', let me talk to you about Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998). A victim of the series/reboot/remake/Spoof obliterator of great concepts, the original still holds some interesting flavour despite, in my own opinion, being accompanied by two rather lacklustre sequels, some rather good American re-do's and spin-off films that have turned Sadako into a parodied monster icon of her former self. But it is what it is. Without him and works from Takeshi Miike and Sion Sono, we would not have seen a boom of Japanese horror in the West during the early 2000's, been inspired by it or opened our eyes to other excellent offerings from around the world. (Check out my Recommendations of World Horror Cinema)
Nakata still manages to scare twenty-two years on. And it's a horror that perhaps benefits the home-entertainment more than any other. I mean, we've all been there right? Saw a fantastic movie in the cinema, left with a buzz like none other, genuinely mind-blown... and then you re-watch it with your pals, excitedly bouncing in your seat in anticipation of reliving the thrill, after praising it to the heavens for it's masterful storytelling only to discover you had the after-glow of a pleasant cinematic experience you attended with low expectations in place. Where many a gimmick film of the last fifteen tears has required the mass-hysteria of a crowded cinema screen, Ringu still holds the power to unsettle from your own couch. What's not scary about a girl emerging from a well? What's not scary about wells? It must be universal...
The plot follows a woman and her ex-husband who begin to investigate mysterious teen deaths linked to a videotape and a phone call that tells the victims they will die in seven days. Time is of the essence, however, when their son is destined to become the next victim. What strikes me after all these years is how differently this story is told from the perspective of Japan. The mysterious ghost is something to be pitied and feared, a spectre of hate and revenge rather than an entity of evil. Much is left unknown to the viewer and the protagonists. The mystery of her origins is something we can never full understand. This is probably why the remake did so well, it understood the humanistic take on the ghost story and acknowledge the additional melodrama as something of a broken family reuniting, exploring the dynamic of in a modern Japan, the struggle of this too common way of life. Still too glamourous, still trying to explain too much. But, the horror the spirit inflicts suggests it's infinite (rings are circular, therefore...), a force unable to be contained, possibly unstoppable, transcending the complexity of human nature.
Western Horror, even after all these years, is experiencing the influence of J-Horror be it inspired by the Japanese storytelling, the videotape concept, the creepy water-bloated corpse girl, Hollywood in particular still seems to love 'borrowing' from it. It can be seen in films like 2012's Sinister (Which I really liked), 2014's Unfriended (I did not like) and 2018's Slender Man (I hated it). I mean, I could write a whole list of creepy, bedraggled ghost girls/women/entities that Hollywood has tried to freak us out with. Yet none hit quiet like a J-Horror. But as long as they see a story of good vs. evil and fail to explore the grey area that holds the true scare-factor, it's always going to be underwhelming in comparison.
But what still works phenomenally for me when re-watching Ringu, is the videotape itself. It may be that I am a product of the millennial confusion - experiencing a world of both analogue and digital, incapable of perceiving the former in anyway other than romantically. A DVD, a viral video or a zoom call doesn't harness the same presence of the videotape. Its raw, it's visual, it's excellent clicky sound as the tape reels inside clatter against the plastic, the chomp of it going into a player... a videotape has more presence. To think it can hold something so unnerving in it's magnetic particles. It freaked me out before any of those Dark Web compilations on YouTube even reared their musty, unoriginal heads. J-Horror was the Dark Web. Maybe younger generations will miss the grotesquery as Sadako emerged through the glass of the telly-box, able to crawl out, fingers bloody, nails ripped from their beds, wrapped around the frame, face hidden by long, sodden strands of hair. With the size of screens now, she could just step out easy-peasy, no problem.
Has streaming killed it's legacy? No, I don't believe it has. I don't believe that we will be watching Ringu and kids will only be horrified by the fact that we had to get up and put a tape into a machine, worse still that we had to rewind it or else your dad would threaten to sell all your toys. I believe the concept is capable of reincarnation to an extent, perhaps less potently, I believe that what we have is a story of the corruption of media, the power it holds over us. This is still relevant today, more so even. With the internet, we are consumed by information and clickbait, hours on YouTube watching videos of nothing (I'm so guilty of this, it's why this article is so late...). These trivial things can turn on us. It may not be in the form of a vengeful ghost punching her hand through the laptop screen but we're seeing something petrifying our brains.
Ringu is enjoyable even now. It's fun from home, it's unsettling and lingers long after viewing. You'll never look at your TV the same way again. But after all I've said about an enjoyable home Halloween, we need to embrace the group experience. There are some films that are amazing in a group setting, hearing the synchronised 'oohs', 'ahhs', squeals, laughs and sighs is something we so rarely get to experience together. And human beings are designed to socialise (introverted and lonely as I can be, even I sometimes like to know other people feel and exist) and now more than ever, we have a chance to empathise and relate to other human beings.
Experience cinema as one. But don't settle for less. Horrors should entertain, but it should also question insidiously those vital things inside us that make us human; our isolation, our relationships, our mortality, our connections through life. We're all on this planet together, let's take some time to relate to one another again. Let's make those things we love suddenly incredibly sinister. Let's fear corpse-girls again. Let's fear the effects of loneliness, neglect and abuse in some solidified, monster-fied, rhetorical form again. Let's fear the Telly-box again. Let's fear the cinema. Even if it's via scaring breakfast, lunch and dinner out of ourselves for our amusement.
Happy Halloween Everyone!
Audition (Miike, 2000), Battle Royale (Fukusaku, 2000), Dark Water (Nakata, 2002),
Exte (Sono, 2007), Kuroneko (Shindo, 1968), Lesson of Evil (Miike, 2012)
Onibaba (Shindo, 1964), Pulse (Kurosawa, 2001), Suicide Club (Sono, 2001),
Tag (Sono, 2015), Teketeke (Shiraishi, 2009)