As the barren 90s drew to a close, horror fans world wide were questioning the future. Little did they know what true terror was waiting for them. Once Ringu broke out of the East and into the West, nothing would ever be the same again. A film held aloft by many a fan and critic, sometimes things get hazy over time and we can forget, allow things to drift into a general conciousness where we just dismiss them off hand. But it’s worth noting that there is a reason that these things work their way into the mainstream. Because they were so powerful to begin with, they are the game changers. It becomes easy to forget just how effective these really are. And so, Sean Hogan, writer/director of Lie Still, Little Deaths and the upcoming Devil’s Business ponders Ringu, a film that scared many a hardened, jaded fan, shitless…
Dread. The one vital component absent from too many genre films. Not violence, not splatter, not meaningless jump scares. True, skin crawling unease. A rare enough horror commodity in any decade, but in the barren horror landscape of the 1990s, only David Lynch seemed consistently willing and able to put true nightmares onscreen; those moments when a film ceases to be a mere shadowplay of light and dark and instead crawls inside your skull and sends its claws scratching down the walls of your psyche. Those moments that make you feel like a frightened little child again – scared, helpless, and utterly alone.
Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film didn’t arrive on UK shores until late 2000, but like the cursed videotape central to its plot, it soon went viral, quickly spreading its influence across the genre. However, the J-Horror phenomenon proved to be a relatively fleeting craze, and so quickly burnt itself out that it’s perhaps difficult to remember what a bracing jolt Ringu and its brethren initially provided. Knowing little about the film, I attended a cinema screening early on in its release, left largely jaded by a genre that had spiralled down from toothless horror comedies in the1980s to almost complete redundancy in the 1990s. But there was always hope – I’d heard encouraging talk about the film, and as Kim Newman had previously pointed out, the horror movie “has a habit of returning from the dead.”
The film drew me in quickly – the matter of fact tone, the minimalist approach, its eerily hushed blankness; all were refreshing anomalies when set against recent Hollywood genre movies and their puppy dog desire to do little but lick your face and entertain. Nakata understood the value of quiet and restraint, that much was clear. The film was never in a rush to explain, never so worried about losing its audience that it felt the need to throw in cheap, unnecessary scares or laboured exposition. This was the kind of horror I’d missed, one that I’d thought long forgotten in an age of teen demographics and lowest common denominator franchising.
However, as much as I luxuriated in the overall mood, relished the slow unsettling chill of an genre film that understood the value of taking its time, as we neared the end, I remember feeling a pang of disappointment. It had promised so much, and yet – as the seeming climax approached and Nakata’s desperate protagonists raced against the clock to break the curse that threatened to claim their lives and that of their young son – I had not been truly scared. Unnerved, but never truly frightened. Was this all there was? Nothing but teasing foreplay and no release?
Thankfully, I had been completely suckered by the film’s fake-out narrative structure. For Ringu has the courage to eschew contrived scares and instead build slowly and surely to one single, supreme moment of absolute fear – everything else in the film leads to that one scene alone, and is in some sense secondary to it. The risk of course is that if the climax falls flat, the film is immediately dragged down along with it. But that was not to be the case here.
The heroes mistakenly come to believe they have averted Sadako’s terrible curse, only to realise that her rage is unending, and the curse has merely been redirected. What follows is one of the most terrifying climaxes in horror cinema, worthy to stand alongside such finales as those found in Freaks or Don’t Look Now. In line with the rest of the film, the approach is straightforward, unflashy. The scene takes place in one small room; there is no violence to speak of, and the special effects work is relatively simple. But in its commitment to the weird and uncanny, its absolute evocation of the realm of nightmare, the film was leagues ahead of most of the genre work being produced at the time. Here was the new beginning I’d been hoping for. Here, at long last, was dread.
The film quickly proved successful, and thereby ushered in a rash of imitations and remakes and remakes of imitations – some of them nevertheless equalling or even bettering Ringu’s achievement. (Nakata’s Dark Water/Honogurai mizu no soko kara is also excellent, and my personal favourite of the J-Horror cycle is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse/Kairo, not to mention the J-Horror-influenced A Tale of Two Sisters/Janghwa, Hongryeon from South Korea.) But Ringu opened the door, and it will always have a special cold place in my heart for that.
Of course, it couldn’t last. When the inevitable US remake appeared, the writing was on the wall. Everything the Japanese original wasn’t – glossy, reductive, expository, unscary – it was of course a massive success, and led to a glut of similar Western retreads. (And Hollywood screenwriting formulae being what they are, every single one of them dumbed down and overexplained their source material.) Before long the Japanese boom had run out of both steam and ideas, and US filmmakers – instead of trying to learn what had made these films so effective and apply the lessons to their own work – were content to remake the likes of One Missed Call, itself a fairly hackneyed Ringu imitation already.
Regardless, there’s definitely a case to be made that Ringu helped resurrect the long-moribund horror genre. Horror is now a thriving field again, and whilst it will always fall prey to hackery and easy exploitation, overall it’s in a much healthier state these days than it was before Sadako first crawled from our screens. And for that, she deserves to be remembered.
Needless to say, Cigarette Burns not only recommends you see Ringu, we’re screening it as part of our Kill Your TV Double Bill along side 80s classic Poltergeist at the Prince Charles Cinema on 8th July. So come along and see what all the fuss is about….