Scare season begins with gimmicky ‘Ring’

The only reason I’m the one reviewing “The Ring” is because Mike Needham ’04 and Joel Hebert ’04, even days after seeing it, are still too terrified to set pen to paper. At first glance, it speaks well of a horror film when grown men won’t leave the theatre alone mid-movie to go to the bathroom and all but sprint the distance from the mall exit to the car in the parking lot. On the other end of the continuum, I was too distracted by the superfluous holes in the plot to let myself get properly freaked out.

When four teenaged friends die on the same night in various mysterious manners, Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), the hard-nosed journalist aunt of one of the victims, sets off to investigate the circumstances surrounding the friends’ last days. Discovering that exactly one week prior to their demises, all four had spent the night in a remote cabin in the woods north of Seattle, Rachel spends an evening in the very cabin where her niece was cursed with the experience of watching a black and white video montage of all things harrowing and portentous, ranging from the images of the bodies of drowned horses draped across a stony beach to a woman’s reflection in a Victorian mirror to a grainy lighthouse seascape.

After watching the video herself, Rachel receives a furtive phone call telling her she has seven days left to live. Her son (David Dorfman) and a past lover (Martin Henderson) are also eventually exposed to the videotape’s contents and are thus similarly condemned, whereby it becomes a race against the clock to elucidate the origin and meaning of the tape. Which, in a crucial plot hole, they don’t, exactly.

In the spirit of fairness, however, it’s probably best to rate “The Ring” first as a movie and then as a film. As a thriller, you get what you pay for: a beautiful female lead with an often-exploited talent for turning her head slowly in wide-eyed horrified realization, ghastly flashbacks emerging from the screen matched with metallic screeches exploding from the speakers and a twisted second ending. However, the movie throws so much eerie garbage at the audience, I came away wondering whether it was attempting to cultivate phobias of video art, telephones, horses, the Joshua Tree, mentally unhinged small children or Washington State.

As a film, it seems that director Gore Verbinski felt little need to disguise his influences in the genre; the movie borrows heavily from its predecessors, particularly from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” The performances are unenthusiastic and clichéd. For example, the audience is supposed to know Watts is tough and ambitious because her character is introduced yelling into a cell phone and smoking cigarettes at her niece’s funeral. However, she jumps uneasily between her two modes of panicky blonde and intelligent sleuth. Henderson’s character Noah, in the role of Initial Unbeliever/Love Interest, bumbles around uselessly for the duration of the film.

The obligatory Creepy Little Boy – a role performed here by a bug-eyed facsimile of “The Sixth Sense’s” Haley Joel Osment – has the ability to hear dead people. The character of Aidan is peculiarly intelligent for a kindergartener, using words like “conundrum,” wielding Crayolas to express his prophesies and calling his parents by their first names. Additionally, he represents the only voice of anything remotely resembling common sense. In fact, in more than just a few ways, it’s head-scratching to determine how his two moronic blue-eyed parents could have produced this brown-eyed wonder.

Brian Cox, of both “Manhunter” and “Super Troopers” fame, plays a bit part as father to the vengeful little girl at the heart of the film’s plot. His fate, like many of the perplexities of the story, seems like perhaps nothing more than a gratuitous excuse to depict something really grisly and to get Watts screaming.

At its heart, however, the premise of Verbinski’s remake of the 2001 Japanese thriller “Ringu” is a cheap marketing ploy to boost ticket sales. I once saw a comic who joked that Arm & Hammer was the only company in the world arrogant enough to print on their ubiquitous boxes of baking soda a suggested use of pouring the product down the drain to mask kitchen odors, which was analagous to telling the consumer to fling it out the window to heal the holes in the ozone layer. This movie concludes operating on the same principle – one that I feel compelled to perpetuate by recommending it to anyone with a strong bladder and a weakness for horror films, no matter how hastily written and poorly acted.