Turning on my phone after leaving the Tyneside Cinema’s late-night screening of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 spine-chiller Ringu, the infamous Japanese precursor to Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake, The Ring, I found myself strangely disappointed at seeing I had no missed calls. Eighteen years on from its original release, Ringu still manages to draw audiences into its classic ‘curse’- a tape, a phone call, and a week to live - even if it’s striking terror into their hearts with a now-obsolete video format.
The film is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing ‘J-Horror’ into the international mainstream, a term to bloodthirsty horror geeks that’s now almost synonymous with ‘extreme’. Seasoned viewers familiar with sights like the excruciating last twenty minutes of Takashi Miike’s Audition, for instance (if you don’t know it, don’t google it), might then be surprised to discover that the crowning jewel of J-Horror is an entirely bloodless, subtle ghost story that isn’t afraid to bide its time, and can scare with two seconds of static.
"in sheer malevolence, ringu outweighs its american rival in spades"
It’s by no means perfect. In some ways, Ringu’s American remake is more worth your time. There’s less soap-opera-like exposition, no ‘slapping-the-hysterical-woman’ trope (a scene of the original’s that should be disturbing to audiences for all the wrong reasons) and a backstory for the terrifying Sadako and her mother which is far more developed, yet, unsettlingly, answers far fewer questions. It arguably culminates in a slicker film on Verbinski’s part, a plot driven by real human interest rather than Nakata’s incidental psychic visions, and a more persistent feeling of dread, albeit achieved mainly through the Hollywood jumpscares we as Western audiences have become exasperatedly fond of. But this is a film about a haunted VHS tape, and a force of pure evil that waits for the beep to leave a voicemail. Sometimes ‘slicker’ is not what we need. And in sheer malevolence, Ringu outweighs its American rival in spades.
It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of us now couldn’t play Sadako’s cursed tape if it turned up ominously on our doorstep. Ringu might come from a time when our anxieties around new and emerging technologies seem retrospectively benign, but its pant-wetting terror remains. At the film’s now-iconic climax, as Rie Inō’s Sadako lurches her way out of the screen, fingernails torn, sans cheesy backing track and CGI flicker-effects of her American counterpart, audiences might get the feeling that she’s going to be staying with them for a while; in the backs of their minds, on the old tapes in the attic, even on the phones in their pockets. They might well be right. Well, at least for seven days.