What a fascinating remake! The original Ringu was the most influential Asian horror film to date, kicking off a wave of J-horror that turned the Japanese film industry upside-down. This American remake was never going to have that kind of impact, but it's been done with integrity and I'm surprised by how impressed I was by the results. It's also superficially the same, but completely different underneath. I wouldn't argue with anyone who preferred the remake and as it happens, one of my friends actually does.
I'll divide the differences into three categories: (a) a bit crap, (b) legitimate different takes on the story, (c) improvements. We'll be talking about that middle category most of the time, but I might as well get the crap bits out of the way early. After all, the film does too. We begin with two teenage girls hanging out in their bedroom and immediately I began to feel the wrong kind of fear. These girls are rubbish, with none of the energy and life of their Japanese counterparts. I couldn't believe in them. This hurts the set-up for those all-important opening kills and indeed the whole film. Furthermore one of those girls has been cast with an eye to her later scenes when she'll be mad and in a loony bin, which doesn't help her chemistry with her supposed friend.
In fact this film has precious few teenagers, perhaps because they're all as bad as this. Maybe the producers originally had more scenes of the teenagers being interviewed, just like the original, but cut them out on seeing the rushes? Black mark for Gore Verbinski there, I think. Whatever the reason, this hurts the film. Instead of the original's lovely build-up with all that urban myth, we simply have Naomi Watts going to a family funeral. There's thus not enough anticipation and tension when our heroes watch the video, which is the remake's worst mistake.
That's it for category (a). For me, everything else is at least (b).
What's interesting is that it's been Hollywood-ised, but in a good way. The Japanese original was all about silence, atmosphere, the slow burn and a bit of dream logic. It had a distinctive minimalist style with almost no music and lots of naturalism. This version has just as much style but in a more Western way, which means of course that fans of the original complain that it's noisy and full of attempted scares. These people are gibbering. Compared with other Western horror movies, this is a sombre, restrained film that expects its audience to show patience and intelligence.
The actual story hasn't changed. Nevertheless its intellectual focus is completely different and everything's suddenly character-driven. What was merely alien and off-putting in the Japanese version will now also be saying something about the people involved. The killer video itself (which I don't really like in this version) tells us quite a lot about Shannon Cochrane's Anna Morgan. Worse still, in it she comes across as tall, elegant and full of personality. I wouldn't be surprised if Cochrane put it in her showreel. Naomi Watts later decides that the tape's a message, which makes sense here but could never have been imagined of the Japanese original.
On top of that, Sadako speaks! Well, now she's called Samara. That's the one change I don't understand. They take away the original's Japanese name and replace it with one that to Westerners doesn't seem any different. (Apparently it's a reference to W. Somerset Maugham.) Anyway, Samara is a little girl who shows us her face, has an interview with an unseen psychiatrist and could almost be called the film's best-developed character. It's the classic ghost story pattern. We understand the present by exploring the past. Thus instead of maintaining the eerie distance of the original, we're invited to sympathise with Samara. This could have been dire, but it works. It's fascinating to see how all these horrors had their roots in her life. It's like an intellectual detective story, almost beautiful in how perfectly everything ends up being tied together. They even explain the final twist, which I never thought they'd manage to do.
You see, this Ring has no technophobia. I couldn't believe it. That was my favourite thing about the original! It took gadget-ridden Japan and turned it into a world where we should be frightened of our videos, cameras and mobile phones. That's so clever. The original's killer video was apparently being broadcast on some late-night channel and people presumably recorded it off their TVs.
However none of that's the case here. The remake ties everything into Samara's life, which means the natural world. A ladder. Flies and centipedes. The TV's only sinister because Samara happened to have one. Then there's the water, which is absolutely everywhere. This is one of the wettest films I've ever seen, with even the colour correction making the film look as if it's taking place underwater. Almost everything's blue-green. If Samara is going to kill you, water will seep under the door. There are three completely different horrible deaths in water, if you include Samara herself, and none of them involve drowning. Then there are all the shots of rain, the sea, dishes being washed and so on.
Personally I find the original's idea more interesting, but I also like the remake's angle. It certainly makes more sense. It's possible to rationalise away a ghost being attuned to technology, much as people take spirit photographs and try to take electrical readings of psychic phenomena, but what we have here is much more intuitive. I'm sure many people think it explains too much.
The characters bear only superficial resemblance to the originals. Naomi Watts is playing a strong, independent journalist who could eat her editor for breakfast and doesn't really need anyone's help to investigate the mystery. Well, that's the theory, anyway. So far, so predictable. Unfortunately the corollary of this is that her ex-husband (Martin Henderson) has become a loser who does nothing constructive in the entire first half of the film and has almost nothing to offer except the useless ability to talk Geek. Why did Watts show him the video in the first place? The original's Hiroyuki Sanada was cool, knew no fear and was exactly the kind of person you'd want at your side. On the other hand, showing Henderson the video is simply committing murder. This isn't the actor's fault, of course. Note that they even give him a scene with his son in which he bleats about not being a good father. Gyaaah.
Meanwhile their son is played by one David Dorfman, whom I'm astonished to see hasn't played Damien in a remake of The Omen. He's creepy. Gore Verbinski may not be able to direct teenagers, but he does well with the film's children. Shannon Cochrane gets almost nothing to work with, but my favourite actor here is Brian Cox as Richard Morgan. He's terrific, as indeed is pretty much everything on the island. The film takes a big step forward once we've moved there.
I like all the new bits. There aren't many, but that's because only good stuff seems to have made it in. (There's also the possibility that I'd simply forgotten that they were in the original film, but if so I think that still gives the advantage to the remake.) Occasionally it gets a bit over-literal. "I think before you die, you see the ring." What, a real ring? I'm afraid so. However this too gets a satisfying explanation and, like everything else, fits into the whole thing well enough that the film improves the more you think about it. This is a film that encourages you to think about what's going on and try to put it all together, which gives more force to things like explaining the reason for the seven-day interval.
The special effects are much better. The original's realistic tone meant that the murdered victims' faces didn't look particularly special, whereas here they've let make-up artist Rick Baker go to town. The CGI's been used well too. Crucially they've improved on the most important special effect of the entire film, which I thought always looked rubbish in the original but here looks terrific. The climactic big kill looks better this time around, I think, although that's not to say that the original's was shabby.
There's a bit where it takes Watts about one second of screen time to identify a coastline from a photo of a lighthouse and some rocks. Moesko Island, you say? Red-hot researching skills there! We also see her in a wet top, which doesn't go see-through but is pleasantly clingy.
I liked this film a lot. There's a maternal theme, in which the Rachel-Aidan relationship ends up echoing Anna-Samara as the mothers do a terrible thing because of their children. That's yet another wrinkle. The male characters have been short-changed, but I can live with that for the sake of thematic richness. The Korean remake apparently pushed everything towards the women too, by the way. This film manages some spine-tingling moments, e.g. Dorfman's "you weren't supposed to help her", which is always nice in a horror film and furthermore is being achieved differently from the original Ringu.
Is it better than the original? I'm not sure about that. However I think it's better than sequels like Rasen and Ringu 2, which had lots of ideas but in neither case managed to make a movie that was both strong and coherent. I remember liking both of them, but not what happened in which movie. For a good example of thoughtful horror cinema, watch the American remake.