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Film Review: The Ring

The Ring (2002; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

Any hack can make a horror movie that makes you jump in your seat, but it takes a special kind of talented hack to make a movie that crawls under your skin, haunts your waking hours, and makes you doubt the essential safety of your reality. Gore Verbinski is that kind of hack, and The Ring is that kind of movie.

Extremely postmodern, littered with sly, defamiliarizing references to other classics of the genre (The Exorcist, The Shining, Psycho, various slasher flicks, etc.), The Ring is almost more of a sophisticated, enigmatic deconstruction of the psychological horror genre than the straight-ahead scary movie it was marketed and received as. If its self-reflexive qualities are less immediately apparent than those of, say, the Scream films, then that is to Verbinski’s credit. Indeed, The Ring‘s underlying critique extends beyond the freak-out parametres of the horror world, encompassing the distribution of cultural products in the age of mechanical reproduction. For all of its quixotic nightmare imagery (solitary chairs in attics, stone wells, horses going mad on ferry boats), the kernel of its terror is a videotape (already an anachronistic medium by the turn of the millennium) passed from hand to hand.

The standard method of disseminating cult films between alternative-minded friends thus becomes a potentially deadly act. Unless (and this is key) the tape is copied and passed along for another to view in a personal, viral manner, death is assured for the viewer. If the comforting logic of this ingenious trap is taken to its evident conclusion, no one is ever really in danger as long as the tape containing the images of madness is faithfully consumed and further disseminated. Unreflective consumption and re-distribution is the sole bulwark against certain doom. Resistance against the conspicuous imperatives of corporate capitalism’s popular culture industry, however, leads to a mortal threat. Our individual agency in relation to visual culture is not the advantage it is often perceived to be, but rather a hindrance; an existential one, even. Active engagement and/or interpretation will not safeguard us. The harsh ambiguity of the tape’s images constitutes an epistemic closure; there is nothing there to interpret, and no benefit to be derived from the attempt. Our sole salvation leads in inculcating others into the cultural product’s damaging contents, and therefore implicating ourselves in the viral spread of its malevolent project.

We are definitely not sending our love down that well.

That the product being distributed has no corporate provenance and no marketing infrastructure behind it does not deactivate this association. The DIY aesthetic of the Death Tape is part of what makes it dangerous. The reification of the handmade, anachronistic, non-mass-produced objects of the self-styled counter-culture is therefore equated with the sort of soul-sucking evil usually assigned to the instruments of corporate cultural production. These two spheres of production are not binaries, as they are often considered to be; they feed into each other, one is co-opted by the other, until they are ultimately no different in their essential aims.

What makes The Ring especially unsettling, however, is the porousness of its supposed boundaries. The apparent logical parametres of the tape and its spread are eerily transgressed, shifting into an inherently liminal space where the governing laws of the horror genre are tellingly absent. There are no solutions, no safe harbours, no protective barricades, no easy outs for the characters. There is no psychotic murderer to kill off, no dark cellar to steer clear of. Indeed, even the retrieval and reinterment of Samara (the malevolent, haunting little girl figure which every post-Ring horror movie must now include) does not put the threat to bed. The concept that it will, an inheritance from the Judeo-Christian tradition’s perspective on mortality, is construed instead as an exacerbation of the menace she poses, an outbreak of her visual epidemic rather than a containment of it. In the film’s destabilizing climax, the content of the tape, previously caged by television screens, trespasses frighteningly into reality. In a similar way, The Ring‘s skin-crawling imagery also transcends the fundamental disconnect of the cinema and penetrates into our own world.

So I suggest you pass it on. Or else.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews
  1. September 23, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I think I would rather pass on it.

  1. November 15, 2013 at 8:54 am
  2. November 15, 2013 at 7:34 pm
  3. February 11, 2015 at 7:15 pm
  4. January 15, 2016 at 7:39 pm

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