We've all had the experience of seeing a videotape we're sorry we watched, of wishing we could go back in time and take those unhappy images out of our minds. It's like that for the characters in the supernatural thriller "The Ring," only worse. A whole lot worse.
"Have you heard about this tape that kills you when you watch it?" a bored teenage girl (the movies recognize no other kind) asks her friend Katie in the opening scene. "When it's over, the phone rings and someone says, 'You will die in seven days.' " The girl giggles and then notices something. Katie isn't giggling.
Yes, friends, Katie has watched this particular tape (which begins with the image of a ring) and has received that very phone call, and no good will come of any of it -- for her or for anyone else. Within scant minutes, the prophecy is fulfilled and the story of that deadly video kicks into a higher gear.
"The Ring" does the best it can with this splendid premise, one of the creepiest, spookiest notions in years. It came from Japan, where novelist Koji Suzuki wrote the original book, and the film that resulted was such a sensation that it inspired a sequel and a prequel.
DreamWorks acquired the remake rights and, perhaps not surprisingly, gave Ehren Kruger's efficient script to director Gore Verbinski, a solid generalist who previously made "Mouse Hunt" and "The Mexican" for the studio.
Verbinski is a bit of a rarity these days -- someone who, as his credits show, can be counted on to do a reliable job in a variety of genres. (Which is probably why DreamWorks also used him to spell Simon Wells when the latter faced exhaustion during the making of "The Time Machine.")
Having someone like Verbinski in charge of "The Ring" means that while the premise and his competence ensure that the film will be unnerving, things could be scarier still if a director who lived only to chill the blood was behind the camera.
It's not only Katie, as it turns out, who saw the tape; three of her young friends watched it with her and they all died at precisely the same time exactly one week later. This unsettling coincidence catches the eye of Katie's aunt, crack newspaper reporter and single mom Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), who's already been asked by her sister to figure out what's going on.
Also affected by Katie's death is her cousin, Rachel's young son, Aidan (David Dorfman), a solemn, spooky little person who has "I see dead people" written all over him.
Ever the intrepid reporter, Rachel traces the tape to the sinister Shelter Mountain Inn and, being a fearless modern person, watches the video (which has something of the look of a bad student film) for herself.
Naturally, things start to happen that convince Rachel this tape is for real. She contacts her video whiz friend Noah (Martin Henderson) and is astonished and chilled to learn that this tape in effect has no fingerprints, no clues as to where it was made.
Rachel perseveres, and her discoveries, which end up involving -- among other elements -- dead horses, a lighthouse, a mental hospital and potent cameos by Brian Cox and Jane Alexander, culminate in a clever enough ending.
"The Ring's" shrewd premise is fueled not only by the omnipresence of video copies that turn up in our lives from who knows where, but also by a particularly modern feeling of powerlessness, by a sense that forces out of our control have a profound and unhappy effect on our lives.
One of the keys to making "The Ring" work as well as it does is the strong performance by Watts, who came to prominence with her dual role in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive." It's up to her to lend credibility to this strange scenario, and her presence succeeds in making us believe.
Helped as well by the foggy atmosphere of its Pacific Northwest setting, "The Ring" is certainly acceptable. But no one seeing it is going to feel as spooked as executive producer Roy Lee, the man who introduced the film to DreamWorks, did when he first saw the Japanese version. He was so scared, he told a reporter, that he simply turned off the movie, and more than once.
To make an audience feel that intensely, you need a different kind of director and a different kind of film.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, language and some drug references. Times guidelines: scenes of horror.
Naomi Watts...Rachel Keller
Brian Cox...Richard Morgan
Released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Gore Verbinski. Producers Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald. Executive producers Mike Macari, Roy Lee, Michele Weisler. Screenplay Ehren Kruger, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki and the motion picture by the Ring/the Spiral Production Group. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Editor Craig Wood. Costumes Julie Weiss. Production design Tom Duffield. Music Hans Zimmer. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
In general release.