Confessions of a Fearphile

Confessions of a Fearphile: Ringu / The Ring

I’d heard of Ringu shortly after it came out in Japan, well before it was made properly available in the United States, before the American remake had been publicly announced, and long before any kind of reliable internet film streaming option. I remember futilely hunting for it in stores ranging from Blockbuster to small indie video stores whose names I can no longer remember. For about a year or so I wasted time doing this before finally gathering the nerve to make an online purchase on this site I’d only used once before called ebay. This would be different from when I purchased a used copy of the novel Simon’s Soul through the site, however. I was going to be buying a bootleg copy of a film, presumably with unofficial English subtitling. Scandalous!

Not long after my order, I received a small package containing a VHS tape. The kind you’d buy back then to record something off television, or to make an illegal copy of a Japanese horror movie to resell to an impatient young man in San Antonio.

Also the kind you might use to make a copy of a cursed video you’ve seen so you can share it to spare yourself the results of the curse you incurred by simply watching the contents of the tape.

On the one hand, it’s not like there were a lot of other options for bootleg visual media back then, so it might be undue to give that long-forgotten seller credit for making a video cassette copy of a horror flick in which making a copy of a video cassette plays such an important role. What else was he or she going to do, send it via film reel? On the other hand, it’s just too fitting to not want to give that individual a modicum of credit.

Anyway, after watching Ringu I immediately drove to a friend’s house and loaned him my copy, then encouraged him to watch it the minute he got a chance to. As in before the week was out, absolutely no later. Just so we’d be able to talk about it as soon as possible. No other reason, surely.

By the time I got around to watching the original Ringu, the American remake was less than a year away. Although I like the remake, and it strangely ended up shaking me up more than Ringu actually did (more on that in a moment), I’m glad I didn’t wait.

I can still remember what I felt that first time I saw the film’s signature scene; Sadako crawling out of the well in the video, approaching the camera / screen, walking strangely, coming closer and closer until…

Having watched and read far more than my fair share of horror stories, I expected her to materialize in the real world. So it wasn’t surprising that she did. How she did it, however, took me aback. I was prepared for the screen to glitch briefly, and for her to disappear from the footage during said glitch, only to reappear in Ryuji’s apartment, standing right behind him, ready to kill. I was completely unprepared for her to crawl out of the television screen, and I remember feeling strangely exhilarated seeing it. This was the moment people who had seen the movie already had hinted at online. This was the memorable  scene that would elevate the movie from a very well made, creepy flick to the film that would set off the J-Horror boom. And it was every bit as good as advertised despite being just a bit silly.

Frankly, slowly crawling out of a television set is a pretty impractical way for an ostensibly powerful ghost to stalk their prey. As we see in later movies, Sadako has other options for appearing in the real world. I still haven’t gotten around to reading the novel the movie was based on, but my understanding is that the television crawl-out is an invention of the adaptation, not the book. It was a bit of a gamble. It could have come off as risible, but was executed excellently, bolstered by being the grandiose climax of an otherwise much more reserved, atmospheric and smoldering film. It’s a big payoff scene that many other, less patient films might have wasted much earlier, possibly in a pre-credits scene.

Indeed, while the American remake saves the scene for the film’s climax just as its Japanese predecessor did, it still can’t help but to deliver its biggest jump scare–and possibly its most memorable moment–while it’s still in Act I. This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve seen far more people comment on the stunning sight of Katie’s warped face–her corpse curled up in the closet–than I’ve seen people comment on the scene of Samara crawling out of the television screen. Perhaps it’s due in part to Samara not having the same uncannily strange walk up to the screen as Sadako did, slightly lessening the impact of the moment, but I think it’s partly due to the fact that the movie’s already given us a big, signature moment.

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And to be sure, it’s a brilliantly executed jump scare, one that gives jump scares a good name, even though it’s a bit of a cheat. It’s not even slightly telegraphed and is an abrupt cutaway from an otherwise perfectly placid moment. Still, it doesn’t rely on a screeching loud sound to get your heart pumping, so it isn’t quite on the level of lazy “shock site” style surprises. And the image isn’t particularly gory, either. It’s bloodless. Katie’s jaw hangs wide but doesn’t quite look blatantly broken or dislocated. Her eyes have rolled back and her skin tone is decidedly inhuman, but that’s about the extent of any observable deformity. And yet the scene comes and goes so suddenly that, the first time you see it, that image is liable to burn in your brain as something worse than it actually is.

All of that said, the screen-crawling scene in the remake is still fairly impressive. I remember seeing it in the theater on opening weekend, feeling giddy as I knew what was coming while just about everyone else in the theater had no idea. The shocked screams and gasps and utterances (I heard more than one person exclaim, “Oh no!”) enhanced the experience for me. I had a huge smile on my face–something about hearing other people playfully thrilled by a horror movie in a darkened theater gives me considerable joy–that lasted through much of the film’s remaining, overlong conclusion.

Afterward, something curious happened: The Ring remake lingered with me more than Ringu did, even though I found the Japanese film clearly superior. I love the backstory and characters in Ringu, while I’m not particularly attached to the any of those things in The Ring. I think the climax in Ringu is delivered more effectively than it is in The Ring as well. And yet, The Ring gave me nightmares for weeks; Ringu didn’t give me any at all, despite at minimum having the far superior cursed video tape footage.

The last nightmare kept me awake so long that I decided to just take a late night drive out to a diner for some pie to settle my nerves. On the way back home, around three in the morning, I ended up being right behind a car that veered into a guard rail on an overpass, then careened over the embankment and rolled over down to the frontage road below. I pulled over, got out of the car, dialed 9-1-1 and opened the door to check on the driver. He hadn’t been buckled up and was sprawled across the front seats of his car, knocked unconscious, his head resting awkwardly against the glove compartment.

I had never witnessed anything like this before in person and was understandably (I think) agitated. But I knew that you didn’t move a body during an accident unless you were a trained professional, so even I didn’t think about trying to pull him out of the car at first. But as I waited for first-responders to arrive, smoke started to emerge from under the hood of the car. Now, in hindsight I don’t think that meant a fire was actually imminent, but in the moment my unqualified ass could only relate this to what I’d seen in movies, where smoke under the hood translates to “car conflagration” at best, “explosion” at worst. Fortunately I didn’t have to think about whether to try to pull this man from a potentially-soon-to-be-burning wreck for more than maybe ten seconds or so. First-responders arrived and were able to handle things from there.

I went home, hit the bed exhausted, and haven’t had a bad dream about stringy-haired ghost girls who crawl out of wells and television sets since. I don’t much believe that “things happen for a reason,” and I’m certain that in the big city I live in, someone else would have been along shortly to report the accident had I not been there. And, of course, I don’t know at all that the guy’s injuries were life-threatening or severe. Still, whenever I think of or re-watch Ringu and The Ring and even any of the Japanese sequels and the prequel, which I’ve enjoyed, I sometimes come back to that car crash that I would not have witnessed if not for the nightmares the American remake gave me. And even though it doesn’t really make any sense, I allow it to reinforce my belief that very good horror stories can be very good for us, sometimes in very unexpected ways.