Imagine it’s the year 2002. Life is going pretty well for you, I mean, you did just beat the Snake high score on your Nokia, and you have not one, but two collars popped on your American Eagle polo, so how much better can life be, really? Imagine you’re a devastatingly handsome young man named Tyler, and you’re going out to the movies with your equally handsome cousin Chad (we Listons run pretty, it’s a curse). You both love horror films, so you decide to check out this new one called The Ring. A decision that changed everything.
After the movie, we both just sat in my car, not understanding what we were feeling. It was unlike any horror film we had seen before. It had a few jump-out-spooky scenes (“I saw her FACE!”), but neither of us could honestly say that we were afraid. As I parked my car on the street and walked up to our house in the warm Arizona fall night, my Aunt let out a blood-curdling shriek from her upstairs window. She laughed and laughed as we both bolted for the door, fighting each other over the privilege of jumping into bed and covering our heads with the blankets first.
“The Ring didn’t scare [us] like Halloween, or The Exorcist […] It filled us with dread, with the foreboding shadow of death and pain covering our every thought. It was intoxicating.”
You see, The Ring didn’t scare me like Halloween, or The Exorcist, or any other horror film had before. Not in the traditional sense, at least. As shown by our Scooby-and-Shaggysprint to the house that night, The Ring set us on edge. It tuned our strings so tight that the slightest provocation would burst us open. It filled us with dread, with the foreboding shadow of death and pain covering our every thought. It was intoxicating. So much so, that I had to find out more about this Japanese film, Ringu, that preceded it. What followed has been a twenty-year love story between a devastatingly handsome old man named Tyler, and J-Horror.
The majority of moviegoers in the early 2000’s noticed that many of the films started to feel similar. They started to see that these films would be overly atmospheric, that they would involve curses of some sort, and that there would be a stringy-haired girl somewhere in the film. While these facets of horror were overplayed and eventually became punch-lines, no one can deny that Japanese horror changed the game for the entire genre for well over a decade. Ringu, released on this day in 1998, is the one that started it all, and I believe, the one that did it best. What else can we thank Ringu for giving us? I’m glad you asked.
What is most evident while watching Ringu is that the film feels old. I don’t mean that the film looks like it’s from the 1950’s or anything like that. I mean that the story and the visuals feel like they have always been there. Like the Japanese culture that inspired the story soaked into the 35mm film as they shot it. Each frame drips with the weight of the culture, and each decision the characters make is wrought with the desire to unburden themselves with the curses of the previous generations. There are a few moments in the film that make you jump, but the majority of the scares come from looking at the blank televisions. From staring into the distant sea as it foams and rolls. From searching the bottom of a well to find what has been lost.
The American remake that scared my cousin and I back in 2002 is a very similar film to its predecessor. It transplants us to the American Northwest, but it keeps the same muted tones and seeping dread as the original. What couldn’t be translated from the beautiful Japanese language of Ringu was replaced with one of Hanz Zimmer’s most haunting scores. It is a work of art that changed the way people viewed horror in the early 2000’s.
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“Each frame drips with the weight of the culture, and each decision the characters make is wrought with the desire to unburden themselves with the curses of the previous generations.”
Take a look at some of the horror films that came out of America during the latter half of the 1990’s. Scream is an all-time classic, but it is a slasher film, through and through. We also see films like Urban Legend, Halloween H20, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, and dozens of others. While there are pure gems in there, things were getting very stale. They had become formulaic and predictable. Horror audiences were starting to get bored. Take a look at what was released after Ringu’s atmospheric success. You have The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, 28 Days Later, Session 9, The Descent, The Others, and several others that drove the narrative with atmosphere and dread.
Would these films still exist without Ringu? Probably. Maybe. It was inevitable that the slasher genre would transform into something different, but what the overseas success of Ringu showed was that it was financially viable to produce a horror film with less blood and more doom.
Curses and Foreign Opportunities
Have you ever been in a place in your life where you felt cursed? I’m talking about a real-deal, death-level curse? I think we all have, but have you ever found yourself oppressed by the demons of your forefathers? I think not. That’s what was so good about horror at this point in history. We needed a way to move on from the slashers that paved the way, and supernatural ghosts and angry entities were the perfect foil. What Ringu gave us an entire subgenre of horror films throughout the 2000’s that dealt with curses and karma coming back to bite us in the ass.
Most of these films were direct remakes of other Japanese Horror films, like The Grudge (Ju-On: The Grudge), Dark Water (um… Dark Water), and Pulse (Kairo) and One Missed Call (Chakushin Ari). Each of these films focused on curses of rage-filled ghosts or former residents wanting to re-inhabit the walking world. The remake machine didn’t end in Japan, however. Based on the success of Ringu, studios looked to other Asian countries and mined their exceptional horror for American audiences.
“We needed a way to move on from the slashers that paved the way, and supernatural ghosts and angry entities were the perfect foil.”
This includes China’s The Eye (Gin Gwai), the Philippine’s The Echo (Sigaw), Korea’s Mirrors (Into the Mirror) and The Uninvited (A Tale of Two Sisters), and my all-time personal favorite, Thailand’s Shutter (Shutter). These remakes filled American theaters for a decade, some with more success than others. What it also did was turn studios eyes overseas for all kinds of other genre fare. Without Ringu, there is no The Orphanage, REC, or The Devil’s Backbone gracing North American theaters.
What makes all of these films so special is that they were different from the stuff Hollywood was pushing down our throats at the time. These weren’t “man in a raincoat and a hook” slashers. These were horror films filled with weight. Filled with despair. If there a man in a mask chasing you, you can kill him. If it is the manifestation of your past evil deeds, there is no escape. There is nowhere to hide from yourself or your family’s sins. It was a different scary than we were used to, and nothing personifies that feeling more than Ringu’s Sadako.
Where were you the first time you watched Sadako climb out of the well? What did you feel as her jerky movements inched ever closer to your own screen? How loud did you scream when her inky black hair came through Ryuji’s television? Sure, she became a joke, even going so far as to be parodied in the Scary Movie franchise, but nothing changed the game quite like Sadako.
Obviously, Ringu was not the first horror film to come out of Japan, but it was one of the first to scare us with a villain like Sadako. Her appearance, which became synonymous with “2000’s ghost-girl”, looks like it was concocted in a horror-film basement, but it wasn’t. It is actually based on very real Japanese folklore. Yūrei, the word for ghost in Japanese, are often depicted as women wearing white and having long, straight black hair. This is because most Japanese women were buried in white kimonos, signifying the purity of their souls, and because the top-knot worn by most women during this time was let down after death, resulting in the long black hair. More specifically, Sadako was a Onryō, or a vengeful spirit who come back from purgatory to complete a task or to right a wrong done to them in their lifetime. These spirits were often depicted in Japanese Kabuki theater as having exaggerated, jerky, otherworldly movements, much like our very own Sadako.
“Where were you the first time you watched Sadako climb out of the well?”
So, what was new and fresh to us was very well known in Japan. If you were familiar with the culture at all, then Sadako wasn’t that frightening of a visage. What made her truly terrifying, if her look didn’t do it for you, was her mission. She wanted people to know what happened to her, sure, which could be construed as a righteous endeavor, but she wanted more than that. She wanted you to share it with someone else you knew, or she would scare you to death. Dr. Ikuma, her father and murderer, had been dead for years before the events of the film. So revenge wasn’t a factor. She didn’t want to smear his name any more than it already had been. She simply wanted to put you through hell until she eventually killed you.
What put my cousin and I on edge that night in October of 2002, was her mission. The main characters did everything they could think of for her. They found her body, they unlocked the mystery, they put her bones to rest, but it still wasn’t enough. Sadako (or Samara in the American version) wanted to cause pain. She wanted to make you insane and kill you when you were at your lowest. Sure, making a copy of the film and showing it to someone is an easy out, but it’s not like there were instructions taped to the curse. Some people would figure it out, sure, but 99% of the people who watched that tape would soon be seeing her in their living rooms. That is terrifying. That is upsetting. An atmospheric horror film that deals with curses and has a villain with no discernable motive except for pain and suffering? That is the recipe for a classic that will be remembered forever. Or, at least for the next 7 days.
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