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The Ring

In the underrated Dudley Moore comedy Crazy People, Moore wrote an ad campaign for a horror movie as follows: "It won't just scare you, it will f*** you up for the rest of your life." At several points during The Ring, that quote has a resonance. Remaking a Japanese horror film while turning American clichés upside down, director Gore Verbinski has created something striking, disturbing and haunting. More impressively, he managed to do it within the constriction of the PG-13 rating.

The Ring begins with a scene right out of the Scream franchise, appropriate as screenwriter Ehren Krueger made his name finishing out that trilogy. As two Catholic schoolgirls watch TV on a rainy night, they start talking about the latest urban legend: the strange videotape that causes people to die seven days after they watch it.

In the goofy way that girls do (at least in movies), they tease each other about it. And then the scene becomes unsettling. Katie (Amber Tamblyn) confesses that she and three classmates have watched the tape, exactly one week earlier. Faster than you can say "Candyman, Candyman, Candyman," something terrible happens in the house.

Actually, it's not fast. Verbinski shows remarkable restraint in just letting the little things add up to terror. It's agonizing, because you know something has to be coming. After Katie describes the tape, the phone rings, a downstairs television turns itself on, a refrigerator door opens. You've seen it in dozens of horror films. But then water starts seeping under a bedroom door. You're hooked.

The real plot kicks in with Katie's aunt Rachel (Naomi Watts), who just happens to be a reporter. Spurred to investigate the sudden stopping of a healthy teenager's heart, Rachel overhears Katie's classmates spreading the urban legend. Worse, she finds out that all four teens who watched that tape died at exactly the same time in different places around Seattle.

You might start to question how nobody else notices this coincidence, but Verbinski so amps up the feeling of dread that willing suspicion of disbelief goes incredibly far. He's playing in overly familiar territory, but it works.

As pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place, Rachel retraces her niece's trip to a mountain lodge, where she finds the videotape sitting on a shelf in the lobby. She watches it, a short little thing described by her ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson) as "a really bad student film." And then the phone in the cabin rings. On the other end, a sinister child's voice tells her, "seven days."

This simple little event ratchets up the tension even further, and Verbinski reflects it by adding subtitles: "Day One…" etc. Rachel now must solve the mystery before her own death, an event she considers a very real possibility. In a touch right out of The Omen, those who have viewed the tape become blurred on film and video themselves. The gorgeous Watts has become unphotographable.

And when her own already creepy young son Aidan (David Dorfman) watches the tape, Rachel's desperation grows. For our own peace of mind, it doesn't help that Aidan apparently receives messages from a little dead girl. At times the movie plays like a straightforward ghost story, as Rachel and Noah's unravel the circumstances surrounding the images on the tape. As random as the video appears to be, it does hold clues to a narrative. Of course, part of its insidious nature is that the images on the tape start repeating in real life as the viewer hurtles toward his or her appointment in…well, to use the old saying would be to drop a crucial clue. And then before you die…you see The Ring.

Everything needed to understand what's going on plays out in plain sight. But Verbinski and Krueger contentedly let the audience think other elements have greater importance.

The filmmakers have also done more than just cobble together bits from other horror movies into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. For those who appreciate such things, Verbinski adds a layer of commentary on film and video, never quite indicting us for becoming a nation of watchers. Several nods to Hitchcock appear throughout, including a subtle reversal of Rear Window. And of course, Noah is right: the tape does look like a bad student film, all pretension and attempts at surrealism. Sometimes, the filmmaker seems to say, you've just got to let go and enjoy a movie as a movie.

Helping make The Ring into a great movie are solid character actors. Both Jane Alexander and Brian Cox (soon to be the villain in X-Men 2) appear late in the film, bumping the acting to a whole new level of quality.

Having made a splash in Mulholland Drive, Watts proves that she has what it takes to be a star, though a lot of people think that star is actually Nicole Kidman. The Fanboy Planet clue: Nicole has red hair and an Australian accent; Naomi has blonde hair and an Australian accent.

As has become absolutely essential for modern horror films, the child actors provide the scariest performances. Looking like a miniature David Foley, young Dorfman has an intensity that belies the seven year old he may actually be. I believe that off camera, he sees dead people. The ghost girl, played by Daveigh Chase, doesn't really have that much to do, but in her few scenes she holds up her end of the bargain.

After a few days, when much of the creep factor has faded, plot holes start to appear, but that only means you have to go back and see it again to patch them up. And despite the threat implied by your viewing of the tape, it's okay to watch it again. Why, it's been seven days since I saw it and nothing hap

What's It Worth? $8

Derek McCaw

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