Horror as a genre tends to go through brief periods of inspiration, followed by long slogs of imitation. If you're unlucky, the inspired breakout hit is something like Saw, and as a horror fan you have to sit through years of vile dreck until something better comes along to rejigger the landscape. In the late '90s, horror was in one of its down-turn phases: the mid-'90s crackdown on letting youngsters into R-rated movies had the effect (still felt today) that to get the primary audience for horror, the young, you needed to be PG-13, which means violence has to be minimal or subtle. And since so many horror movies depend on gore for their effect, it was not a winning recipe.
The phenomenon of J-horror, for a brief time, showed a different kind of horror movie that could be effective and popular. Reliant on atmosphere and slow dread as opposed to gore and jump scares, the popularity of this brand of scary movie was kicked off by Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998). Several sequels came after, and remakes and spin-offs until an entire brand, and almost a whole genre, is based on the spooky image of a ghost with long black hair.
But Ringu has a number of tricks up its sleeve that give it a power beyond a single spooky image. The premise, which has surely filtered to everyone through cultural osmosis even if they haven't seen the film, has the ring (pun intended) of an urban legend: there's this videotape that, if you watch it, you get a phone call, and a spooky voice tells you that you have seven days until you die. The opening of Ringu has a pair of teenagers, Tomoko and Masami, telling the story... then Tomoko says she's seen it. One week ago that night. No points for guessing what happens to her next in a horror movie.
Coincidentally, her aunt Reiko Asakawa is a television reporter who is working on a story about the tape. When she learns about the connection with her niece's premature death, she investigates, and uncovers the terrible, tragic history of Sadako, the girl who became the long-haired ghost, and who has imprinted her psychic rage onto a videotape.
The Ringu movies are famously about ghosts, but the central premise running through the initial series of movies is the reality of psychic phenomenon, and psychic powers. Reiko's ex-husband Takayama is a psychic sensitive who sometimes gets visions. Their son seems to be similarly sensitive, and he becomes the focal point of Reiko's search for the truth about the tape when he manages to watch it.
The tape is the central point of reference for the horror sequences in the film. It is the connection of long-dead Sadako with the world, her only way of reaching out, and in the film it's a truly strange, unsettling little bit of cinema. It has a lack of clarity and a haunting obscurity that make it hard to completely recall, even having seen the film many times (and having seen the tape in several films.) For me, this version of the psychic tape is much more effective than the ersatz Nine Inch Nails video of the generally fine Gore Verbinski adaptation of Ringu, The Ring.
Ringu came out, was wildly successful, and so of course spawned a sequel... or rather, it was on a double bill with one on its initial release. Ringu was directed by Hideo Nakata, based on a novel by Koji Suzuki. Suzuki has written several sequels to Ringu, and a filmed adaptation of the first sequel, Spiral, was put into production and completed in time to be released at the exact same time as Ringu, using the same cast. Ringu's screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi changed a number of things from the book, and while Spiral maintains some of the primary changes (such as turning the protagonist from a house-husband into a female reporter) it is reportedly much more faithful to the original source material.
Written and directed by Joji Iida (who, it should be noted, was the screenwriter on an earlier adaptation of Ringu for Japanese television back in 1995 about which no-one seems to have anything good to say, and which apparently found some way to fit a lot of nudity into the story), Spiral is not really a horror story, but an apocalyptic science fiction story where a colleague of Takayama, Reiko's ex-husband from the first film, performs an autopsy to discover how he died and finds mysteries upon mysteries, all leading back to Sadako.
Spiral is less concerned with ghosts than with pseudo-science about mind viruses, even as it retreads somewhat tediously the ground the first film covered, but it moves beyond and contains one strange twist after the next taking it well out of the realm of supernatural horror. As a story, I found it intriguing. As a sequel to Ringu, Spiral was something nobody wanted. There's a reason this film is listed as an extra on the back of the box, and not included in the spine art of this box set.
The immediate disappointment with Spiral led to bringing back Hideo Nakata and screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi for Ringu 2, a more conventional sequel, though surprisingly, especially considering the speed with which it was made and released (almost exactly a year after the first film), Ringu 2 is not a simple re-tread of the first film's story. It's a continuation, and it delves into the themes of revenge from beyond the grave and psychic scarring of children.
The protagonist here is Mai, Takayama's research assistant and girlfriend from Ringu, who is trying to uncover the mystery of his death. Reiko and her son Yoichi have disappeared, and the police are completely baffled. Mai tries to go back over some of the same ground as Reiko, and she ends up connecting with Masami, a girl we haven't seen since the opening scene of the first film, when she was there to witness Tomoko's death at the psychic hands of Sadako.
Ringu 2 is splashier than Ringu, which is dedicated to slow reveals and a steady buildup of tension. There are more distinct horror moments, and the last half hour rises to an almost operatic fervor, revealing the full horrific dimensions of Sadako's vengeful design. With all that, it doesn't have anything frightening to equal the finale of the first film's ultimate horror, but there's a lot of creepy herein, as well as a human story at the heart as Mai and Reiko battle for the soul of Yoichi.
Hideo Nakata would go on and away from horror for a while, making the exceptional thriller Chaos a year later, though he wouldn't stray as far from the dark as, perhaps, he might have wanted. In 2002 he directed Dark Water, one of the scariest films of the J-horror phase, and his ill-fated trip to Hollywood saw him helming the preposterous The Ring 2, which was a disaster for the director and for the American franchise.
In Japan, the series continued unabated. Ringu 0 came out just a year later, a prequel to the first film detailing the events that led up to poor Sadako's trip down into the well. Sadako works in an acting troupe in Tokyo, and is in therapy with a doctor who was an associate of her father's. Quiet and introverted, she develops a crush on a technician working on the play she understudies in, and who is the one person present who didn't find her too weird to talk to.
Also written by Takahashi and based on a series of short stories by Suzuki published as Birthday, Ringu 0 is not as unfortunate as a horror prequel can be. That said, it is also hardly a horror movie, being more of a tragic drama about a girl trying to escape her unfortunate past - a past that includes a demonic second personality that thrives on murder and fury. This film was directed by Norio Tsurata, who (as David Kalat describes in his typically superlative commentary for Ringu) was essentially the father of the aesthetic that became J-horror. Ringu 0 was his theatrical film debut, after years working in the direct-to-video market.
As a Ringu film, the first hour lacks for the most part in horror moments, though it does maintain a spooky atmosphere... up until it becomes almost completely unhinged in the events following Sadako's interrupted performance of the play. For me, the movie then flies off the rails and becomes difficult to take seriously as we learn about the true nature of Sadako, her parentage, and the lengths that her theater troupe will go to to get rid of her. It's entertaining, but overwrought and not fully convincing.
The Ring might have largely left the public consciousness of the West, since a new version, Rings, came in went in 2017 with nobody noticing, but it still has some sway in Japan... though that might be simply familiarity, the same way '80s horror movie monsters still manage to scrap their way back onto the silver screen this decade, despite the indifference of an audience that did not grow up with Jason, Michael, or Freddy. Just this year, Hideo Nakata returned to the franchise with Sadako, which as far as I can tell from reading about online is about a haunted YouTube video. It has not been well received.
But that shouldn't take away from this remarkable little series of films. Ringu is something of a horror masterpiece, maintaining a sense of dread even when most of the film involves a rather dry detective story. Ringu 2 does the neat trick of continuing the horror without repeating itself, even if it never attains the height of tension of its predecessor. Ringu 0 does the equally neat trick of humanizing a monster without diminishing her terrible power. Spiral is a completely different egg, and points to a completely separate vision of Sadako not as a spirit of female vengeance, but a completely new lifeform seeking to propagate itself through whatever means are available to it. And this was all done in three short years. If the series descended into parody with Sadako vs. The Grudge or whatever the hell was coming out of Japan at the time, it's no fault of these genuinely affecting, often terrifying films.
Ringu Collection has been released by Arrow Video on Blu-ray. There's a plethora of extras in the box set that fully explore the Ring phenomenon. On the Ringu disc, there is the aforementioned commentary by David Kalat. Author of the fine book J-Horror, Kalat is an old-hat at commentaries, and his always have the sense of being meticulously prepared without feeling like the author is reading from a script. He briefly uncovers the history of J-horror and the tortured path that Ringu made from weird novel to (several) screen adaptations. There is also a trio of video extras: "The Ring Legacy" (28 minutes) which contains critics talking about the film, "A Vicious Circle" (21 mins) containing an interview with critic Kat Ellinger about Hideo Nakata, and "Circumnavigating Ring" (25 mins) a video essay by Australian critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas about the series. On the Ringu 2 disc, there is an archival interview with Ringu author Koji Suzuki, "The Psychology of Fear" (26 mins). It also lists Spiral as an extra on the back of the box. Ringu 0 has a commentary track by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas which is at once engaging and academic. There is also a video essay by Jasper Sharp, "Spooks, Sighs and Videotape" (38 mins) about the J-horror phenomenon, and an archival behind the scenes featurette on the movie (22 mins), and 7 minutes of deleted scenes. All the films also have trailers as a bonus as well.