Technology is all-pervasive. It is only a matter of time before it controls even the most human and basic emotional aspects of our lives, if it does not already. Versatile filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Kiyoshi Kurosawa have used this theme to great effect by showing that with the proper script, one can cleverly subvert traditional horror tropes by delivering suspense, augmented by technology as a medium. Conventional horror clichés dictate supernatural appearances, unconventional scares with creative flair, along with usually a protagonist with agency and bravery to take on the otherworldly. The Ring manages to beat all those drums again, but in a distinctly new form, taking inspiration from the Japanese wave of horror, specializing in the ghostly form Yūrei, with white clothing and black hair, which started with Ring (1998), before moving on to Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) and Dark Water (2002) all of which have been Americanized, with differing critical and public reception.
The plot may sound deceptively simple but by the end, a genre fan may be awake many nights with wild theories and imaginative guesswork. A cursed videotape makes any viewer die exactly seven days after the viewing. Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), being a smart-nosed reporter, wants to dig into the story, especially after it comes too close to home in a disturbing fashion. When her son Aidan (David Dorfman) is eventually threatened, she has to work with her ex-husband Noah (Martin Henderson) to break the curse, before the week is up.
Gore Verbinski shows off an impressive new side behind the camera, even before he took on the job of leading a pirates-themed multi-million-dollar studio franchise. He successfully establishes the moody Seattle atmosphere from the first scenes, with suitably symbolist hues of black and grey, along with his DOP Bojan Bazelli, and never lets up the palpable sense of dread that ghost stories rarely showed in those days. Excessive gore, not this sense of dread, was an American horror staple prior to this film. Verbinski displays some pacy direction, especially in the final moments, where it is to his credit that even TV static becomes an unforgiving image. Verbinski plays the story out patiently for the audience to fully absorb the creepy imagery and understand it in tandem with the disturbing plot shifts, which help make it a film that does not insult the audience's intelligence. A haunting score by Hans Zimmer only adds to the increasing sense of trepidation Verbinski aims for.
Much of the film's sophistication comes from its cleverly adapted screenplay. Kôji Suzuki, the writer of the first novel, and co-writer on both adaptations, along with Ehren Kruger and the auteur Scott Frank, takes some liberties with the source material, but nevertheless fills it with enough tension to befit an investigative story arc, which keeps the viewer invested in the mystery. The psychological horror immerses the viewer, by making them ask the less-often-asked question in horror: "Why did that happen?" (instead of "When will that happen?").
Naomi Watts gives a thoroughly committed performance, adding to a group of great dramatic performances in genre movies, by playing a skeptical reporter who has personal stakes in the story. Watts elevates her character beyond the traditional horror female persona, and becomes proactive about protecting everyone involved. Henderson is just about passable, as he never seems to lend any emotional weight to his stony-faced role as the ex-husband, and falls into the horror trope of the cynic who is gradually proved wrong. Dorfman and Chase fall on the wrong side (only slightly) of creepy horror movie children, who by this time have been proven to be just as conventional and saturated as the genre itself.
Despite some tonally inconsistent performances, barring Watts, it is Gore Verbinski's surprisingly mature direction of a clever techno-horror story, which broke the conformist barriers of American horror (with some help from the original Japanese material). This is a tale that combined the technological aspects associated with American progressive culture with traditional Japanese horror iconography. The Ring is an illustration of a thinking man's subversive horror film, delivering effective scares, and combining them with an appetite for intrigue inherent in the plot, making it one of the better horror movies of our generation for the more discerning genre fan.