From The Babadook to It Follows, Modern Horror Stalks in the Footsteps of The Ring

The nuclear family is sacrosanct in cinema. Presented as the most sacred of ideals its protection (and destruction) is often key in horror films. The Ring opens with the nuclear family splintered if not totally broken. Children are left to fend for themselves, adults are too busy to talk to one another let alone their children and what’s worse is that this seems to have been going on for generations. The Ring is the turning point for twenty-first century horror. It’s the film upon which the axis of modern horror spins.

Young journalist and single mother Rachel (the ever-fabulous Naomi Watts) discovers that her niece has died after watching a supposedly cursed videotape. Upon watching the abstract, snuff-like VHS the viewer receives a phone call claiming they will die in seven days. Rachel finds the tape and watches it thus beginning a race against time to save herself as well as her young son Aidan (David Dorfman) and ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson) who she has roped into the curse.

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Naomi Watts in ‘The Ring’. Source

The imagery of The Ring is spell-binding. The setting of Seattle on the north-west coast of the US means that rain is a constant factor. Ethereal pine forests stretch on past the horizon while mist blankets everything director Gore Verbinski doesn’t want you to see. Solitary, moss-covered cabins hide dark family secrets and past crimes weigh on everything. The lighting gives everything either a grey urban feel or the greenish tinge of a rotting corpse. This haunting, neo-gothic atmosphere pales in comparison to the tape itself.

A burning tree, dead horses on a beach, a woman staring in a mirror. A well. These images and more combine into static-ridden and spine-tingling footage. Writhing maggots are juxtaposed with people squirming in a mud pit. Noah describes it as “A very student film”. In fairness he’s not wrong but I wouldn’t sleep any better even if it was because this “student film” is a nightmare tape. The tape’s images are slowly teased out and when put together they paint an ever-more disturbing picture of a fractured American family.

Richard and Anna Morgan (Brian Cox and Shannon Cochrane respectively) adopted a girl, Samara (Daveigh Chase), after failing to conceive. Samara however was capable of planting disturbing images in people’s minds and so was confined to an asylum. After a series of tragic events Rachel finds herself cursed and investigating the circumstances of the tape to save herself and those she loves. Rachel is trying to make her family whole again, something the Morgans could not achieve.

A burning tree, dead horses on a beach, a woman staring in a mirror. A well. These images and more combine into static-ridden and spine-tingling footage.

Optimism is not so rare in horror films. No matter her traumatic ordeal we feel relieved when the Final Girl escapes the monster. Films like The Babadook, The Others and The Witch all end optimistically even if it’s not the optimism we expect or hope for. The Ring is not one of these films. The pessimism of The Ring’s ending is total. Verbinski, after apparently laying the static ghost of Samara to rest in the well she died in, slaps the viewer in the face with the red herring he’s been hiding all along. In his book Twenty First Century Horror Films author Douglas Keesey writes: “It is hard to imagine a more pessimistic ending – or one more despairing or destructive of humanity.” As Rachel washes the grime and dirt of the well off in the shower we too feel cleansed. There will be no more grainy, disgusting tapes or ghost children. But Rachel made a copy of the original tape, didn’t she?

In the penultimate scene of the film the TV flickers on in Noah’s apartment. Once more we see Samara rise from the well but the video does not cut to static this time. Instead the pale, shrivelled child keeps coming eventually crawling out of the screen and killing Noah. But Rachel is safe because she made a copy. In order to survive she must spread the curse and so must her son. They are complicit in a viral video of death that has no logical conclusion. In the original Japanese film Ringu main character Reiko and son Yoichi give the copy of the tape to her elderly father, an act so cruel it eliminates nearly all the good Reiko tried to do. The remake’s recipient is mercifully left unnamed as Rachel’s family is shattered enough as it is.

Rachel’s role as a mother is often questioned. As traditional values of motherhood collide with the increased pace of modern life Aidan is left to fend for himself; he prepares his school lunch, reads his babysitter a bedtime story and tucks himself into bed. His father, Noah, is absent and even when present barely able to communicate with his own flesh and blood. Rachel’s sister’s life is destroyed by the death of her daughter as her husband sinks into a depression and she is left to pick up the pieces. The Morgan’s lives are destroyed by the arrival of what they thought would complete their family: a daughter. As Richard says: “My wife was never supposed to have a daughter!” Some things like unhappy memories, fertility problems and especially cursed videotapes are better left untouched.

One thing that hasn’t gone untouched is the legacy of The Ring. The original Japanese film has had a prequel, four sequels, two videogame adaptations and even a crossover with The Grudge. The remake itself has three sequels but that’s little compared to the effect Gore Verbinski’s horror triumph has had on modern horror. From passing on curses in the likes of It Follows to qualms about motherhood in extreme French horror Inside as well as the fear of technology in Pulse. The Ring is the balancing point of modern horror. It keeps our fear of madness at bay even fifteen years on; without it we would have easily fallen over the edge.


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