Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Tale of Two Sequels--The Ring 2 and Ringu 2

I saw The Ring when it came out on video and, while far from a masterpiece, surprisingly found myself highly interested in the film’s concept and imagery. Interested enough, at least, to check out Ringu, the Japanese film it was made from, to find one of the moodiest and conceptually ambiguous horror films I’ve seen in years. It uses classic Japanese concepts of spirits in everyday life in subtle and effective ways; ways that American horror will not touch. Then, in 2005, The Ring 2 arrived in theaters to universal pans and, as I’m as generally disgusted by horror sequels as the next moviegoer (no matter how much a fan of horror I am), I avoided the film like the plague and, consequently, neither did I see Ringu 2. Recently, however, as a result of ridiculous used DVD sales at video stores, I elected to pick them both up to watch together. Both were directed by Hideo Nakata, the director of the original Japanese film (Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski helmed the original American entry), which was encouraging, although the American sequel was written by somebody else unlike the Japanese, written by the director. This was somewhat distressing, but I had no idea how deep the distress would delve.

For those unfamiliar with the original films, they go something like this: after some strange and gruesome deaths, a reporter catches wind of a creepy montage videotape full of well and water images that contains a monster which, seven days after watching the tape, will emerge from viewers’ televisions and murder them savagely. The reporter watches the tape and, inadvertently, her son sees it as well, sending her on a quest to understand and, finally, destroy the monster before the seven days expires. The monster turns out to be the ghost of a young girl who, many years before, was thrown down a well by her parents after a shocking display of psychic power for the good of humanity. How the ghost becomes trapped in the video is (thankfully) left ambiguous, but what is revealed is that the only way to subvert this death is to copy the video and show it to somebody else, passing the curse on to the next unwitting viewer.

Now, in its Japanese sequel, a few months after the events of the original, the reporter and her son have disappeared into the country to come to terms with what they’ve experienced and get on with their lives. Unfortunately, all of the people close to the reporter, unbeknownst to her, are dying in similar fashion to the original and the assistant of her now-dead boyfriend seeks her out to help. The ensuing tale, more cold mood than thrills and chills, discusses the dichotomy between old Japanese spirituality and modern science, in which a scientist believes the answer to the problem lies not in subduing an evil ghost, but in channeling the negative energy into a manipulable, and finally a destructable, form. In ways, both theories are correct and what really happened is left, once again, ambiguous. This is a fine sequel that roots itself in Ringu but rides the ideas down a much stranger path.

Greatly encouraged, I elected to watch Ringu 2’s American counterpart directly afterward as a double-feature, hoping it would take a similar path in using Western spirituality and skepticism instead. Alas, to say that my hopes were shattered would be a grand understatement. As in Ringu 2, this opens shortly after the original ended. This time, our reporter (still Naomi Watts, who has proven she has little more than beauty to hang her hat on) moves the family from Seattle to Astoria, OR to escape the rat race and come to grips with the experiences of the first film. Like most women in thoughtless movies, she cannot bear to be without a relationship for long and, since her actions are the unwitting cause of her last boyfriend’s death, gets together with the first guy off the boat she sees (literally). Maybe he’ll help to raise the child, because God knows she can’t do it alone. The boyfriend, though, is actually only there to set up what this movie is really about: Postpartum Depression. In one key scene, after the ghost has resurfaced and the investigation has restarted, the son is bathing by himself and the ghost attacks. Mom comes in and sees he water in droplets, hovering in the air and her son sitting in the tub, scared shitless. Once she takes her first steps into the room, however, the water comes crashing back down into the tub, submerging the boy. Mom tries to pull him out but the water won’t let her and, just at that moment, the boyfriend comes in to witness what appears to be the mom attempting to murder the boy. This, in combination with the horrid bruises the ghost gives to anyone it touches, gets the boy sent to the hospital where they are met by CPS, which has tentatively taken custody of her son away from her. Her history of Postpartum Depression is revealed, from out of the blue, and now she must save both her son’s life and her own right to motherhood. Her investigations lead her to the ghost-girl’s birth mother, who is still alive and confined to an institution. Turns out, the ghost’s mom is Carrie (played by Sissy Spacek, no less), and it doesn’t take a lot of questioning for her to reveal what would be the worst advice in horror history (a history rife with bad advice that viewers should never, never heed): “When the voices in your head tell you to kill your child, you should listen. It is the only way to be rid of the monster.” Worse, Mommy Dearest heeds the advice, drowns her son, and exorcises the monster, all so mom, son, and new boyfriend (who apparently doesn’t much mind the murderous impulses) can live happily ever after.

Jesus, this goes far beyond stupid and is possibly the most infuriating sequel since Halloween 2 over two decades ago. What goes from an interesting study in spirituality in the modern era ends up in the States as something of a polemic against mental illness. The change almost unconscionable and helps me to realize that, sometimes, a director has little to nothing to do with the vision of a film and, no matter how good the artist is, an idiotic support system can take a film straight into the toilet. Still, I highly recommend both Japanese films, both for conceptual and visual styling. Please, please steer clear of The Ring 2 and, now that I think about it, stay away from its original too, just out of principle. I can’t be more sorry I did that to myself.