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Killed by television

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The hardiest of all the cinema perennials, as its history through the 20th century demonstrates, the horror film thrives in just about any climate or conditions. From its beginnings in the days of the silents through the present time, it has survived even the shocking, very real horrors of a turbulent history: world wars, genocide, famine, disease, the prolonged threat of thermonuclear apocalypse. Somehow the imagined menace flickering on the great screen in the close and palpable darkness of the theater overwhelms the actual dangers that exist in the purportedly knowable daylight world we all inhabit.

            The form long ago reached a stage of high development, imitating itself both specifically and generally, producing the endless progeny of Dracula and Frankenstein, the litters of werewolves, whole museums of mummies, and, more recently, months of Fridays, a year of Halloweens, and more Nightmares than anyone ever dreamed.

            The latest horror flick, The Ring, suggests both the infinitely reduplicative capacity of the genre and its tendency to trim its sails to the prevailing winds of the Zeitgeist. The movie, in a sense, copies itself, while also providing something like a compendium of contemporary horror, with elements from a number of popular films, ranging from Videodrome to The Sixth Sense.

            Opening with two teenage girls watching a horror flick on television, The Ring consciously refers to numerous examples of its genre, beginning with the sort of urban legend that propels several recent movies. Horror, of course, naturally involves sex, so one of the girls hints about her illicit weekend with a boyfriend and another couple. She then tells her friend about subsequently seeing a videotape showing a series of strange, apparently unrelated images, that inspired a general dread. After the four young people watched the tape, the telephone rang and a voice informed them that they would die in seven days. This is now, of course, the seventh day.

            Though her friend dismisses the whole story as a fabrication, in fact, the girl dies horribly and inexplicably that night, and her listener loses her sanity. The sequence suggests another one of those dead-teenager movies, in which young people suffer hideous punishment for their sexuality, but the real scares have only just begun.

            Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), a reporter for a Seattle newspaper and an aunt of the dead girl (who used to take care of her 6-year-old son, Aidan), discovers that the three other youngsters who saw the video have all died, which naturally impels her to investigate the mystery. Unfortunately, she also watches the tape and receives the same admonitory telephone call, which provides even greater motivation to solve the puzzle. She enlists the aid of her child's father, Noah (Martin Henderson), an ex-boyfriend who works with electronics. Keller also pores over old newspaper clippings, and painstakingly attempts to figure out the origin, location, and meaning of the scratchy, jumpy, black-and-white tape.

            The tape's odd, unsettling images --- a woman in a mirror, a ladder leaning against a wall, a seascape with dead horses (right out of Dali), a face at a window, a stone well, a lighthouse, and so on --- engender an eerie and puzzling dread for no apparent reason. As Rachel proceeds with her detective work, the various items gradually accrue meaning and develop a history involving a wealthy couple who raised horses, their adopted child, and a suicide. The search into the past leads her to the various locations discernible in the tape --- in particular, a decaying farmhouse and a spooky motel of the Bates variety, where the movie reaches a peculiar, explosive climax.

            The Ring's use of documents, videotape, television, and the processes of recovering information from poorly made electronic records provides a richly detailed and generally fascinating foundation for its preposterous and ultimately meaningless premise. The familiar and observable world of technology establishes some context for the supernatural and unknowable world beyond.

            Along with the more or less intellectual and rational engagement of the investigative methods, which could very well appear in a detective thriller, the film also generates an extraordinary --- and, essentially, unjustified --- terror from its manipulation of the ordinary. In keeping with the techniques of contemporary horror, the camera holds endlessly in tight close-up on some humble object --- a doorknob, a water faucet, a chair --- drawing out the suspense and investing them all with a perhaps undeserved potential for dread.

            Aside from the teen-pic opening sequence, the movie also suggests another aspect of the youth-oriented horror flick: the ambiguous vision of the child as both victim and villain, with some overtones of the uncanny psychic ability of the kid in The Sixth Sense. While perhaps preaching a sermon on the dangers of too much television, especially for the young, The Ring recalls the malevolent TV sets of pictures as different as Videodrome and Poltergeist. The killer television must represent one of the important fatal instruments of our age.

            The film's greatest flaw derives from a failure of its own internal logic. No matter how silly or objectionable or even incredible, cinematic horror demands some reason for its existence, a coherent rationale to explain just why some character suffers some terrible fate. Despite the obvious competence of its filmmakers --- almost every shot displays an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere and, consequently, engenders an immense foreboding --- The Ring, for all its scariness, just doesn't make enough sense. Oddly enough, horror needs more than fright to succeed.

The Ring, starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox, David Dorfman, Daveigh Chase, Lindsay Frost, Amber Tamblyn, Rachel Bella; based on the novel The Ring by Koji Suzuki and on the motion picture The Ring; screenplay by Ehren Kruger; directed by Gore Verbinski. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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