Halloween is a month-long celebration that spans decades of movie history, from Southern Gothic to psychothriller. The Film Beat decided to embrace this history, dedicating each week of October to a different time period in horror. This series celebrates every nightmare you had when you were ten, every creak in the floorboards of an old house, every piece of candy stuck to the inside of your pillowcase and everything that keeps you up at night. For this week, we’re crawling our way into the turn of the millennium.

— Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Daily Arts Writer

When I was a young’un, my sweet mother insisted on screen time rules. I could only browse the internet for a certain amount of time, lest I rot my brain. I could only watch the television from a distance, lest I rot my eyes. I could only play “Nintendogs” on my Nintendo DS Lite for incremental periods, lest I … rot the articulated bits of my thumbs or get tired of dogs or something. 

In the year 2020, when in-person class, work and socialization are but a distant memory for many, all I can say is that my sweet mother’s attempt at the salvation of my vision, brain cells and metacarpals has combusted in a most brilliant, LED-decked display. My life today is rife with all that brain-rotting, blue-lighted badness. Despite her best efforts, my day — and the days of so many others — consists of an ungodly procession of screens big and small, unless a virus rots my respiratory tract. 

All this to say, the Japanese horror film “Ring” (from J-horror director Hideo Nakata, sometimes called “Ringu”) and the technological anxieties it taps into may be as timely as ever. It’s not brain-rotting blue light, per se, but a hirsute heart-stopping ghost girl is kind of in the same ballpark, yeah?

For those who haven’t caught on yet, “Ring” is that movie — the one with the gown-draped girl with  serious bed head that crawls out of the TV to inflict unspeakable horrors and whatnot. While “Ring” is popularly hailed as superior, many stateside may be more familiar with the 2002 English remake “The Ring.” 

Of course, a hairy preteen isn’t the only conceit of the film that earned it many a remake. It’s got a tight, focused plot: After a rash of uncanny teenage deaths ostensibly following the viewing of a funky experimental short film, journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima, “The Crimes That Bind”) hops on the case. The video’s already inspired something of an urban legend: watch the movie, receive a spooky, spooky phone call, die in exactly one week. Once she tracks down the film, she watches it. Because, y’know, why not watch a film you suspect has led to the deaths of many? After watching it and receiving her spooky, spooky phone call, she freaks out and immediately enlists her ex-husband (Hiroyuki Sanada, “Avengers: Endgame”), a university professor of ambiguous discipline, and gets him to watch it too. Misery loves company, I guess? After that they’re on a quite literal deadline: break the curse within a week or so or they’re both kaput.

Weird phone calls, a creepy video — “Ring” is something of the ur-creepypasta, a prototype for all the Slendermen and Momos (the façade of Momo is particularly creepy and “Ring”-esque if you ask me) that would dominate in coming decades. In fact, the massive influence of “Ring” may serve as a detriment to it today. “Ring” is a product of its past — not only an adaptation of the novel of the same name by author Kôji Suzuki, but the descendant of a long line of horror cinema and literature, including M.R. James’s short story “Casting of the Runes.” But it employed its inherited gifts with such panache that it has secured itself a place in the pantheon of horror icons. Many of the tropes “Ring” has popularized (which I’ll remain elusive in describing so as to spare the few that haven’t already been spoiled) have been employed ad nauseum and the truly iconic scene of a bedraggled girl dragging herself from a well, through a television egress and into your living room is iconic to the point of undercutting itself. 

As such, “Ring” finds itself in a strange place in 2020. On the one hand, screens — the film’s tool of ghastly revenge — are not only ubiquitous but supremely vital to daily functioning, despite the studies legit and otherwise denouncing their potentially deleterious mental and physiological effects. Neither director Nakata nor author Suzuki could have imagined a more appropriate environment for its viewing than the current one.

But on the other hand, it wasn’t released in 2020. It was released in 1998, and with age it has grown to megalithic heights in popular culture, its imagery so prolific that it may have lost some of its tact. It’s got creepy in spades — but maybe not the same horrific verve that a fresh viewing may have possessed. 

The silver lining in this curious predicament is that all the never-horror folks out there (a merry yellow-bellied band of which I myself was once a card-carrying member) can finally check out what all the fuss is about while keeping their capacity for sleep — or existence near a television — intact. Even if “Ring” in 2020 has lost some of its 1998 bite, it still stands above the legion of wispy imitations that followed it. So, this Halloween, give it a revisit. You’re going to be on a screen anyway.

Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at luskja@umich.edu.

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