Before Dreamworks snapped up the rights in order to clear the way for last year's superbly crafted remake The Ring, Hideo Nakata's Ringu was available only through imports and bootlegs, disseminated among hardcore Japanese-horror disciples and other dedicated cultists. Though the studio should be credited for not burying the original–à la Kiyoshi Kurosawa's chilling Pulse, which Miramax seized for director Wes Craven–Nakata's videophobic premise seems uniquely suited to the black market, where poorly marked VHS tapes could circulate through VCRs like poison-pen letters. How better to watch a film about a mysterious, unlabeled videotape that gives its viewers exactly one week to live? Generously marketed alongside the American version, the new stripped-down Ringu DVD doesn't have the same subversive effect as a bootleg, but the sparkling transfer provides other compensations, highlighting Nakata's elegant framing and the subtly unnerving effects on the soundtrack. On balance, Gore Verbinski's faithful The Ring is the stronger of the two movies, with better performances, more polished and suspenseful setpieces, and an even distribution of scares between the chilling bookends. But even though Verbinski works hard to mimic the quieter, more suggestive style of Japanese ghost stories, Ringu has a minimalist intensity that can stop the heart with a simple flash-cut or a well-timed fillip in the musical score. The film's irresistible urban legend takes root in the opening sequence, when two teenage girls discuss the rumored existence of the lethal videotape, only to have one (Yuko Takeuchi) reveal that she watched it with three other friends the week before. When the four die simultaneously of unknown causes, Takeuchi's aunt (Nanako Matsushima) investigates the case with ex-husband Hiroyuki Sanada, but after they watch the tape, they have only seven days to lift its curse. The tape's abstract images provide clues that direct them to a volcanic island where a seer and her daughter died under sinister circumstances. After a rousing start, Ringu settles into a sagging investigative procedural in the second act, as Matsushima bounces from one lead to the next without much character work, and only the occasional jolt out of complacency. But just when it seems like Nakata has few shocks to support his ingenious concept, he closes with a mesmerizing double-whammy, chasing an already tense climax with a wholly unexpected and chilling turn of events. Though the remake has blunted the original's impact to some degree, Ringu and The Ring complement each other nicely, both as a side-by-side lesson in artful facsimile and as an opportunity to savor the little differences.
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