There is a videotape that, once watched, causes its viewers to die seven days later. (No, it's not Bruce Willis' The Kid.) That simple premise, the stuff of urban legends that find malevolent possibilities in mundane items, spawned a pop-culture phenomenon in Asia, first via The Ring (a novel by Japanese author Kôji Suzuki), then in a series of much-imitated films initiated by director Hideo Nakata. Now comes an American version that wrings the premise for every drop of suspense. In spite of the technological twists, The Ring is at heart a classic ghost story, and it knows it. It allows the horror to unfold out of a campfire-ready opening scene, as two teenage girls exchange the story of the videotape while left alone in a seemingly peaceful house. The evening doesn't go well, which prompts single mom and Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Naomi Watts to investigate. Her efforts lead her to a remote cabin and, inevitably, an unmarked videotape whose spooky contents could pass for unused dailies from Mulholland Dr. "Very film school," says unimpressed former flame Martin Henderson. While he's not far off the mark, the images have an unsettling quality that portends the troubles to come. Revealing more would spoil a plot dependent on the slow revelation of details. Spelled out, it sounds a bit banal anyway, as most ghost stories do when removed from the creaks and fleeting visions of unspeakable horror that make them work. Expanding on the strong visual sense evinced in the otherwise mediocre The Mexican, director Gore Verbinski creates an air of dread that begins with the first scene and never lets up, subtly incorporating elements from the current wave of Japanese horror films along the way. He succeeds mostly through sleight of hand. When the shocks come, they interrupt long stretches in which the camera lingers meaningfully as characters accumulate details that confirm what they already know: What they've seen will kill them, and soon. As a marriage of big-budget filmmaking and old-fashioned scare tactics, it easily ranks alongside last year's The Others. And, like that film, The Ring features a heroine several cuts above the average scream queen: Watts, whose worldly façade is chipped away as the film progresses, revealing an expression of ashen dread. Viewers made callous by too many cheap horror films may experience a similar reaction.
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