[Screen It]

(2002) (Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson) (PG-13)

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Horror: A woman races to discover the secret behind a bizarre videotape that somehow kills those who view it seven days after doing so.
Rachel Keller (NAOMI WATTS) is a reporter for the Seattle P.I. who's raising her young son, Aidan (DAVID DORFMAN), by herself. That's become a bit trickier of recent due to his obsession with death following the untimely demise of his 16-year-old cousin, Katie (AMBER TAMBLYN).

It seems that the teen had previously watched a bizarre videotape that somehow causes the death of anyone who watches it. That occurs exactly seven days after the fact, and now Katie, her boyfriend and two others are dead after doing so. Rachel can't believe that's possible, but starts investigating the story and hears that others know of this urban legend and the fatalistic phone call one receives after watching the tape.

Her curiosity eventually gets the better of her and she ends up watching the tape that is a collection of bizarre and creepy images and imagery. Not believing the legend, she then shows the tape to her friend, Noah (MARTIN HENDERSON), who's similarly skeptical of the tape's lethal capabilities.

Soon, however, enough bizarre events occur that the two begin to wonder if it may be true. Accordingly, they set out to investigate the tape based on its visible and partially discernible content. That eventually leads them to Moesko Island and the former horse farm of Richard Morgan (BRIAN COX) where they come to believe the ghost of a young girl, Samara (DAVEIGH CHASE), is somehow involved in the deaths and other spooky occurrences.

With time increasingly running out, Rachel and Noah race to solve the mystery and figure out if there's a way to avoid being killed.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Horror and supernatural movies just don't seem that scary anymore. Maybe it's because we've seen about every type that's possible and have become desensitized and/or built up a tolerance for the scares. Or perhaps it's due to the lack of imagination or style in telling such stories. Then again, today's everyday life - filled with fears of terrorism, snipers, West Nile virus and any number of other potentially deadly dangers - has pretty much overshadowed anything that filmmakers can offer.

That said, it's nice - from a horror moviegoing standpoint - when someone gets it right, or at least comes close. Such is the case with "The Ring," an effectively spooky and creepy little tale of ghostly doings and deadly TV offerings (and I'm not talking about the latest lame sitcoms).

In fact, not since "Poltergeist" and "Videodrome" has a film made our faithful family room companion so creepy. It's not the actual TV, however, that generates the scares, but rather a spooky and surreal videotape that plays on it. You see, after someone watches that tape, they die within seven days of doing so (which would be a killer for rental places such as Blockbuster).

That's obviously a high concept, easy to explain and sell gimmick, but the impending doom isn't the only thing that makes the film so engaging. Although the premise obviously sounds rather similar to this year's barely seen "FearDotCom" (where a visit to a website resulted in death), the film is actually a remake of the 1998 Japanese film "Ringu."

As was the case with that one, the story features a would-be victim attempting to unravel the mystery behind the tape and related creepy occurrences before either do her in. Accordingly, the film isn't just a spooky horror film, but rather one as combined with a compelling detective-like story.

To pull off such a tale and engage the viewer, one needs a credible and sympathetic protagonist. Director Gore Verbinski ("The Mexican," "Mouse Hunt"), who works from a screenplay adaptation by Ehren Kruger ("Impostor," "Arlington Road"), gets that and more from Naomi Watts ("Mulholland Drive," "Flirting") and her mesmerizing performance. Like fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman in "The Others," Watts is not only easy on the eye, but she also hits just the right notes in playing the character's various emotional responses to what's happening.

We want her to solve the mystery and avoid being killed and thus are lured deeper into the story than if a madman were simply hunting down and killing randy teenagers. Granted, the initial material regarding the videotape and follow-up phone call are a bit (purposefully?) goofy in terms of a funhouse meets near spoof combo.

Some of the material also borrows from the superb George C. Scott supernatural thriller, "The Changeling" (I won't explain how, but after you see the film, you'll see the similarities in some pivotal discoveries and revelations).

Then there's the criticism about why and how the tape was created and edited in such an artfully surrealistic fashion (although if one accepts the ghost angle, I suppose the rest should get a break as well). In addition, the 7-day death sentence countdown doesn't quite create the appropriate sense of urgency on the part of the protagonist or squirm-inducing dread for the viewer.

Even so, Verbinski does manage to set up and deliver a decent array of spooky, eerie and yes, scary scenes and imagery. Some of that involves young David Dorfman ("Bounce," "Panic") who does a terrific job playing the somewhat creepy boy with the otherworldly connection to the ghost. The performance by Daveigh Chase ("Lilo & Stitch," "Donnie Darko") will likely remind some viewers of parts of "The Omen" (the scary evil child), while both Martin Henderson ("Windtalkers," "Kick") and Brian Cox ("The Bourne Identity," "The Rookie") are decent in their supporting roles.

One of those films where you need to think (to understand the ending), but also occasionally turn off or at least suspend the logical and judgmental parts of your brain and let the primitive reflexes take over, the effort may not be the scariest film ever made, but it's certainly the best such entry so far this year. "The Ring" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 10, 2002 / Posted October 18, 2002

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