The video cassette was a long-time friend of the scary movie fan. Before the days of downloadable movies, pay-per-view film channels, and on-demand television there was the video rental market. It was a god-send to film aficionados. Prior to the invention of video cassettes the only way to view a movie was on a cinema screen or occasionally on terrestrial television. If the cinema and television listings failed to purvey the sort of fare you were after, tough luck. But all that changed in 1971 when Sony released its U-matic video tape format. It was now possible to have video footage contained on a handy storage format.
The Philips VCR followed a year later in 1972, before Sony hit back in May 1975 with its Betamax video system. The battle was eventually won by JVC’s VHS format (Video Home System) due to its affordability and increased storage capacity. When video recorders became common place in homes it was not long before retailers struck upon the idea of renting out movies on video. Instead of buying the cassette or paying to see a film at the cinema, a movie fan could hire a film for one night for little more than a pound or two. The video age had arrived.
Almost every corner-shop in the UK had a small video library, tucked away at the back next to the tinned soup and the decrepit freezer full of choc-ices and Sparkle lollies. The big-box cases with their gleaming artwork pulled in many a punter and eventually led to a booming straight-to-video movie market. This low-brow film phenomenon gave a home to movies that were too shoddy to make a reasonable dent at the box office. It thus became the place to seek out cheaply made horror films, their lurid covers selling the prospect of scares, gore, and exploitation.
The brouhaha of the 'video nasty' media panic heightened the status of VHS and the advent of long player video increased its reputation further still. Fans could cram as many as four or five fright fests onto one cassette. It was some years before video was knocked from atop the home movie mountain, the introduction of DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) by Toshiba in 1996 seeing to that. In turn DVD was surpassed by the Blu-Ray disc and its high definition output, and eventually by home streaming services where the purchasing or hiring of a physical item was made obsolete.
There were two things noteworthy from this expansion of technology. First, despite the advancement in picture and sound quality the grainy VHS retained a special place in horror fans hearts. Second, all the developments in home movie viewing originated in the Land of the Rising Sun. How fitting then that it was Japan who ensured that the twentieth century came to a close with one of the greatest scary movies ever made, fittingly with a cursed video cassette for a MacGuffin.
By the mid nineties the development of the scary movie in western markets had ground to a halt. Scream (1996) was a mere blip on the radar; with only a couple of exceptions (I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998)) most of the horror films that followed were not very inspiring. Fresh ideas were non-existent. To the east there was an equal lack of novel frights, until Japanese director Hideo Nakata was tasked with creating a big screen adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel Ring.
The Japanese movie industry is younger than that of Hollywood, at least in its current incarnation. The end of the Second World War produced a shift in Japanese traditions. Much of what had gone before was changed by a gradual seepage of Western culture. Epic monster movie King Kong (1933) was the first Hollywood movie to affect Japanese filmmaking, inspiring Ishiro Honda to create Godzilla (1954) as a commentary on the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The beast became a Japanese icon and inspired an industry of imitators (Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster (1964)) that stomped a steady path of destruction right up to the late sixties.
The seventies saw a turning of these now Japanese cultural icons into anti-heroes and horror cinema moved into aping the success of Hammer Horror staples (Lake of Dracula (1971), Evil of Dracula (1974)). In another mirroring of western cinema, the eighties saw gore take hold as Asian directors reacted to the blood splattered output of the Hollywood slasher genre (Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Evil Dead Trap (1988)). But away from the influences of Hollywood Japanese culture had its own brand of scary art.
The figure head of frightful Japanese fiction in years gone by was the “Yurei”. These ghostly apparitions are tied to the physical world by a strong emotional feeling that prevents them from reaching a state of peaceful rest. Typically female, these spirits are characterized by their traditional white funeral costume and long dark hair (Japanese women often wearing their hair pinned up and only letting it down in death). The “Onryo” is the most popular form, a ghost that has returned from death to seek vengeance. Utilised in Japanese folklore for centuries, the “kaiden” tales of old, their influence on post-war horror cinema was fleeting but memorable. Films such as Kwaidan (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) used the “Yurei” ideals to terrific affect, but it was Onibaba (1964) that best encapsulated the essence of traditional Japanese horror. These were passing dalliances though and as time went on the influence of these customary terrors lessened. In the literary world it fell to former school teacher Koji Suzuki to begin the resurgence of Japanese horror ideals.
In 1991, with one finished novel under his belt (Rakuen aka. Paradise), Suzuki published Ringu aka Ring. The story explored the simultaneous deaths of four teenagers, revealed to be caused by a mysterious videotape. When viewed the tape causes the viewers death in exactly one weeks time. Suzuki’s book was moderately successful upon release, enough to prompt Fuji Television to turn the tale into a made-for-television movie, Ring: Kanzenban (1995). One month after broadcast Suzuki released his sequel to Ring entitled Rasen aka Spiral. The book was well publicised and well received, the cinematic rights to both Spiral and Ring snapped up by Asmik Ace Entertainment and Omega Project as a joint venture. The first step was to bring Ring to cinema screens and Suzuki had just the right director in mind.
Despite being at the start of his directorial career Hideo Nakata had shown strong potential as a thriller director. His second feature film, Don’t Look Up (1996) was imbued with the spirit of Japanese horror directors of old. It was this spooky tale of a ghostly actress, and the subtle style of presentation, that had caught Suzuki’s eye. Its understated eeriness would be perfect for an adaptation of Ring and having been offered the project Nakata accepted the task of directing. The resulting movie achieved more than both Suzuki and Nakata could have anticipated. By the time Ring (1998) had come to prominence in Western markets it had kick started a new era in Japanese cinema, abbreviated to J-horror in the west, that soon became the envy of filmmakers the world over.
Ring took Suzuki’s story premise and with the aid of screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi crafted one of the finest scary tales of all time. We are first introduced to two teens who discuss a cursed videotape that once seen kills the viewer in exactly seven days time. One of the teens admits to watching just such a tape a week ago, and subsequently receives a disturbing phone call. Shortly after, the teen is killed by an unseen presence. Reiko, a local journalist, investigates the videotape and discovers that four teens died simultaneously after watching the cassette, one of which was her niece Tomoko. Digging further Reiko discovers that the teenagers rented a remote cabin. Reiko discovers and searches through the cabin finding an unlabelled video containing a number of unrelated, disturbing images. Having viewed the tape, the phone rings and Reiko realises she is now under the seven day curse herself.
To get to the bottom of the mystery and save her own life Reiko enlists the help of her ex-husband Ryuji who also watches a copy of video. Deciphering the images on the tape the pair are led to Izu Oshima Island where they learn of a psychic named Shizuko Yamamura. It is Yamamura’s murdered daughter Sadako that made the tape. Killed by her own father Sadako’s vengeful spirit is responsible for the murders of the four teenagers. Seeking to appease the spirit the couple uncover Sadako’s body in a well under the cabin. When Reiko’s deadline passes without incident they believe that they have broken the curse. But when Ryuji dies shortly after, Reiko realises that it was not uncovering Sadako’s body that saved her, it was copying Sadako’s videotape and showing it to Ryuji. The only method of saving someone is to spread the cursed video. The story ends with Reiko racing to make a further copy of the tape in order to save her son, who also viewed it.
The changes to Suzuki’s novel by Takahashi moved an already chilling story into scary nirvana. Suzuki’s book was more concerned with the science and medical basis of the virus itself, while Nakata’s Ring grabbed hold of the supernatural elements and ran with them. Sadako became less the victim and more the villain as opposed to the virus as an insentient disease, bringing death with no motive. Invoking the vengeful spirit in the “Yurei” tradition, Sadako was given the startling ability to will someone to death. Channelling this time-honoured Japanese horror through a modern appliance was Suzuki’s concept though and a brilliant choice it was. It was perhaps the first time a device as everyday and familiar as a videotape was used as a horror mechanism (certainly since Paul Golding’s Pulse (1988)); how fitting that this idea came from the country that is always a technological frontrunner.
The videotape itself was the first narrative spark of genius. Having established that the videotape is the “killer” of the piece Nakata took the bold step of revealing the tape’s contents barely halfway through the film. But far from killing off the viewer, this ominous collection of static and image deepened the mystery still. As the explanations for each image become clear we tip-toe towards a conclusion in the murder mystery mould, a crime revealed and atoned for in its discovery. But the second spark of brilliance flips the story on its head in terrifying fashion, the concluding twist that ensured Ring was the flashpoint for an Asian horror resurgence.
A narrative addition created by Takahashi, like all landmark moments in cinema history it was ripe for mimicking (see the awful Scary Movie 3 (2003)). But its power remains undiminished. How terrifying it must have been for those that viewed Ring prior to the movies breakout success; imagine watching Sadako crawl out of Ryuji’s television with no prior knowledge that it was going to happen. It is a wonder there were no distorted Ryuji-esque faces at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Films where Ring first made its intentions known in 1999. The idea of someone literally being scared to death was a new cinematic device and so bloodcurdlingly simple horror filmmakers wondered why no one had tapped into it before.
Filming the proceeding chills, Nakata struck the most supreme blow for subtle horror thrills that has ever been landed. Slowly paced to allow the dark, sterile atmosphere of its rain-soaked settings to envelope the viewer, Nakata abandoned many of the flashy camera tricks of modern cinema to allow the story to become the star. Amongst the narrative Nakata sprinkled delicate moments to chill the spine, a soft puff of wind, the brief movement of figure over a shoulder, that ensured a sinister tone throughout. It is the cinematic equivalent of lying in bed at night and questioning whether you heard a foreboding noise or whether your imagination is running haywire. That Nakata had the nerve to reveal, with a mind-blowing finale, that it was not the viewer’s imagination after all showed great courage of artistic conviction. Many of the frights are not scares at all, a mere accumulation of unnerving stimuli tacked onto a unique, sometimes illogical mystery story (Ryuji’s odd psychic powers, story progression that relies on Reiko’s intuitive hunches and flights of fancy). But to describe them as such is to sell them short. It is how Nakata presented these images that produced a new era in horror cinema, a style and presentation that would be aspired to by directors in both Asia and Hollywood.
Complimenting Nakata’s work behind the camera were some wonderful performances in front of it. The central pairing of Reiko and Ryuji were crafted beautifully by Nanako Matsushima and Hiroyuki Sanada respectively. Sanada, somewhat of a veteran by the time he landed the role of Ryuji, lends weight to the proceedings and together with the less experienced Matsushima creates great sympathy for the lead couple. A genuine history underpins their relationship, produced by the naturalistic interplay between the two. An affective Kenji Kawai soundtrack completes the package, accompanying Nakata’s carefully constructed composition and providing striking cues when the action calls for an aural assault to supplement the visual one.
Ring’s reception was astounding. It quickly became the highest grossing horror film of all time in Japan, the crowning of this new champion of scares for once living up to the preceding hype. The sheer amount of money it garnered was enough to make Western audiences sit up and take notice. What followed was a discovery and a rediscovery; Asian filmmakers rediscovered the joys of traditional ghost stories whilst American and European film fans discovered the newly labelled J-horror genre, relishing its unique scares.
The most obvious next step was for a Ring sequel. Asmik Ace Entertainment and Omega Project already had that angle covered, employing Joji Iida to film Rasen (1998) alongside Ring with the same cast. In an unusual move Rasen was released at the same time as Ring and even played as a double feature in some theatres. It was a poor choice though. Rasen retained the pseudo-scientific elements of Suzuki’s follow-up novel but they now sat uncomfortably against the spiritual ingredients of Nakata’s movie. The fact that Rasen’s conclusion invalidated the climax of Ring by placing hero Ryuji in cahoots with the villainous Sadako did not help either.
The success of Nakata’s movie also inspired Fuji Television to remake Ring as a twelve part television series, combining the plots of both Ring and Rasen. Released in 1999 Ring: Saishusho aka Ring: The Final Chapter was a rare example of a television serial capturing genuine frights. Fuji attempted to repeat their success with another thirteen part series. Originally looking to bring Suzuki’s third novel in his Ring trilogy, entitled Rupu aka Loop, to the small screen they instead opted to adapt Rasen as its own feature, Rasen (1999). The same year a deal was struck to make a Korean Ring remake, The Ring Virus (1999). This strict re-filming followed Nakata’s movie incredibly closely, to the detriment of its scares, which came across as dry reiterations.
The disappointment of Ring’s cinematic sequel was covered up in 1999 when Nakata set about creating a whole new part two, Ring 2 (1999). With Takahashi back on writing duties the film picked up almost directly after the first part, with Sadako’s body lying in the morgue. Two story threads ran in parallel, another investigation into the videotape, and the fallout of Ryuji’s death for Reiko and her son. Unfortunately, Nakata made the mistake of relying on too many flashbacks to move along what should have been a fresh story. The chaotic finale also failed to live up to Ring’s shock twist climax. Fans and studio heads should have been given fair warning by Nakata’s statement that he wanted his Ring follow-up to be the Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) of his saga; hardly the best horror sequel to pin your cinematic aspirations to.
But fans were appeased a year later with the release of the oddly titled Ring 0: Birthday (2000). Based on Suzuki’s short story Lemonheart and set thirty years before the events of Ring, the film follows a nineteen year old Sadako as she joins a troupe of actors. As Sadako battles with the onset of her psychic powers, it is revealed that there is a second Sadako, a more dangerous version of herself. It is the struggle between the two and the inevitable confinement down the well that provides the drama. Nakata vacated the director’s chair, and Norio Tsuruta stepped in. The fresh inspiration Tsuruta brought ensured the frights were as close to the original films as any movie had reached in the subsequent two years. The set-upon psychic teen parallels with Carrie (1976) were fairly obvious but the quality in dread infused atmosphere and hair-raising set pieces, most notably Sadako’s forest set stalking in the final act, were welcomed by fans. It was the coda Nakata’s original movie deserved and as good a sequel horror fans could have rightly wished for.
Ring 0 aside, the conventions set down by Ring were largely ignored by subsequent Ring outings. Not so the J-horror output that exploded in Ring’s wake. Though there were a good number of lank haired Ring wannabes, there were thankfully a lot of other movies dripping with originality. For a five year span following Ring it was impossible to navigate the theatres of south-east Asia without tripping over a pile of terrifying films. Audition (1999), The Isle (2000), Dark Water (2002), The Eye (2002), Phone (2002), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), Into the Mirror (2003),and The Ghost (2004) were just some of the astounding movies that nabbed small Ring threads and styles (modern technology, vengeful spirits, understated terror, darkly lit set pieces) and turned them into full blown fright fests. It marked the first significant new era in horror cinema since the slasher boom of the late seventies, but unlike that genre of ever diminishing quality the Asian horror scene produced a steady stream of excellent pictures for fans to enjoy.
Rather than step up to the challenge laid down by the Asian horror explosion, Hollywood opted for the lazy route of remaking as many of the top eastern fright films as it could. Making the assumption that fans would not want to watch subtitled horror films, the first picture to get the American treatment was Ring. Released in 2002, The Ring (2002) had Gore Verbinski on directing duties and Ehren Krueger on board to write the script. Far from a failed horror movie, The Ring just had too much to live up to. Nakata’s original had the most affective aura of unease in recent cinema history; Verbinski attempted to replicate this by ladling on as much subliminal imagery as possible. He also acquired the talents of effects guru Rick Baker to work on the terrified corpses Samara (the renamed Sadako) left behind. The results were fantastic, as evidenced early on by the gapping maw of Amber Tamblyn. But this focus on the dead bodies discovered shifted the fear away from Samara and pointed it at a typical westernised fear of death.
The resulting picture was a slightly depressing, gloomy affair, topped off by an out of the television crawl that was nowhere near as petrifying as Nakatas. The movie racked in $128million in its domestic run alone, more than enough to ensure a sequel and a host of failed Hollywood J-horror remakes (Dark Water (2005), Pulse (2006), Shutter (2008), The Eye (2008)). Dreamworks at least had the good sense to hire Nakata for The Ring Two (2005) but the director was handicapped by a terrible Ehran Krueger script. Post production meddling by the studio only worsened the product, including the addition of an “it was all just a dream” conclusion.
They hey-day of J-horror eventually faded and the Ring franchise was left alone for a few years until Sadako 3D (2012) arrived to take advantage of new 3D theatre technology. Canonically a sequel to Rasen (1998), poor reviews didn’t dissuade viewers and it scored a large box office take, more than enough for a sequel a year later, Sadako 3D 2 (2013). Taking cues from the ‘Godzilla Versus’ films of the sixties and seventies, the Ring franchise was combined with The Grudge franchise for Sadako vs Kayako (2016) three years later. This time fans did take notice of the poor reviews and the movie underperformed financially. Meanwhile Rings (2017) arrived as the third film in the American made Rings series, but got bogged down in an overly convoluted origins plot; all it had left to offer were cheap jump scares.
Arriving when it did, Nakata’s Ring was the model of perfect timing. Horror fans were primed for a new explosion within the genre, and the movie gave it to them, opening new doors to spooky realms most fans did not even know existed. Ring was also a fitting epitaph for that stalwart of horror viewing, the humble video cassette. In 1998 the DVD was poised to take over from the cumbersome VHS; as a homage to all that the video had provided fans, Ring was a fitting epitaph. Not only was a video at the centre of its creepy plot, it also stood as unique in its presentation on video. If a viewer wanted to heighten the anxiety caused by watching Ring they only had to pop a VHS copy of the movie into their tired VCR and curl up in an armchair. Of course, finding Ring on video these days would be a tricky task, but for enhancing further what is one of the scariest movies ever made such a search would be well worth the effort.
See also Ring: Kanzenban (1995), Rasen (1998), Ring: The Final Chapter (1998), The Ring Virus (1999), Rasen (1999), Ring 2 (1999), Ring 0: Birthday (2000), The Ring (2002), The Ring Two (2005), Sadako 3D (2012), Sadako 3D 2 (2013), Sadako vs Kayako (2016), Rings (2017)