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They Should Bite!: The Ring, Punch-Drunk Love and other Horror Movies

By Ivan Lerner

The Ring has a great and simple premise--that if you watch a certain videotape, in seven days you will die. But while there are some scares, and a nice mood of tension is maintained, this movie just doesn't have any teeth. It's not the grueling experience it should be.

Based on a wildly successful series of Japanese horror movies, which in turn were inspired by Koji SuzukiÁs book, the movie begins well enough. A week after she watches a strange video on a trip to a cabin in the woods, a teenage girl in perfect health dies a mysterious death, her face a dreadful rictus of pain (great makeup from special effects legend Rick Baker). When Rachel (played by Naomi Watts), the unfortunate girlÁs aunt and a reporter, begins to investigate the weird fatality, it turns out that all three other kids on the camping trip died, too--and at exactly the same time as Rachel's niece....

Rachel finds the cabin and the tape and watches it in a very effective and creepy scene. The deadly video itself is fun enough full of bizarre and malevolent imagery, with bits of audio/visual dementia that may or may not be clues. ItÁs a bizarre stream of grotesque images: a woman in a mirror, a spinning chair, a giant centipede, dead horses on the beach, a face covered by hair, and so on. If youÁre unfamiliar with Luis Bu≤uel/Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou or David Lynch's Eraserhead, youÁll really be impressed. As soon as the tape ends, Rachel gets a phone call. SheÁs got seven days, a creepy voice tells her, then hangs up.

It's a pretty cool set up for a ghost story, and during the course of the flick there are some genuine scares and creepy set pieces. There's a high level of craftsmanship here, and the technicians should all be commended for their hard work. But the passion (or psychosis) of a director with vision--someone with the desire to sink his teeth into your arm and never let go--is missing

Good modern horror movies tap into our primal fear centers, get under our skin; they bite. They make us scared of the dark, or won't let us go to sleep, or keep us jumpy after we've left the theater. A good horror movie (think Alien or Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Blair Witch Project) needs to be ferocious and uncivilized: ready and able to turn the thumbscrews until we can't take it anymore--and then turn them a little more. I don't mean that the flick has to be a bloodbath, I mean the film should be unrelenting, nasty. Look at Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting (not the shit remake): you never see the ghosts, there's no gore and only one special effect of note, but the flick is scary. It's the same with The Exorcist: from the beginning the film maintains a feeling of dread as thick as molasses, starting with the unnerving scene of the dogs fighting in the desert, the soundtrack thick with their ominous growls and barks. Later, when the movie does become a special-effects gross-out, it does so in an effective and logical manner.

And good horror movies also often reach beyond the gross-out or pure fear to explore unsettling themes--socio-political, philosophical, religious. Because they're unfettered by propriety, horror movies can confront such topics with a greater, more honest passion as well, making these horror movies more "true" than your standard "normal" fare.

The Shining is really about alcoholism (Look what happens when daddy starts drinkin' again!), while It's Alive and Rosemary's Baby touch on the fear of parenthood. The Hills Have Eyes is about class warfare. The original 1968 black-and-white Night of the Living Dead touched base with practically all of the social turmoil of the 1960s, and in its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), director George Romero created a blood-splattered Technicolor satire of modern consumerism. In his raw and excellent The Brood, writer-director David Cronenberg used his own painful divorce and subsequent ugly child custody case as source material for his tale of mutant killer children and their evil mother, and John Carpenter's underrated The Thing (1982) was one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the fear of AIDS.

Are these filmmakers using horror films to explore new or uncomfortable themes, or are they using new or uncomfortable themes to freak out an audience more? It's six of one, half a dozen of another in my opinion; I like it when things get messy like this, when the lines of inspiration get blurred.

There are times, though, when there's no underlying theme whatsoever. Flicks like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies or Dario Argento's Suspiria succeed because these filmmakers are geniuses of manipulative cinema. Their whole reason for being at that specific moment in time is to scare the living shit out of you in the coolest way possible.

Usually, thereÁs one person behind a horror movie, someone with that kind of unique vision. I know that that's how it is with all good films, but I feel that it's even more necessary with a horror movie. To some degree, all horror movie directors have to be professional sadists: you have to like to torture people.

Aside from creating the Budweiser frogs when he was in advertising, there is nothing The Ring's director, Gore Verbinski, has done before to indicate that this is in any way a "personal" effort. His two previous efforts were Mousehunt and The Mexican, also released by Dreamworks SKG, and I get the impression that he's just a hired hand for that company.

The Ring has a great opportunity to touch upon the phenomenon of urban legends, and lets it go. Nor does the movie delve into any themes that might give a viewer shivers or food for thought. There's a good parents/bad parents motif that is never explored. What could have been the flick's most potent theme--the corrosive, corrupting and ultimately destructive influence of television--is wasted. These people are watching TV, and then dying! It's the elephant in the room and the filmmakers ignore it.

Naomi Watts gave a great performance in Mulholland Drive, and because of that, and because I don't have much faith in Verbinski's ability to direct actors, I don't blame her for her work in this film. She's a game performer, and never breaks character. But that's part of the problem: as she gets closer and closer to her deadline (pun intended), she maintains her even-keeled demeanor, like a plucky Nancy Drew. She's concerned (after all, this tape is going to kill her), but she never seems on the verge of freaking out (after all, this tape is going to kill her!) Nor does Verbinski point her in what might be an even more interesting direction: have Rachel become more cold and robotic as she gets closer to her appointed time of death. As it was, I found myself shocked by her inexplicable calm. It was actually distracting--even after she has gained enough spooky evidence to know that something supernatural is happening, she stays the same.

The Ring is a typical "beat the clock" flick that never really kicks into high gear because you donÁt believe for a moment that these filmmakers are crazy enough to follow through with their threats. Why was Psycho so groundbreaking? Because Hitchcock was willing to kill off his star in the first half-hour! After that, the audience knew that all bets were off. The same sort of thing happened in David Fincher's equally groundbreaking Seven, whose cinematographic style The Ring liberally borrows from. There Fincher upped the ante and subverted the rules of the serial killer genre until Seven had nowhere else to go but to Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box. (I've heard complaints from some viewers saying that they "saw it coming." Well and good, I reply, but before Seven, when did anybody ever go so far as to actually do it in a major Hollywood movie?)

John Carpenter is another director who doesnÁt back down. For him, the fate of the world is always in the balance. He refers to his films The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness as his "Apocalypse Trilogy," and that--his willingness to end it all--is what makes his films so great. Some folks might gripe about CarpenterÁs "twist" endings, but I like how they add to the mood of doom and gloom.

On the surface, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest picture, Punch-Drunk Love, is not a horror picture (no jokes about Adam Sandler's earlier career, please). But Punch-Drunk Love touches on so many of our fears, and uses the medium of film so well to disturb and confound the audience, that it's almost the only way I can deal with it. I found Anderson's film profoundly unnerving and left the theater feeling as if I had just seen a really good horror movie. If Boogie Nights was Anderson's Scorsese movie, and Magnolia his Robert Altman film, then Punch-Drunk Love is his David Lynch movie: Intense, and genuine, with far more bite than The Ring.


The Ring

Released by Dreamworks SKG

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Written by Ehren Kruger

Based on the novel by Koji Suzuki and (uncredited) Hiroshi TakahashiÁs 1998 screenplay

Punch-Drunk Love

Released by Revolution/New Line/Columbia

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Ivan Lerner does stuff and tries not to get caught.

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