Now here’s a funny thing – funny peculiar, that is. In which modern entertainment medium would you, gentle and discerning reader, expect to encounter the most imaginative and faithful treatment of the ghost stories of M.R. James? Did someone at the back mumble ‘the BBC around Christmas time’? O ye of narrow cultural horizons! By far the best attempt at a Jamesian spook story I have come across in recent years is a teen-orientated Japanese horror movie based on a saga originally published as an adult comic (or graphic novel, as hairy middle-aged blokes in death metal T-shirts insist on calling such things). The film is Ring, and it is available on video for rent or to buy, along with its sequel.
Anyone who doesn’t like films with subtitles should stop reading now. Anyone still with us needs to know a few things. Firstly, not all Japanese films feature frequent soulless copulation or crazy kung-fu violence. Ring has neither. Lest I should lose my audience entirely, what we do get is a well-paced supernatural thriller that works, in large part, thanks to understated direction, good central performances, and a plot that takes both its basic premise and some of its best shocks from the Provost of Eton’s tales.
The ring of the title is figurative – a group of schoolchildren circulate a mysterious video that one of them supposedly recorded by chance, while on holiday in a remote maritime province. Anyone who sees the video (which features a series of surreally-disjointed but not actually horrific scenes) supposedly dies exactly seven days later. An urban legend, of course; but kids do die, and the viewer is left in no doubt that Something is going on. A young journalist investigates, and a chain of events is set in motion that leads to revelations, terrors and a neat ending that leaves room for Ring 2.
Ring contains explicit nods to several stories by M.R. James: a claustrophic descent into a well recalls ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’; the arrival of the deadly ‘thing’, Sadako, suggests ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’; and the actual process whereby people are successively doomed is a straight lift from ‘Casting the Runes’, perhaps by way of the British film Curse of the Demon. James is not the only influence. There are nods to Lovecraft, science fiction B-movies, and Japanese folklore. You’d think this would make for a terrible mess, but instead Ring is a remarkably coherent and effective film. It is also very engaging, especially as the implications of the video curse become clear to the reporter, who has a small son.
Ring 2 is not quite as good as the first film – perhaps inevitably. However, this is not because of the simple problem of ‘sequelitis’, the curse of so many Hollywood shocker franchises. While there is a sense that good ideas from the first film are being rehashed, the real problem is that the story virtually marks time. In Ring we are told that the terrifying Sadako’s father was not human, and Ring 2 repeats the claim without adding any extra data. Something Lovecraftian here, methinks, but what? The set pieces, while well-executed, are less shocking, with one exception – a cracking scene in a video editing suite, which returns to Jamesian horror on the individual level. Overall, though, we get a Nigel Kneale set up – scientists tampering with dark forces, as in The Stone Tape and Quatermass and the Pit. Indeed, both Kneale’s classics are more than hinted at, particularly in a well-executed but rather predictable finale. Ring 2 is eminently watchable as science fiction, but I hope that the next instalment (if there is one) returns to the darker terrors of the original.*