A good horror movie delivers its jolts in small bits, letting us absorb the dread and raising our heart rates. The first American “Ring,” directed by Gore Verbinski (who happens to be back with a new horror film this weekend, “A Cure for Wellness”), was a gray-tinted, rain-soaked, twitchy affair, filled with the sounds of static and piercing frequencies designed to unsettle the human nervous system.
Its shocks are well-timed, giving us enough reason to fear what’s on the other side of various doors while nodding to the time-honored horror tradition of turning a mundane object into a malevolent one. And there is no happy ending — the only way a character can cheat death is to make a copy of the VHS cassette and share it with someone else who then faces the same fate, a viral video before the age of social media. The film ends like a dissonant chord, which makes its message all the more powerful.
Samara herself is by now an iconic figure in the horror oeuvre. (At a recent screening of “Rings,” a woman apparently hired by Paramount ran through the theater in a filthy gown, her hair covering her face, delivering free tickets to a haunted house to audience members.) Shunned by her family, coldly examined by psychologists, thrown down a well by her adopted mother and left to die, Samara was a pitiable figure. But part of the film’s sleight of hand is luring us into sympathy for a child who is eventually transformed into a faceless demon.
The lack of hope in her story and in the film’s premise can be seen as a greater condemnation of our society, embodied in the shuddering apparition that she becomes, a mixture of flickering static and rotting organic material. Samara is both victim and villain, but her appearances are so jarring because she shatters the adage that “it’s just a movie.”
At the beginning of “The Ring,” two teenage girls are watching television, blissfully unaware of the visit they are soon to receive through the set. “I hate television,” one says. “Pick something, I don’t care,” the other replies.
That apathy is part of our own viral problem. At this stage in human history, we can control what we see, read or listen to: We can save it to watch at our leisure; we can binge a show and tweet about it and text someone else at the same time. But the things we watch and scroll through affect us whether we want them to or not, in ways we can’t immediately comprehend. Samara may be a fictional character, but the media we consume has an agency of its own, and that should horrify us more than it seems to. In retrospect, Samara’s slithering, stomach-churning crawl out of a television in the first “Ring” was, in a culture as obsessed with screens as ours, a warning.
The age we exist in is full of visual terrors that are tangible. Like the warped faces of Samara’s victims, we can shift the contours of our identities using various photo apps, smearing ourselves into abstract forms with the swipe of a finger. We can watch a beheading in the palm of our hands. We can live-stream a rape. We can see authorities charged with protecting us instead shoot our fellow citizens in the back. And like the characters in “The Ring,” we try to spare ourselves from the weight of these images by sharing them with others.
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