Just labeling the new horror film The Ring an urban-legend movie makes it sound a lot riskier than it is. Although it's based on a blockbuster Japanese film series (derived from a Japanese novel series) about a videotape that kills, what we have here is a suburban-legend movie stripped of rough edges and cut off from any depth that might have made it insidiously haunting.
When I think of an urban-legend movie, I think of resonant junk like the Chicago-set Candyman, which shamelessly played on our fear of public housing. In The Ring, the heroine, a hard-driving newspaper reporter named Rachel (Naomi Watts), resides in damp Seattle; so does her bohemian photographer and video-geek ex-lover Noah (Martin Henderson). But she lives the careerist, solipsistic life that two decades ago gave young urban professionals a bad name (yuppies). And, after Rachel learns that the tape might have killed her niece, the action unfolds in picturesque areas she reaches in eye-popping car rides and a ferry trip.
More important, as the movie unravels, it grows less connected to our common phobias and more to our memories of gothic movies. The Ring does have a great gimmick, and it never stops working. According to the myth, after anyone watches a certain unmarked videocassette - containing ersatz-David-Lynch images of alienation and decay - the phone rings, a ghastly voice hisses "seven days," and the viewer dies within a week.
But, as in Poltergeist, another movie with a demonic-video come-on, the main action becomes a melange of spectral vengeance, this time rooted in such routine Halloween settings as a lonely mountain cabin, a ravaged horse farm, and a forbidding mental institution.
For horror kitsch to become classic, it needs to hook an audience's group conscience or psychology, the way Rosemary's Baby played on parents' fears of how their unborn children will turn out. The Ring doesn't have the wiliness or conviction to exploit either a single mother's guilt over child neglect or our collective queasiness over potential bad seeds. It merely alternates these themes and toys with them.
Rachel's sleek shallowness is apparent right from the start. Talking to the concerned teacher of her young son, Aidan (David Dorfman), she breezes by the fact that her dead niece was the boy's best friend until the teacher provides evidence that Aidan has started to act like the kid in The Sixth Sense. Even after Rachel grows convinced that the killer tape has offed her niece and that Aidan has cottoned on to the murder, she puts him in danger.
But it all plays out on the level of a plot hook, like the missing-son subplot in Minority Report, another DreamWorks production. And you can't resent Rachel's drive, because that and Watts' own fervor in the role are all that keep the movie going. Of course, Watts can't deliver the brilliance she showed in Lynch's Mulholland Drive; it's more like the Witherspoonesque glitter of an actress champing at the bit for stardom.
Happily, the work of director Gore Verbinski belies his first name. Even when the body count rises and the action becomes disappointingly banal, he avoids the blood effects. He gets the audience to jump with jolting shifts of perspective achieved by roller-coaster camera moves.
But Ehren Kruger's script is the terror-film counterpart to last spring's romantic fizzle Life or Something Like It, which also focused on a careerist Seattle journalist (Angelina Jolie) and a tousle-haired cameraman (Edward Burns) who helps her out when she thinks she has one week left to live. There's more life, or something like it, in The Ring. But not enough.
Starring Naomi Watts
Directed by Gore Verbinsky
Released by DreamWorks
Time 115 minutes