The Best Horror Movie of 1998: Ringu

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The Best Horror Movie of 1998: Ringu

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

No one is going to volunteer this as a historically great year, but 1998 at least manages to mostly break the “odd year/even year” pattern of variable horror film quality that had been plaguing the genre throughout the 1990s. From the start of the decade, odd years had proven to yield substantially stronger lineups than the even ones, but 1998 is actually pretty solid, even if it can’t claim any indisputable classics. What it can claim is a combination of competent comic, novel and TV adaptations, along with a few influential outliers.

Certainly, Blade is a film that somehow turned out better than most anyone would have expected from an adaptation of a B-tier Marvel character, several years before X-Men and Spider-Man announced the arrival of the modern comic book movie. Adopting the mission of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing for a modern generation on the eve of The Matrix, Wesley Snipes’ Blade possessed an unexpected cool that was enhanced by above-average choreography and dynamic cinematography. Most genre fans will still swear by Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II as the height of the series, but the original also possesses strength in simplicity.

The Faculty, meanwhile, is perhaps the “most ’90s” of all the films to be spawned by the lessons learned by the industry in the post-Scream era. Crawling with buzzy teen talent and supported by a plethora of recognizable faces, it’s one of the strangest and most glorious ensemble casts ever assembled in a film that can legitimately be referred to as horror. It’s also one of those films that has aged into something that is more satisfying to consume now than it was in 1998—a living time capsule of the era that can be enjoyed both ironically and sincerely, thanks to a witty Kevin Williamson script and a story that updates the DNA of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with an injection of Gen X cynicism. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s never anything short of fun.

Other notables for 1998 include the surprisingly straight-faced Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, which injected real scares into the animated framework of the classic series while boasting what is by far the best animation that Scoob and the gang have ever seen, and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, which attempted to revive Michael Myers in a post-Scream world, with limited success. The latter is curiously bloodless, lacking in the scares department and felt a bit dated even in 1998, seemingly failing to adapt to a sea-change event that had shifted things substantially even since 1995’s Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers. By this point, audiences expected something different from their slasher icons, and the Halloween series slouched onward, in the direction of 2002’s abysmal Halloween: Resurrection.

Finally, this year’s The Last Broadcast is notable for being the far less known precursor to The Blair Witch Project in the found footage horror department, similarly depicting the “people in the woods with a camera” plotting of the original Blair Witch, but lacking that film’s extraordinarily effective marketing. Still, credit where credit is due: Unless you count the likes of Cannibal Holocaust, you might be able to call it the first full-on, found footage horror feature, a gimmick that would become ubiquitous in the late 2000s.

1998 Honorable Mentions: Blade, The Faculty, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, The X-Files, Apt Pupil, Fallen, The Quiet Family, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Urban Legend, The Last Broadcast

The Film: Ringu, aka Ring
Director: Hideo Nakata

Ringu is a clear case of simply taking an older cinematic structure and reapplying it to a more modern era, rediscovering what makes old tropes work in the process. The idea of a “cursed item” that kills its user is as old as the concept of horror cinema, stretching back into distant folklore—Ring simply appropriated that structure and chose a new item emblematic of its era: The VHS tape. It was a perfectly chosen symbol of the age, even coming as it did at the tail end of the VHS home video era, in the sense that the audience couldn’t help but consider the presence of that very “cursed object” in their own home. The fact that many home viewers were consuming Ringu via their own VCR sets was a powerful element of the experience that is easy to overlook in the streaming age.

At the heart of this tale, we have what is essentially a campfire urban legend—those who transgress by doing this forbidden act (watching the cursed tape) will inevitably die in seven days. There’s theatricality inherent to this curse, as watching the tape doesn’t simply cause one to drop over dead the instant it ends. Rather, you’re left to stew with your worry and guilt. An obvious ticking clock has been started, giving us all of the dramatic impetus we’ll ever need.

Ringu was a big success in Japan, with its modernization of traditional yurei (essentially the equivalent of Western ghosts) tropes supported by fine performances and memorably dour production design and drab colors that give the film an oppressive feel. But it’s the film’s effect in the West that ultimately proved to be its most influential legacy. Enough adventurous viewers eventually saw Ringu to lead to the development of DreamWorks’ The Ring with Naomi Watts, which proved to be a true cultural phenomenon—it actually made even more at the box office in Japan than the original did. And with the runaway success of The Ring came a fresh wave of what soon became termed as “J-horror” remakes, despite the presence of countries such as Korea (A Tale of Two Sisters) and Hong Kong (The Eye) as well. These films became one of the prevailing aspects of 2000s horror in the U.S. in the process, from The Grudge series and Dark Water, to Shutter, One Missed Call, Pulse, The Uninvited and more. At the same time, the trend toward producing these films in the West only encouraged more horror production in the East as well.

Back in 1998, however, Ringu mostly gets by with slow-burn subtlety, shattered by effective moments of catharsis. It’s a slow, patient film, only occasionally turning to VFX to get its point across. Those brief CGI sequences used here aren’t as impressive as the more polished stuff in the American remake, but the gritty practical effects, such as the fingernails peeling off Sadako’s ghostly, gnarled hands, are even more disturbing.

All in all, Ringu can accurately lay claim to being one of the most influential horror films of the last two decades, in both the Japanese and U.S. markets. Even today, in films like the Ring/Grudge crossover Sadako vs. Kayako, it continues to bear fruit.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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