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Ringing False

Movies | Appropriate for any audience?

Issue: "The 2002 vote," Nov. 2, 2002

Before Halloween each year Hollywood releases horror films. That's not necessarily bad. Historically, the horror genre sometimes has been an effective tool of social critique, philosophical exploration, and simplified dramatization of the battle between good and evil.

A biblical worldview acknowledges the presence and power of evil (sin) in the world while still being firmly rooted in the hope of an ultimate good. Most modern horror films, however, are built on a vividly unbiblical worldview: that unstoppable evil forces exist outside of the natural realm, in a sense superseding common conceptions of good and evil or God and the devil.

Modern horror films also tend to take one of two basic paths: The most common is a lazy approach to shocks and scares that depends on violence and gore. It's hard to sustain suspense over 90 minutes this way, so the gaps are often filled with gratuitous footage of another sort: sex and nudity.

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The Ring (rated PG-13 for disturbing images, bad language, and some drug references), for the most part, falls into a second category. It's the type of horror film that tries its hand at restraint, building suspense through dread and anticipation, layering on moody elements and doling out its "jumpy" scares carefully.

From this perspective, The Ring is moderately successful. Australian actress Naomi Watts does a fine job in the lead as Rachel, a Seattle newspaper reporter investigating her niece's sudden, unexplained death. Her inquiry leads her to a videotape that supposedly kills viewers seven days after they watch it. Rachel watches the tape herself; thus begins the seven-day countdown that frames the film's narrative, as Rachel scrambles to unravel the mystery of the tape before her time is up.

The Ring was stylishly shot and is heavy on atmosphere. Several scenes are truly frightening-there is a thunderous power, for instance, in a sequence involving a crazed horse loose on a packed ferryboat. While free of ambiguous references to biblical prophecy or blatant attacks on faith (a story element that marred last year's The Others), The Ring's story itself is weak. The most director Gore Verbinski seeks is to keep his audience involved in the moment, seemingly unconcerned with any narrative consistency. This damages a film that hopes to achieve both an intellectual and a visceral appeal.

Although there is little graphic violence and no sex, there are plenty of extremely disturbing images in The Ring, making the film entirely inappropriate for a teenage audience. The film deserves a solid "R," not the "PG-13" it received. Whether it is appropriate for any audience at all is another question.

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