The Ring At 20: Gore Verbinski's Horror Hit Has Evolved Into A Masterpiece

Gore Verbinski's 2002 re-imagining of "The Ring" was once the most terrifying film in the world to me. A friend brought the DVD over when I was in elementary school and the idea of watching a horror movie was nearly scarier than the act of actually watching one. Nevertheless, our two-hour viewing session of "The Ring," I recall, was pure terror, to the point where I accused her of cursing my DVD player after the credits rolled. The night after I watched it, I mistook my own upright feet under the covers for Samara herself surfacing from under the foot of my bed with the intention of taking me with her back down the well. I screamed bloody murder, waking up my entire family. 

There's no denying the power "The Ring" has as an impactful horror story, one that has made an imprint on millennials and anyone who appreciates what came of the genre in the early aughts. But as I've gotten older, I've realized how multifaceted the film actually is, namely how it functions as a gripping drama nearly better than it does unflinching horror — but I've also realized that only time could show me this duality, and that time, in a way, allows us to enjoy and relate to films to the fullest. 

It certainly allowed me to give "The Ring" a second chance in my life.

Totally terrifying

"The Ring" follows Naomi Watts as Rachel, a reporter whose niece dies suddenly under bizarre circumstances. The event rocks the suburb of Seattle, where even Rachel's young son, Aiden, is affected by the curious death that is seemingly connected to a haunted video tape that starts a week-long timer on your life after you watch it. In seven days, the evil spirit of a young woman named Samara comes to claim your life — and Rachel must do what she can to unravel the puzzle of Samara's motives before the ghost claims her life too.

Let's be real here: "The Ring" is utterly terrifying. Like the Japanese source material before it, "Ringu," the film relies on the idea of pursuit and what it's like to be followed by something you have no power to stop. The concept of a girl coming out of your television set to kill you is innately farfetched, but the grounded tone of "The Ring" makes it feel so urgent and real, like this tape could fall into your possession at any moment through some strange chain of serendipitous events. It was hard to not feel intrinsically part of the terror as you watched "The Ring" in the early 2000s, especially if you were a child. There were no shortage of ways it could come after you, and you knew you weren't prepared for any of them, but your brain wouldn't stop forcing you to think about them, because the terror you had just witnessed loomed so large in your head. Between the film's big bad, Samara, and the imagery of the tape, there's so much to be profoundly unsettled by, and that's before you even account for the gloom and doom of Verbinski's shots and color scheme.

A full-package film

Tone, acting, script, effects, production design, makeup, score — it all works together in Verbinski's vision to create a bulldozer of tension and terror throughout the film's nearly two hour runtime. And it succeeds with flying colors in those collective efforts. I talked up the movie to anyone who would listen for years, that's how deep of an effect its horror had on me in my most formative period. It was, for a long time, the cornerstone of the genre to me; When someone said horror, I thought of "The Ring." 

Now, at 30 years old, I consider the movie very differently. Years after vowing never to watch it again, I picked up "The Ring" and gave it that aforementioned second chance a few years back, with experience and age on my side. We rarely think of age as a good thing nowadays, but only with age can a full, multifaceted perspective of a film actually come through. And it was then that I discovered that "The Ring" is just as much of a gripping drama as it is a neverending horror story.

Horror versus drama

Surprisingly, "The Ring" only has a few scenes that can be considered truly terrifying in and of themselves. And on top of that, it leaves more to the imagination than it gives you visually, putting the onus on the viewer to create the terror ... or not, depending on what the film makes them feel in the moment. When you take those two major death scenes out (one at the beginning and one at the end), it's easy to reframe this film as a drama. After all, it follows the structure of a procedural, with Rachel chasing after some finality in this mysterious case. She's not a cop, but in these kinds of films, a journalist is a worthy lead character replacement. Becoming desensitized (and, for me, learning to love horror over the years) as you grow up allows you to pull away from the purity of the terror you experienced as a child and supplement what you're seeing with elements from other places, like crime dramas, and it works like gangbusters in "The Ring." Plus, the film's core story intrinsically plays like a drama, with its family turmoil and troubled child in the spotlight.

No, you can't classify the movie as a drama alone; Those kills and their gruesome aftermaths are still part of the story, and so is Samara's supernatural ability to torment folks through a videotape and pop out of their televisions. "The Ring" will always be a horror film, but time revealed this duality to me in a way that felt like an epiphany. I can continue to rediscover the films that make up my history, over and over again throughout life. Most things are one-dimensional when you're young, and especially with horror, it's hard to fully grasp some themes because you just haven't experienced that side of the world yet. There are layers to all films, and when time pushes experience upon you, it peels back those layers and gives you a more nuanced and full view of what films are trying to say in their most complete form.

Pulling back the layers

"The Ring" isn't the only film, especially in the horror genre, that "revealed" itself to me over time, which is truly the beauty of the medium. Another great example is "Hostel," a film that utterly petrified me as a child. With a let's-traffic-you-into-a-murder-for-pay-scheme-abroad plotline, I don't think many could blame me for being less than agreeable when I was forced into watching it by my best friend in middle school. But when I watched it again earlier this year, it quickly unfolded as a commentary on wealth, status, and human impulse that I would have never been able to identify from behind the blanket in my friend's basement all those years ago.

"The Ring" is now one of my favorite movies of all time, a sentence I never pictured myself saying when I was younger. But all the experiences of the elapsed time between when I first watched this film to now have changed what was once sheer dread and into admiration. I can see this movie for what it is now, in its entirety, in all its complexities I didn't understand before. Nothing could have ever prepared me for loving and appreciating "The Ring," and it was never something I expected to let back into my life. But how could I not fall for all of those intricacies under the surface that I never noticed before? Being able to see a film with new eyes years later is a blessing I didn't know existed until I rewatched "The Ring." Now I look for this gift in every movie I revisit.