Both are arty, but differ in delivery: vague impressionism versus creepy surrealism.
The myth of the “snuff” film has persisted as long as there has been live-action movies committed to celluloid. It wasn’t long before the subversive element crept into filmdom and an urban legend was born: what if someone, somewhere captured a real death on camera? That would be the ultimate in voyeurism, the ultimate in shock cinema. Of course, such a thing is doubtful to really exist, but the notion of it is where the real intrigue lies.
Such is the underpinnings behind two recent horror movies with a slight twist: watch the snuff and you die in a few days. In an effort to save the genre from boredom, both films couple the snuff concept with the age-old ghost yarn. And of course the results vary.
The first, Feardotcom, adds a twist to the snuff plot line. By changing the method of distribution (usually these snuff films are rumored to exist on VHS tape for example), Feardotcom — as its title would imply — brings the mayhem directly to the internet.
Wacko disgruntled Dr. Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea, in equal parts creepy and hammy) has taken to the web with his service: killing on camera. Log onto his website and watch as he dices, dissects, and disembowels innocent victims. In the post-advertisement internet culture where pop-up banners and spam email have yielded less returns than the 2002 bear market, Pratt brings atrocious meaning to subscription-based content. The catch: his website allegedly kills you within 48 hours of viewing the guignol gore.
Chasing him is detective Mike Reilly (Stephen “Blade” Dorff). Poor Reilly is trapped in the cliches of most movie detectives — rugged 4 o’clock shadow, general unkemptness, loner egomania, leather wardrobe.
His ineffectual partner Sykes (cult hero Jeffrey Combs, utterly wasted here) does little more than fill in expositional dialog.
Reilly finds better help in the Department of Health. Enter specialist Terry Huston (the excellent Natascha McElhone, trying hard to conceal her endearing Irish lilt). She’s been following the case of bizarre deaths as a health emergency. The two team up on the scene of the crime and eventually begin sharing information, as well as awkward glances. The implied love interest between the two is completely tacked on and forced, but Huston remains a strong heroine. The two also share a mutual fervency for the case since both eventually view Pratt’s website, thus making the resolution a race against the clock.
Directed by William Malone, Feardotcom is a real stinker. He doesn’t really have a solid foundation for his movie, and the actors know it. Rea’s Pratt couldn’t write a line of HTML if he was threatened with his life, let alone orchestrate a full Shockwave animated website. The good guys bumble about from scene to scene, connecting the dots to the inevitable end. That conclusion of course (without ruining any surprises) is the now-waning guideline of all ghost stories: 1. The ghost is question may or may not be the true source of evil. 2. Blood may instead be on the hands of the living bad guys. 3. Said bad guys most likely have wronged the ghosts, pre-death. 4. Wronged ghosts now haunt the living, both the guilty and the innocent, posthumously exacting their retribution. 5. The innocent may become the next victim unless they figure out the mystery.
It’s a simple formula, one that’s told too often (see A Stir of Echoes), but is occasionally told really well (see The Sixth Sense, The Others, and The Devil’s Backbone).
Add Gore Verbinski’s The Ring to that list of successful ghost tales. His is a remake of the Japanese Ringu, a wildly successful franchise that has spun off sequels and a prequel already. American audiences will most likely see a sequel of our domestic counterpart. The Ring is that good.
For starters, Verbinski understands the concept of restrained subtlety and attention to detail. Instead of sloshing us with buckets of gore (no ironic pun intended), he gets in our heads and shocks us with the anticipation of horror. Hitchcock would be proud. With the exception of a couple very shocking bodily decay scenes, The Ring‘s psychological terror is totally constructed on mood alone.
Rachel Keller (the always captivating Naomi Watts) reprises her best Nancy Drew impression from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. This time, the stakes are no less grave. A no-nonsense reporter, she dons her detective skin after she and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) view a mysterious VHS tape that allegedly kills the viewer in 7 days.
Her reluctant sidekick and ex-husband Noah (Martin Henderson) works at the newspaper media department. He lends his expertise to discover the origin of this tape, and they find that it’s got some otherworldly properties. He too watches it (“very art student stuff”), but soon they all gradually begin a descent into apparent madness. Amazing coincidences occur around them that appear lifted from the surrealist tape.
At the heart of this ghost mystery is Richard Morgan (a brilliant turn by Brian Cox). To elaborate any of his character would be unfair, but suffice it to say his is a saddened one. In a sly turn, the entire snuff sub-genre is turned on its head with his commentary: “You take one person’s tragedy and you force the world to experience it, like spreading sickness.” Here, he’s lamenting to Rachel and her prying nature as a reporter. Yet, the tape itself acts as an invasive symbol of perpetuating personal anguish as public entertainment.
The score by Hans Zimmer is a great piece of thematic mood music. It lingers in the mind as long as Gore’s indelible images.
Both Feardotcom and The Ring hail from a fraternity of arty horror films. The former belongs to a more vague impressionist order, ala The Cell. Scenes are not much more than centerpieces for a phantasmagoria gallery, all slathered together messily.
On the other hand, the latter is a triumph of creepy surrealism. Honing in on the precise incongruity of the common nightmare, The Ring captures true horror that lasts much longer and is ultimately more satisfying.