"The Ring" opens with a scene straight out of a teen horror movie: A high school girl is trying to scare a friend with the supposedly true story of a haunted videotape -- if you watch it, you die in seven days.
The other girl turns white as a sheet, not because the story scares her, but because she's actually seen the tape -- seven days before.
What follows is an chilling five minutes of eerie goings-on in which director Gore Verbinski ("The Mexican") skillfully winds the audience up like a jack-in-the-box, then sets us jumping at his pleasure with the simplest scare-movie tricks. A TV turns on to static, by itself, immediately after being turned off -- and unplugged. The phone rings menacingly. One girl searches for the other, sees water leaking out from under the bathroom door and s-l-o-w-l-y reaches for the knob.
It's a perfectly executed, very scary scene in which your imagination runs wild while you see...pretty much nothing.
Then "The Ring" goes into a steady decline, mostly because it tries to become a brainy horror movie without bothering to plug its many plot holes large enough to drive anyone with half a brain to distraction.
When one of the girls dies of fright (we're told "her heart just stopped," which is an absurd diagnosis considering her body looks green and half-decayed), her aunt (Naomi Watts, "Mulholland Drive") decides to look into the story of the videotape.
An aggressive investigative reporter who never seems to do any actual work despite being so career-oriented that she neglects her young son (one of those hollow-eyed horror movie moppets who gets creepy visions), she quickly makes a connection to the simultaneous deaths of four other kids who watched the video with her niece (the cops couldn't figure this out?). Then she watches the eerie tape herself, becomes a believer and tries to piece together what it means before the grim reaper comes calling in a week's time.
Adapted from "Ringu," a 1998 smash-hit in Japan, if the plot sounds vaguely familiar it's because a couple months ago the bomb "fear dot com" stole the same idea but changed the videotape to a web site. While that film was completely inept, this one is merely ineffectual. Verbinski spends the rest of the picture following Watts by day (he completely fails to explore or exploit how her imminent death might effect her sleep) as she investigates the images on the black-and-white tape -- a lighthouse, dead horses lying on a beach, a burning tree, a well in a clearing, a long-haired woman in a mirror. These eventually lead her to an island in Puget Sound where a disturbed little girl many have been killed.
But Watts' character (whose soon slips into vacant, interchangeable, pretty blonde heroine mode) is too foolish to garner much sympathy -- she leaves a copy of the tape where her son can find it and watch it, so now his clock is ticking too, and her investigation is sloppy and insultingly easy to second-guess. Meanwhile, the plot is driven by the kind of pointlessly cryptic dialogue that haunts all horror flicks that consider themselves above the genre. Watts asks specific questions of island residents and gets responses like, "See when you live on an island, you catch a cold. It's everybody's cold."
While "The Ring" might be able to slide by on its mighty forbidding atmosphere of fog, chills and latent peril for an hour or so, it's never genuinely scary after that opening scene. The picture doesn't get really stupid, however, until its twist ending that leaves two characters in an alleged dilemma that would be so easy to circumvent it's hard to not feel insulted when the credits roll.