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The Ring: everything you need to know

Image for The Ring: everything you need to know

Like a black-haired, chalk-faced ghoul crawling inexorably out of a well, the Ring cycle refuses to die. Arriving on the international radar with Hideo Nakata’s terrifying 1998 film, Ring is based around the concept of a mysterious and disturbing videotape which, when watched, prompts a ringing phone and seven days to live for the viewer unless the tape is passed on to someone else. Behind the viral curse is the vengeful shade of the murdered Sadako Yamamura, and Ring’s various stories, at their most basic level, usually either involve protagonists trying to stave off their own death, or investigating the weird events, or both. At their least basic level... they can get very, very complicated. With the trailer for the latest instalment, Rings just released, here's a quick primer in what’s gone before.


The Novels

Koji Suzuki's Ring books

Author: Koji Suzuki
Year: 1991 onwards
Country of origin: Japan

It all starts here, with Koji Suzuki’s original novel, first published in Japan in 1991. The basics of what are now the familiar elements of the series are here, but there are, unsurprisingly, differences too. Various characters, names, relationships and locations are different. Sadako is both beautiful and intersex (something most of the films go nowhere near) and is murdered differently, although she still ends up in the well. Maybe most intriguingly, the odd business from the films hinting that Sadako’s father was some sort of sea monster is here fully explained: she’s the result of her mother uncovering a relic from the sea containing the considerable supernatural power of the historical Japanese mystic En no Ozunu. So that’s that settled.

Suzuki has, to date, written five Ring novels and a collection of short stories: Ring, Spiral, Loop, The Birthday, S and Tide, the last of which was published in 2013. Across the books we gradually learn that the "evil" itself isn’t Sadako per-se, but a psychokinetically mutated smallpox virus. Its transmission isn’t limited to videotape either: Ring’s further instalments include devices like cloned Sadakos and a novel one of the characters writes.


Ring: Kanzenban

Director: Chisui Takigawa
Year: 1995
Country of origin: Japan

The first screen adaptation was this 1995 Fuji TV movie by Chisui Takigawa, which hews reasonably faithfully to Suzuki’s novel. That means it’s basically of an entirely different genre to the Ring we know best, coming across as more sci-fi tinged paranormal mystery than straight-down-the-line horror. This film’s Sadako (Ayane Miura) is a hot chick rather than a ghoul, and gets her kit off a lot. "Kanzenban" means "Complete Edition", referring to the video version being a lot more sexually explicit than the one broadcast on TV.


Ring

Director: Hideo Nakata
Year: 1998
Country of origin: Japan

Here’s where it all began for most people (at least outside of Japan). Hideo Nakata’s theatrical film recasts the lead character as a woman called Reiko (Matsushima Nanako) and piles on the scares. The pseudo-science of the book is jettisoned in favour of more terrifying ambiguity, and Sadako (Inou Rei) becomes a black-haired, white faced revenant: a scrawny nightmare even as a child. That doesn’t come from Suzuki. Neither do the alarming contents of the cursed tape, or the film’s most famous sequence, which Nakata admits was inspired by David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Anyone who saw Ring for the first time on Channel 4 in the early 2000s had that scene completely ruined for them by Mark Kermode’s introduction. Cheers, Mark!


Rasen

Director: Jōji Iida
Year: 1998
Country of origin: Japan

"Rasen" means "Spiral", which should clue you in that this lesser-known sequel is adapted from Suzuki’s second novel. Director Jōji Iida was tasked with making this parallel with Nakata’s Ring shoot: the studio Asmik Ace Entertainment reasoning that it’d be good to have a follow-up immediately ready after Ring’s release. Sadly for Joji, he had no idea what Nakata was doing, meaning the films – especially stylistically – barely match up at all.

Rasen sticks to the more pseudo-scientific style of the books, meaning that the "cursed" videotape is here a catalyst for infecting people with a smallpox virus that contains Sadako’s DNA. When the victims die they’re replaced by a clone Sadako.


Ring 2

Director: Hideo Nakata
Year: 1999
Country of origin: Japan

With a flop on their hands in Rasen, the studio hauled Hideo Nakata and his cast back in to make a different second film. The result was, unsurprisingly, Ring 2, which relegates poor Rasen to non-canon status and continues the story of Reiko and her son Yoichi, who’s developing psychic powers of his own. Rather than another adaptation of Spiral, Ring 2 is pretty much Nakata’s own. Perhaps his most disturbing revelation is that Sadako actually grew to adulthood over the 33 years she was alive in the well. She has, we now learn, only just died when the first film begins.


The Ring Virus

Director: Kim Dong-bin
Year: 1999
Country of origin: South Korea

America wasn’t the first country to remake Ring. That honour goes to South Korea, with Kim Dong-bin’s version turning out a strange hybrid of elements faithful to the novel and bits nicked wholesale from Nakata’s film (like the TV emergence). Sadako is here renamed Park Eun-suh, and Reiko (female again) becomes Sun-ju.


The Final Chapter / Rasen

Director: Fukumoto Yoshito / Yoshihiro Kitayama
Year: 1999
Country of origin: Japan

Meanwhile back in Japan, they still weren’t done with the original Ring, despite the theatrical films now being in sequel territory. Next up was a new TV version: this time a 12-episode series. The erroneously titled Final Chapter returns to the novel’s male protagonist Asakawa Kazuyuki (Yanagiba Toshiro), but alters much else and has the cursed VHS take the form of a music video.

The Final Chapter was – of course - followed the same year by a second season of 13 episodes, this time supposedly based on Rasen. This one takes a kind of paranormal-investigation-of-the-week format, with the overarching narrative of the Sadako curse (this time in digital form) in the background.


Ring 0

Director: Norio Tsuruta
Year: 2000
Country of origin: Japan

The next movie follow-up to the two Hideo Nakata films was a prequel, centred on the young Sadako (Nakama Yukie) coming to less-than-thrilled terms with her newfound power. Norio Tsuruta was the director this time, but screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi remained from the earlier instalments, which for once means some narrative consistency. Unlike many prequels, Ring 0 actually works well if you watch it before the other films, setting up threads to be unpicked later. We get the full circumstances of Sadako's ending up in that well, and the new information that she split into two halves in childhood (one nice but withdrawn, one who takes more after her sea-monster father, but both equally dangerous) which is what sent her mother mad. Both Sadakos are merged again by the end though. Taking place as it does in a pre-VHS era, the cursed tape here is a reel-to-reel audio affair, but it plays less of a role than previously (or subsequently, chronology-wise).


The Ring

Director: Gore Verbinski
Year: 2002
Country of origin: USA

Hopefully for the final time, here’s the original story again, this time for the American market. Gore Verbinski (Pirates Of The Caribbean) directs, and Naomi Watts stars in the Reiko role, here renamed Rachel Keller. Sadako becomes Samara, played by Daveigh Chase, and the whole business is relocated to the States. This takes Nakata’s film as its source far more than Suzuki’s novel, but Verbinski’s approach is markedly different. His Ring is longer and busier, with more jump scares and a lot more explanation and exposition. Apparently somewhere along the line it was felt that US audiences dislike ambiguity. Whether that’s the case or not, they certainly liked the film: it remains one of the most financially successful horrors of all time.


Rings (short film)

Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Year: 2005
Country of origin: USA

This short film by Jonathan Liebesman (who would go on to direct Battle: Los Angeles and Ninja Turtles) was included with re-released DVDs of Verbinski’s The Ring, and leads directly into the opening sequence of The Ring Two. Written by Liebesman and Ehren Kruger, it’s an original piece detailing how Samara’s video has gone viral as a craze where kids deliberately watch the tape and document their experiences before passing it on as late as possible. The "Rings" of the title are the fan groups participating. They’re like Directioners, but less scary.


The Ring Two

Director: Hideo Nakata
Year: 2005
Country of origin: USA

For the sequel to the American remake, studio DreamWorks drafted in original director Hideo Nakata. Opting not to remake his own Ring 2, Nakata instead turned in a film that’s weirdly similar to Dark Water, a movie he’d directed in Japan in 2002, based on a short story by Ring’s original author Koji Suzuki. Naomi Watts returned from The Ring as Rachel Keller, but her character’s journey – traumatised by past events; fighting to prove to the authorities that she’s psychologically fit to raise her child; facing down a ghoul in a soaking wet apartment – is absolutely that of Dark Water’s Yoshimi Matsubara, with The Ring’s details spun into the weave.

Dark Water was itself officially remade in the States in 2005, directed by Walter Salles and starring Jennifer Connelly.


Sadako 3D

Director: Tsutomu Hanabusa
Year: 2012
Country of origin: Japan

With audiences perhaps feeling some Ring fatigue by this point, there was a hiatus of a few years before Sadako reappared in Japan in 2012. Sadako 3D brings the technology up to date, with her video now online and playing itself to people only when they’re alone. She’s received this technological upgrade from an online artist who was deliberately trying to resurrect her, and the protagonist this time is a teacher with psychic abilities (Satomi Ishihara).

This one’s based on Suzuki’s fourth Ring novel S. With its clone Sadakos – Alien-looking things unofficially dubbed "Spidakos" - it actually continues the story from the previously ignored Rasen. You have to choose your own canon with the Ring films.


Sadako 3D 2

Director: Tsutomu Hanabusa
Year: 2013
Country of origin: Japan

The sequel to Sadako 3D barely features Sadako at all, You might expect it to be based on Suzuki’s fifth Ring novel Tide, but instead this film once again treads its own path, picking up the story of teacher Akane’s daughter Nagi. Akane dies in childbirth early on, and the film then skips forward five years. The internet artist who brought Sadako back and got himself killed last time is somehow alive again – but awaiting execution – while Nagi is, Damien-like, quietly killing anyone she dislikes. There are some connections to Suzuki’s third Ring novel, Loop, in that we seem here to be in an artificial reality: the supercomputer-simulation Loop Project. The books get a bit Matrix later on, in a way that the films never coherently manage.


Sadako Vs. Kayako

Director: Kôji Shiraishi
Year: 2016
Country of origin: Japan

In the great tradition of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, Freddy Vs. Jason and Godzilla Vs. Everything, the Ring series this year finally collided with the Ju-On / Grudge saga in Sadako Vs. Kayako. The neat premise for bringing the two together is an academic's theory that the only way to escape the curse on the Sadako tape is to pit her against another equally vengeful spirit. Thus the film gets played at the Saeki residence - long haunted by the rattling ghoul Kayako and her silent little brother Toshio - and the game is afoot. It doesn't necessarily go according to plan...

Publicity for this film included the truly bizarre sight of Sadako throwing the first pitch at a baseball game with Kayako at bat.


Rings (2016)

Director: F. Javier Gutiérrez
Year: 2016
Country of origin: USA

And finally, here we are back in the States, with the long-developing third American Ring. The delay stems from the separation of DreamWorks and Paramount in 2006, and the attendant sorting out of the rights. With that dealt with, however, things moved forward again. It was first talked about as early as 2010, when David Loucka (Dream House) was writing it. Then in the summer of 2014 came the news that F. Javier Gutiérrez had signed on to direct, followed by word that the title would be Ring 3D, and that Akiva Goldsman was redrafting the screenplay. The casting of Italian newcomer Matilda Lutz and the new title Rings were confirmed in the first half of 2015.

Whether that indicates any significant relationship to Liebesman’s short remains to be seen – although the official synopsis talks about Lutz's boyfriend getting mixed up in "a dark subculture" revolving around ye olde videotape. The premise this time is that there's a film within the film that nobody has noticed before.

We’ve probably not seen the last of Sadako, but we’ll definitely be seeing more of Samara... Rings is released in the UK on November 4.

Rings