The Ring

Within five minutes of “The Ring” beginning, one teen-age girls say to another, “Have you heard about this videotape that kills you when you watch it?” I admire a film that gets right to the point, and efficiency is just one of “The Ring’s” many virtues. It is also the scariest film of the year (so far), weaving suspense and horror through a clever story that keeps you guessing right up to the end.

Like most truly scary movies, “The Ring” has almost no onscreen violence and very little gore. The terror is in the ideas. And some of its ideas are genuinely startling.

There is a videotape full of surreal, seemingly random images circulating in Seattle. According to the legend, after you watch it you immediately receive a phone call in which an ominous voice says, “Seven days.” Then, exactly one week later, you die.

Investigative journalist Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts, far hotter than any reporter I’ve ever seen in real life) hears of the videotape after her niece apparently falls victim to it. She and three of her friends watched it together, and now they’re dead, in separate incidents. A surviving friend, who luckily was not invited to the party that night, tells the tale. Rachel locates the tape, watches it, and sure enough, gets the phone call. The clock is ticking. What is the tape, and how does one stop it from carrying out its plan?

Rachel enlists the help of her friend Noah (Martin Henderson), and the film becomes a good old-fashioned mystery, complete with red-herring characters and missing puzzle pieces. The images on the tape turn out to be not as random as they seemed, and the evil inherent in a murderous videotape has reasoning behind it, too. Stopping it becomes the issue, and that task makes up the bulk of the film. (We arrive at Day 7 with half the running time remaining.)

Director Gore Verbinski has previously given us the children’s film “Mouse Hunt,” as well as last year’s goofy “The Mexican.” “The Ring” (a remake of a Japanese film) is his first attempt at horror, and he does a masterful job with it. He uses — but doesn’t abuse — the tricks of the trade, employing jarring sound effects, creepy children and anxious pauses to great effect. One is reminded of “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others,” particularly in the sense that, like those films, “The Ring” always seems to have more on its mind than its surface-level ghost story. It’s not profound, especially, but it’s more than rampant, senseless evil.

The answer to the question, “Why is it called ‘The Ring’ instead of ‘The Tape’?” is particularly chilling.

Very few of the elements are completely original, and I can’t say every aspect of it makes sense in the end, but the movie as a whole has a fresh, exciting air about it. It maintains a palpable feeling of dread and tension primarily by implication and some carefully chosen eerie images: drowned horses here, weird little girl there, and so on. There is a point where it crosses over from giddy-suspenseful to flat-out wet-your-pants scary, which is something few films in recent years have managed.

A- (1 hr., 55 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity, fleeting grisly images, disturbing themes and scariness.)