Mark Kermode - Problem child

An Asian frightmaster saves Hollywood from itself. By Mark Kermode

The Ring Two (15)

When uber-hack Gore Verbinski's lumpen teen-chiller The Ring opened in UK cinemas a few years ago, I advised film fans to give it the widest possible berth and seek out instead the spine-tingling Japanese original, Ringu, on DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata, a master of ominous understatement, Ringu - which spins a legend of an eerie videotape haunted by the spirit of undead child-monster Sadako - had become a smash horror hit in Japan and Hong Kong, spawning a slew of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, one of which (Ringu 2) was helmed by Nakata himself.

While Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers remained the unchallenged icons of English-speaking horror, in the east, Sadako rivalled Godzilla as a popular emblem of terror - a terror notably lacking from Verbinski's half-arsed Hollywood rehash.

The omens for a Stateside sequel to The Ring, which had performed depressingly well at the US box office, looked ill indeed. But when the advertising graduate Noam Murro departed due to "creative differences", the directorial mantle fell to none other than Nakata himself, who follows Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on: The Grudge) as the latest Asian frightmaster called in to save Hollywood from itself.

As Nakata's presence should suggest, the great news about The Ring Two is that it is far better - more scary, more thoughtful, more skin-crawling - than anyone had a right to expect. Despite the expository deficiencies of a script by Ehren Kruger (who made such a hash of Scream 3 and The Ring), The Ring Two boasts interludes of uncanny magic, the redeeming qualities of which seem due almost entirely to Nakata's guiding hand.

Indeed, from the moment the feisty heroine Rachel (Naomi Watts) realises that her young son may have fallen under the deadly spell of Samara (the Stateside incarnation of Sadako), The Ring Two becomes eerily reminiscent of Nakata's 2002 masterpiece Dark Water, which established him as one of the finest genre film-makers of his generation.

Once again, we have the heartbreaking struggle of a mother battling to save her child from damnation, her obsession manifested in a manner that suggests maternal psychosis. Present, too, are the painful moral dilemmas (utterly absent from Verbinski's The Ring) that underwrite all truly resonant ghost stories, crystallised in that wonderful maxim from Shirley Jackson's classic novel The Haunting of Hill House: "Fear and guilt are sisters."

Owing as much to the traditions of Japanese cinematic genre kaidan eiga as to any American teen-slasher formula, The Ring Two will come as something of a relief to those who detest the infantilisation of modern horror, and who remember a time when films such as Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now and The Exorcist aimed their attentions at audiences old enough to vote.

Indeed, Nakata's central set piece - the apparent drowning of a child - will make sense only to those who can empathise with the plight of a character mature enough to imagine the trauma of parental loss. Which is not to say that The Ring Two is without its adolescent, mainstream shortcomings. A sequence of computer-generated deer charging a car seems to have been inserted simply to remind audiences of a best-forgotten aquatic stampede in The Ring, and should have hit the cutting-room floor for both its visual and thematic flimsiness.

The final reel, too, in which Rachel plunges once again into Samara's deep well, plays shamelessly to the multiplex crowd, swapping evocative chills for action-packed thrills that merely reheat the hoary set pieces of yore.

It's hard to believe that Nakata felt much (if any) enthusiasm for these sequences, which might as well have been executed by an assistant director learning the ropes.

But, as a populist Hollywood product that at least aspires to the condition of art, The Ring Two deserves the applause and admiration of open-minded horror fans. If nothing else, the film's $35m opening weekend in America has secured Nakata's reputation in the US as a bankable director, ensuring that he will be given the chance to explore more adventurous avenues in the future. At present, he has two further remakes on his slate: a revisiting of the Pang brothers' transplant shocker The Eye, and a reinvention of the leery Hollywood horror The Entity.

How either project will turn out is anyone's guess, but with this, his first English-language production, Nakata has proven that he can make the transition to Hollywood with graceful ease.

I have no doubt that, with the right material, his international reputation ten years from now will be on a par with those acclaimed screen surrealists David Lynch and David Cronenberg. The future is bright - the future is Hideo's.

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