The opening dialogue of the 1998 horror genre game-changer Ringu is an urban legend, a Candyman-style recitation of the now-iconic curse that drives the film’s plot. At a casual slumber party, two teenage girls discuss a cursed VHS tape that, once watched, will kill its viewer in a week’s time. The scene starts playful, but once the reality of the tape’s existence is accepted the tone turns sinister. In the dead silence of their now-terrified mood, a landline phone rings loudly in an abrupt, bloodless scare. It’s difficult to see now in the 2010s exactly how monumental of a shift Ringu was on the horror landscape. Along with the found footage-pioneering The Blair Witch Project, Ringu helped usher in a new era of horror that shifted away from the previous decades of stale slasher rehashes & sequels towards a then-fresh aesthetic built on atmosphere & folklore instead of a mad, masked killer. Ringu’s success (and the success of its Gore Verbinski-directed American remake, The Ring) is often credited for sparking the “J-horror” wave of the early 2000s, but I don’t think it gets enough credit for inspiring a wave of technophobic horror works that adapted the concerns of earlier films like Videodrome to the culture of the digital age. The Grudge, Pulse, and Dark Water are perhaps the most notable properties directly inspired by the Cursed Technology folklore of RIngu, but I think few movies pushed its aesthetic into as weird & wild of a place as our current Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club.
I don’t believe it’s possible to truly, genuinely participate in modern mythmaking without including technology in the text. Ringu smartly fulfills that requirement by focusing on technology that’s just barely outdated: VHS cassettes, cable access television, Polaroid cameras, and landline telephones are all just barely-obsolete technologies that the film uses to establish the world of its televised curse. It also mixes in traditionalist concepts like vengeful ghosts & clairvoyant visions to match this new Evil Technology folklore with a sense of dark, old world magic. Suicide Club distorts this method drastically in the way most post-Ringu technophobia horrors tend to, by making its Evil Technology current. For all its strange pondering on the crepiness of cults, pop idols, cheerful children, and kawaii culture, Suicide Club is at its heart a movie about the evils of the internet. Released at a time when the internet was young & sparse, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the eeriness of haunted websites and the danger of anonymous message boards. The traditionalist technophobic lore of Ringu is an idea picked up from works like Videodrome and (going way further back) The Yellow King: the idea that viewing or hearing something cursed could be lethal. Most technology-obsessed horrors that followed in Ringu’s wake echoed that same pattern, killing its victims by exposing them to lethal websites. The basement-level trash pic FearDotCom even featured the tagline “Want to see a killer website?” to drive the point home. Suicide Club pushes the idea much further, disorienting its audience by emphasizing the way Online Discourse has “disconnected” us from our “selves” and using the internet to spread a killer idea instead of a killer website. The curse that spreads through the internet in Suicide Club is a philosophical question, dangerous information that can be passed on through new technology in just a few key strokes. By now, the technology on display in the film is just as outdated as anything was in Ringu, but that dissociative, information-spreading aspect of the internet remains creepily relevant.
Surely, the most iconic image in Ringu is its money shot of a wet-haired ghost girl climbing out of a television set to claim her final victim in the film’s closing minutes. Like Blair Witch, Ringu strayed from the traditional trills of a body count horror to focus more on atmosphere & folklore, so the emergence of this TV static ghost is a one-time affair. The ghost’s victims tend to die open-mouthed, as if in shock, their bodes discovered after the fact. Suicide Club is a much gorier movie, even opening with a scare of over fifty high school students jumping onto train tracks in a mass suicide pact, coating the screen in rivers of blood. Where Ringu lingers on the imagery of spooky technology, filtering the occultist images of its vengeful ghost girl through the digital camcorder grain of a VHS tape, Suicide Club mostly uses the internet as a conduit for its killer, suicide-inspiring philosophy. Given its more hyperactive, gore-minded style of horror, I’d understand if some people would bristle at my suggestion that the films should even be compared. Whenever I doubt Suicide Club’s direct lineage form Ringu, though, I just think back to its trailer. The ad focuses in on a creepy fax machine in the film’s hospital setting. Like with the spooky technology on display in Ringu, the fax machine is kind of an obsolete redundancy in the film, set in the early days of email. The ad pushes the connection even further, though, including cutting room floor imagery of long, wet, black hair emerging from the machine and stretching across the floor. The only way the image could have been closer to Ringu’s most iconic moment is if the fax machine were instead a computer monitor or a television set. For all its myth-minded tonal seriousness, Ringu also ends with a thumping, dance music club track over its closing credits, which isn’t all that different than the incongruous J-pop soundtrack that clashes with Suicide Club’s horrific indulgences in gore. Suicide Club isn’t as faithful to Ringu’s aesthetic as other technology-obsessed J-horror releases that it inspired, but the two films are inextricably linked in my mind.
I don’t understand the widely-held belief that the American remake of Ringu is somehow better than the Japanese original. Gore Verbinski certainly has a slick, distinctly cinematic eye and there’s a sensational scene involving suicidal horses that raises the energy level, but there’s nothing especially innovative about the picture. Ringu is much scrappier & more adventurous, looking for new, modernist modes of horror mythmaking on a bargain budget. It’s only a step above Blair Witch in that way, attacking an ambitious idea through drastically limited means, something The Ring could never claim. However, I do believe Suicide Club successfully picked up the better aspects of Ringu (particularly its technophobic version of modern mythmaking in a horror context) and pushed them into weirder, more ambitions places far surpassing the limited imagination of its inspiration. Ringu is a traditionalist, folklore-minded work in which ghosts invade our modern spaces through slightly outdated technology. Suicide Club, by contrast, is a wildly kaleidoscopic work of blood-soaked mayhem in which then-current technology is a conduit for unknowable, unstoppable evil. Even though I prefer the no-fucks-given audacity of the latter aesthetic, I do majorly respect Ringu for inspiring it. In case you couldn’t tell from my last two Movie of the Month selections, Suicide Club & Unfriended, I’m a huge fan of technophobic, internet-obsessed horror and I can’t imagine that subgenre existing in its current state without the guiding hand of Ringu (or the camcorder technology obsession of The Blair Witch Project, its American cousin).
For more on March’s Movie of the Month, Sion Sono’s technophobic freak-out Suicide Club, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison with its goofy American counterpart, FearDotCom (2002), and last week’s look at its unexpected Danish counterpart, Bridgend (2015).