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The Six Cents 

Vague thriller may fail to find its audience

In the animation field, the word "in-betweener" refers to those artists who fill in the frames that come between the ones already created by the project's principal animators. On the live-action side of cinema, there's no such term, though it's the perfect word to describe those movies that seem to balance between capturing the attention of adults and earning the notice of teenagers, in effect slipping through the cracks by ultimately drawing neither.The Ring, the American remake of a 1998 Japanese smash that spawned a pair of sequels, a TV series and a cult following, fits the live-action definition of an "in-betweener": It's probably too intelligent for kids looking for Scream-style scares, yet too trifling for grown-ups seeking more somber material. It plays up its similarities to The Sixth Sense almost as much as it retains its loyalty to its source material, and yet it stands no chance of catching the supernatural wave that made Sense a cultural phenomenon. I see dead people? More like I see dead box office.

And yet The Ring isn't a bad little chiller. I won't use the original foreign film to bludgeon the Hollywood remake into a quivering, bloody pulp. On the contrary, this Ring is about on a par with its "98 inspiration: If that movie was more successful at sustaining mood, this one does a better job of answering some of the plot-related questions the first film left hanging.

The story (which originally sprang to life in a novel by Koji Suzuki) centers around the existence of a videocassette that causes death to anyone who dares watch it. So what exactly is on this terrible tape? Outtakes from The Anna Nicole Show? Footage of the Liza Minnelli-David Gest wedding? The torturous Vanilla Ice bomb Cool As Ice? Actually, none of the above; instead, it turns out to be a series of grainy, bizarre images that would be right at home in a music video by, say, Nine Inch Nails or Metallica. Still, with a major boost from the sound effects crew, this video footage manages to muster some of the edginess that the rest of the movie largely fails to locate.

After her teenage niece and her friends mysteriously die exactly seven days after viewing the video, a reporter (Naomi Watts) suspects this may be more than an urban legend, so she tracks down the tape and watches it. Then a hunky guy (Martin Henderson) who's either her ex-husband or her ex-boyfriend (the movie never bothers to clarify) watches the tape. And then their spooky young son (David Dorfman, too self-important in that smug, Macaulay Culkin manner to be effective) watches the tape. In essence, they're all doomed, but rather than return their Blockbuster membership cards and wait patiently for the end, they study the footage for hidden clues that might save their lives.

In his short movie career, director Gore Verbinski has certainly been someone to watch. He made the highly engaging Mouse Hunt, perhaps the only Home Alone clone that worked, and then pissed off fans of Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt by placing them (and keeping them apart most of the time) in the entertaining yet unconventional oddity The Mexican. Yet the quirky light touch that served Verbinski well on those projects has hampered him here: For a movie built around a piece of film containing unsettling images, The Ring is itself a rather tame undertaking, never building the finger-curling sense of dread that's demanded by the material. Even the chilling centerpiece of the Japanese version -- a creep-out scene involving a woman and a well -- fails to evoke as much of a response when it's dutifully recreated here.

At the same time, Verbinski clearly respects the genre, meaning that we're not bombarded by the usual cheap scares and smarmy in-jokes that have all but strangled this once-effective genre. And he scored a casting coup by landing Watts in her first appearance since her amazing breakthrough performance in last year's Mulholland Drive. Certainly, after the complexity of her role in that David Lynch offering, the straightforward part of an intrepid reporter must have seemed like a cakewalk. Her presence is appreciated, but now it's time for her to move onto bigger and better projects.

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