Several decades into its inception, the internet is the most prominent form of mass media. While today social media brain rot is the social concern du jour, twenty years ago the sheer expanse of accessible information online was an idea met with skepticism and fear. This paranoia was examined most patently in two films from 2002: Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (based on the Japanese Ringu) and Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover.
The Ring traces its origins back to the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, which was adapted into a Japanese feature film in 1998. It in turn kicked off a wave of J-Horror stateside remakes, but none carried the singular creep factor of this initial American iteration. The Ring is not just an analog horror story but also a meditation on morality in the digital age. It predates YouTube and the rise of viral videos and exists in a liminal early 2000s landscape caught between VHS nostalgia and internet domination. Naomi Watts stars as Rachel Keller, a Seattle journalist whose niece dies suddenly after viewing a mysterious videotape. She soon gets wrapped up in the mystery, inadvertently roping in her young son Aidan in the process. She eventually traces the videotape to a murdered girl with psychic abilities; the videotape is a sort of viral curse, taking the lives of all who are exposed to it and sparing those who spread the curse to others.
Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover exists in a world where globalism has been accelerated by mass communication and the World Wide Web is still the Wild Wild West. Like Assayas’ previous film Irma Vep (1996), it features a multinational cast that aligns with his interest in the growing interconnectedness of the modern world. Connie Nielsen stars as Diane de Monx, a mysterious business executive living in Paris. She works for the Volf Corporation, a French-based distribution company, but is secretly a spy for business rival Mangatronics. At their behest, she eliminates her manager, Karen, and takes over her role in the company. Volf is in the process of acquiring Demonlover, a 3D hentai site that is actually a cover for The Hellfire Club – a sinister livecam torture channel.
Diane is busted while investigating Hellfire and her cover is blown by fellow double agent Elise (played by seminal indie cool girl Chloe Sevigny, showing off her French speaking chops.) She is forced to work for the Demonlover crew and ultimately ends up a victim of Hellfire itself. This is a loose reconstructing of events; the narrative cohesion of the film falls apart in the final act, creating a blurred, paranoid fever dream. At its core is the feeling of corporate apathy, capitalist amorality, and isolation in the modern world. Despite being the eyes into the world of the film, Diane is a cypher, even to the audience.
“I’m calculating. I have no scruples. It’s what excites you… and what scares you,” she says while on a date with her business partner and romantic interest, Hervé (who she’s been ordered to assassinate). “But you have no idea. You don’t know me.”
So who is the real Diane? An empty avatar? An internet username come to life, lonely, isolated, and able to fill the role of whoever she needs to be? Businesswoman, corporate spy, contract killer. We never learn her true identity, her underlying motives, or what genuine feelings lurk beneath her icy facade. Even while being blackmailed into submission, Diane faces her fate with all the emotion of being transferred to a lesser department after screwing up a business deal.
What both films dissect is the paranoia surrounding the proliferation of the then-burgeoning internet. Pre-social media, the web was a mystery of message boards, HTML backgrounds, and access to endless information. The website at the center of Demonlover brings to mind real-life 2000s-era online horror nexuses like LiveLeak and BestGore. The Ring, meanwhile, recalls viral internet jumpscares of yesteryear, such as bad luck chain emails or the infamous Exorcist Maze Game.
In the latter film, the spectre of the internet is not explicit in the text (or necessarily even in subtext) but the viral spread of information is its prescient fear of choice. The brilliance of the movie hinges on its final scene. In order to save her son’s life, Rachel must assist him in creating a copy of the videotape, passing the curse onto another person.
“It’s going to keep going, isn’t it?” he asks his mother. “What about the person we show it to? What happens to them?”
There is no tidy answer. This is a decidedly grey morality tale, as is life in the information age. Participation is complicity. They are passing on not just a postmodern virus and death sentence, but also their own wrought trauma, forcing someone else to be exposed just as they were. As Brian Cox’s character says earlier in the film, after being hounded repeatedly by Rachel:
“What is it with reporters? You take one person’s tragedy and force the world to experience it … spread it like sickness.”
In this tale, modernity – and specifically technology – is a virus, and Rachel and Aidan have become its latest spreaders.
Similarly, in Demonlover, Diane becomes one in a long line of anonymous online spectres, a vacant internet avatar ready to be abused by paying clients around the globe. In its final moments, a young American teenager purchases access to her webpage via his father’s credit card. A haunting image of her stares back at the audience as the film ends, implicating us all in the tangled web of online voyeurism.
Today, the Overton window of online dread has shifted. The deleterious effects of Tik Tok are a more pressing concern than access to internet chat rooms and seedy pornography sites. The spread of misinformation is a scarier talking point than the spread of computer viruses. The internet has gotten seemingly safer but also smaller, less unwieldy and nebulous but also more controlled. However, these films don’t seem dated as much as prescient about the time period they were illustrating. They depict mass media as both social plague and paradigm shift. It’s up to us to decide if they were wrong.