There’s a movie that makes people die after they watch it.

No, it’s not the latest Jerry Bruckheimer project. It’s “The Ring” – once a genuinely creepy Japanese film about urban legends and a cursed video tape, now dressed up as American just in time for Halloween. Directed competently by Gore Verbinski, whose filmography has thus far featured duds like “The Mexican” and “Mouse Hunt,” the film centers around Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), a newspaper reporter who views a video of images that look like a suicidal art student’s drug-induced nightmare. A mystery woman promptly phones and explains the next seven days will be Rachel’s last. The plot then morphs into a quasi-detective mystery, as Rachel uses her journalistic talents to find the origins of the countdown. Meanwhile, some really fucked-up shit happens.

Verbinski has the good sense to direct “The Ring” in Hitchcockian style; he averts the viewers’ eyes from the most disturbing scenes to heighten the horror. Although the film has a PG-13 rating, viewers can expect as many shocks as anything R-rated. Verbinski’s only true directorial flaw lies in his reliance upon jump scenes – quick cuts punctuated by shrieking music or loud sound effects – to fool the audience into being scared. These are disruptive and unnecessary when the atmosphere is rich with tension already.

Watts smartly plays Rachel, who has pursued her career at the expense of being a good mom. When Rachel’s son (David Dorfman) also watches the tape, Rachel must suddenly become both a nurturing mother and Nancy Drew. Having warmed up for such a role in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” in which she embodied both girl-next-door Betty and doomed starlet Diane, Watts again exhibits the talent, charm and beauty usually reserved for the brightest of stars.

Two talented child actors – Dorfman and Daveigh Chase as the enigmatic Samara – round out the cast without blatantly aping Haley Joel Osment. Dorfman is oddly endearing as precocious Aidan, but is overshadowed by Chase, an unspeakably cool 11-year-old who has performed in movies as diverse as “Donnie Darko” and “Lilo and Stitch.” Chase’s image will no doubt give a few viewers a reason to sleep with the light on. She’s a Linda Blair for a new generation.

“The Ring” is the first American horror film to translate the phenomenon of the urban legend to the screen with scary results. Urban legends, if told properly, transform the elements of everyday life into ones of terror. This film has the scariest television sets since “Poltergeist,” the most threatening telephones since “Scream,” and a scene with a horse that makes you shudder at the idea of ever wanting a pony as a kid.

Before you die, go see “The Ring.”