[Note: This post contains moderate spoilers.]
Whatever else it gets right or wrong, Rings has one definitive tick mark in its favor: It is a better sequel than The Ring Two. This is not to say that Rings is particularly good, or even that successful at the essential responsibility of a horror film, frightening the audience. What it does mean is that the new film’s trio of writers—Akiva Goldsman reworking a script by Jacob Estes and David Loucka—watched Gore Verbinski’s striking, seminal 2002 feature The Ring and put some genuine thought into how the story might have continued and evolved in the subsequent 13 years. (The film was originally slated for a November 2015 release, but was delayed three times; never a good sign for any feature, especially in the horror genre.)
This is more than can be than can be said for 2005’s forgettable The Ring Two, in which director Hideo Nakata and screenwriter Ehren Kruger exhibit zero regard for conceptual logic, seemingly adding plot points arbitrarily until they arrive at a target running time. Perhaps their aim was to create the air of a fever-born nightmare, but the actual result is a film that feels indefensibly woolly, yet simultaneously indistinguishable from any other hackneyed ghost story. Although The Ring Two retained investigative reporter Rachel (Naomi Watts) and her sensitive son Aidan (David Dorfman) as protagonists, it largely discarded one of the most distinctive aspects of the original film (and that of its Japanese forebear, Ringu): the centrality of video technology to the story’s events.
In contrast, Rings might suffer from unmemorable characters and clichéd plot components, but it at least apprehends why the conceit of Verbinski’s film was so compelling. (Lamentably, neither sequel comes close to replicating the evocative, slate blue visuals that cinematographer Bojan Bazellli brought to the 2002 original.) The new film functions as a kind of thought experiment regarding the fate of The Ring’s malicious ghost, Samara Morgan: How would an undead spirit who claims her victims via VHS tape endure in a world where high-definition digital video is ubiquitous? At the storytelling level, Rings follows the spread of Samara's curse, but then swerves into the ghost's somewhat orthogonal endgame, illustrating that horror sequels benefit when they resist the temptation to simply be bigger and louder.
Rings largely scrubs away the events of The Ring Two, although the new film expands on the backstory that was briefly explored in the first sequel. Specifically, Rings recalls that Samara Morgan was once a living child with a biological mother, Evelyn (portrayed by Sissy Spacek in The Ring Two, here played by Kayli Carter in flashbacks). The matter of Samara’s paternity—a mystery that, when uncovered, is simultaneously triter and ickier than expected—is a key component of Rings’ plot. However, what makes the film’s screenplay a respectable little work of horror fiction isn’t its backstory bootstrapping, but the shrewd way that it echoes the structure of The Ring without feeling like a dreary retread.
In a prelude with only the thinnest narrative connection to the rest of the film, a man who has recently watched Samara’s malevolent video reaches his seven-day expiration date while traveling on a commercial airliner—with predictably disastrous results. Two years later, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), a college professor and experimental biologist, purchases a VCR once owned by the victim. “I like vintage,” he explains with a grin to his student and girlfriend Skye (Aimee Teegarden), who fails to see the appeal of this outmoded flea market acquisition. Naturally, the machine happens to contain a videotape of Samara’s infernal film. Later still, the viewer is finally introduced to Rings’ heroine, college-age Seattleite Julia (Matilda Lutz), who has no defining traits to speak of other than her devoted relationship to boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe). In this, she is a poor substitute for Watts’ dogged journalist, even if Julia largely serves the same narrative role in the story. (With her angel-next-door loveliness, Italian model Lutz is reminiscent of a blue-eyed Jessica Alba, although her acting is not so dreadful, so she’s at least got that going for her.)
Julia and Holt have one of those shallow yet achingly earnest relationships that are pervasive among gorgeous young people in films. Holt’s departure for college in Spokane, some four hours away, is accordingly tough on the couple. This is particularly the case when, six weeks into the semester, Holt suddenly stops answering Julia’s calls and texts. A cryptic Skype message from another woman feeds Julia’s suspicions that something is dreadfully wrong, impelling her to drive out to Holt’s school in order to track him down. Snooping around his vacant dorm room and the classes he should be attending, she eventually uncovers a strange experiment in the biology department overseen by none other than Gabriel. Given that he is quite alive, the professor has plainly evaded Samara’s wrath by making a copy of her video and showing it to someone else. What’s more, Gabriel has devised an entire research project around the ghostly girl. Student volunteers watch the now-digitized video and document the effects of the haunting as it escalates over seven days, before finally handing off a copy of the file to the next volunteer, dubbed the “tail.” (Samara evidently regards the Quicktime file format as an acceptable surrogate for physical VHS tapes.)
How Gabriel first determined the cure for his spectral death sentence is never explained, although The Ring Two and its companion short film (also titled, confusingly, Rings) suggested that the urban legend surrounding the cursed tape spread quickly in the space of just three years. One surmises that by 2015, the remedy for Samara’s curse would be a perennial topic on, say, the creepypasta reddit. While there’s something faintly absurd about scientists studying the “Samara Phenomenon” in a laboratory setting, it also lends Rings a drizzle of realism that contrasts with its stock horror atmosphere, creating a dissonant uncanniness. It recalls, of all things, The Navidson Record, the documentary-within-a-book in Mark Danielewski’s postmodern novel House of Leaves. Upon finding themselves a house that seems to violate the laws of physics, the Navidsons do what few families in horror stories ever seem do: They ask a renowned scientist in a legitimate field to come investigate the phenomenon.
Observing evidence that Holt is participating in Gabriel’s experiments, Julia also bumps into and confronts the woman she previously glimpsed on her webcam. This turns out to be Gabriel’s girlfriend Skye, who has likewise watched the video and is in the final hour of her countdown. She is also in a bit of a panic, as the arrangement she made with her tail has fallen through. Skye tricks Julia into following her back to her apartment to watch the video, but she misses the deadline by a minute or two. Samara accordingly crawls forth to do her soul-stealing stare, leaving Skye a waterlogged corpse and Julia unequivocally convinced of the ghost’s existence.
Julia subsequently runs into the resurfaced Holt, who explains that he will soon be meeting with his tail. In an act of self-sacrifice that is more resolute than reckless, Julia watches the copy of the video that Holt has prepared. (There is an Orphic dimension to Julia's search for her lover and her willing acceptance of the curse, which the film unfortunately makes explicit rather than allusive.) Julia might be a paper-thin heroine, but the screenplay and Lutz’s slight but no-nonsense performance foreground the extent to which she is driven primarily by compassion and indignation rather than fear. Unlike the volunteers in Gabriel’s research, she expresses an ambition to (somehow) break the endless cycle of Samara’s curse, rather than simply passing the doom on to another person.
Holt begs Julia to show the video to a new tail, but the matter is soon revealed to be moot: The version of the video that Julia watched cannot be copied. What’s more, the file is significantly larger than its predecessor. With Gabriel’s help, the pair uncover subliminal images in Julia’s video, frames which occur in no other versions of the file. When extracted and reassembled, these frames reveal a second film embedded and hidden within the first. It depicts similarly surreal, disturbing, and heretofore unseen images, which Julia correctly surmises constitute a message meant solely for her eyes. (Just to be on the safe side, Holt and Gabriel turn their backs while she watches the new, pieced-together video.) Julia recognizes a shot of a church from a photograph glimpsed amid Gabriel’s research, and in short order she and Holt set off to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to the place where Samara’s story began.
Rings thereby sets up a scenario that resonates with The Ring. Like Rachel, Julia uses the video’s images in conjunction with historical records to trace Samara’s proverbial footsteps. Julia likewise brings along a male companion—a boyfriend in her case, an ex in Rachel’s case—who assists in her investigations and occasionally veers off on his own tangential inquiries. Significantly, Julia’s search picks up where Rachel’s own story left off, with the retrieval of Samara’s bones from the well where she perished. Lacking any living relatives who were not institutionalized, Samara’s remains were eventually re-buried in the church graveyard of a nearby town. Prompted by shots of burning bones in Samara's secret, secondary video, Julia is persuaded that exhuming and cremating these remains might finally break the curse. (The water-and-fire symmetry is never explicitly acknowledged, which makes it all the more evocative.) This quest for the last physical remnants of Samara’s demise paradoxically jostles loose the ghastly story behind the girl’s conception and birth.
As Julia draws closer to the truth, the pity that she feels for Samara grows, as does her resolve to release the girl’s spirit from the apparent agony of her restless half-life. For the viewer, however, it’s difficult to shake the uneasy sensation that one has seen this same misguided altruism before. The last time someone attempted to “release” Samara, it only solidified her unearthly power. Rings accordingly establishes a psychological tug-of-war between the lingering hope that Samara can finally be laid to rest and the sour-gut pessimism of experience, which whispers that Julia is blundering straight into a unholy ruse.
(It's worth noting that the film's trailers suggest a substantially different film, featuring subplots and set pieces that were ultimately abandoned. What's more, the trailers blithely reveal the story's ending. Viewers who have any interest in Rings would do well to avoid the trailers and simply approach the film that was actually released on its own terms.)
Spanish director F. Javier Gutiérrez strikes a deft balance with the story, calling back to the original feature’s plot without allowing Rings to tip over into an outright bargain bin clone of Verbinski’s film. Familiar motifs from Samara’s original video crop up, not as clues but as eerie reverberations: a scuttling centipede, an oval mirror, a fingertip impaled on a nail. Gutiérrez maintains an ambiguous, mounting sensation that Something Bad is going to happen when Julia reaches the end of the her journey, something far worse than a death or two. In its third act, Rings unabashedly enters a somewhat trite thriller phase, complete with lethal cat-and-mouse games in an old, dark house. Underneath the stark urgency of physical survival, however, something repulsive and uncontrollable seems to draw near as the film builds to its conclusion, heralded by the buzzing cicada swarms that shadow Julia’s search.
None of this nullifies that fact that Rings is, at bottom, a silly B-movie with a rather shameful deficit of decent scares. The film is often creepy and occasionally gruesome, but rarely frightening. Samara’s bag of tricks hasn’t varied much in 13 years, and there’s only so much horror to be wrung from a rotting little girl scuttling around on all fours and glaring through stringy black hair. The downside to portraying Samara as a phenomenon that can be studied in repeatable experiments is that it risks reducing her to a predictable, elemental force, the ectoplasmic equivalent of Old Faithful. Such primal connotations might work for werewolves and slasher film killers, but ghosts are all about personalized history, tragedy, and vengeance. Rings’ script at least seems to discern this dilemma, in light of the primacy it gives to the story of Samara’s parentage. However, this doesn’t rectify Gutiérrez’s main problem; namely, how to avoid repeating himself when it comes to the film's flashier haunted house gimmicks. In its worst moments, Rings begins to wander into The Ring Two territory, engaging in aimless, desperate creepshow gestures and uninspired genre pilfering—a bit of The Collector here, a touch of Final Destination there.
As a visual work, Rings is fittingly grim and dank-looking (this is a ghost story about water, after all), but there’s also nothing particularly memorable about it. (Comparisons to The Ring’s potent, indispensable aesthetic are inevitably fatal to Rings, as they would be to many contemporary horror features.) Cinematographer Sharone Meir at times neglects intelligibility in his enthusiasm for oppressively dim interior spaces, but in general his work is moody and handsome. If nothing else, Meir and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh do a proper job of transforming the film’s Georgia shooting locations into a credible drizzly Washington state. Particularly in the film’s latter half, editors Steve Mirkovich and Jeremiah O'Driscoll deliver some marvelously nerve-wracking cross-cutting between parallel subplots.
The performances range from functional to distractingly underwhelming. Only Vincent D'Onofrio does anything remotely stimulating with his role. His portrayal of a blind cemetery caretaker is broad as hell, which is arguably just what the second sequel to a 15-year-old horror film deserves and needs. (For this writer, D'Onofrio fills the niche that Nic Cage occupies for other cinephiles: an occasionally brilliant performer whose most mannered, ham-bone performances have a mesmerizing quality that makes them consistently pleasurable to watch.)
Indeed, nothing about Rings is outright awful, and some aspects of it are damn respectable, which is why the film’s overwhelming critical drubbing is a bit baffling. When an amateurish shit-smear like The Bye Bye Man pulls in a 37 at Metacritic to Rings’ 24, one is inclined to wonder if Gutiérrez’s film has attracted malice merely for the sin of not being the original The Ring. While Rings is a middling horror feature overall, it’s also fairly gratifying as a sequel, in that it advances the series’ story sincerely and thoughtfully without pissing all over the original film’s legacy in the process. Given that the filmmakers couldn't dissuaded from the dubious endeavor of producing a new Ring film a decade and half after the fact, it bears reflecting that the result could have been much, much worse.