When Gore Verbinski’s 2002 film The Ring hit theaters, the success of his terrifying adaptation of director Hideo Nakata’s Japanese horror classic spawned a wave of American remakes of “J-horror” films.
At a time when gore ruled the horror genre, the film’s skillful use of slow-building dread and shocking visuals won over professional critics and general audiences alike, and led to films such as The Grudge, Pulse, and One Missed Call similarly mining the Japanese horror genre. The performance of The Ring even led to Nakata directing the 2005 sequel, The Ring Two, which sadly – like many of the American remakes that preceded it – fell short of capturing the same spooky lightning in a bottle as The Ring.
Now, 12 years later, the franchise has found its way back to theaters with director F. Javier Gutiérrez’s Rings, a film that runs the supernatural premise of The Ring through the filter of modern-day technology, and attempts to rekindle the creepy magic that made the 2002 film such a hit.
After starting out fresh, Rings ends up doing more of the same schtick we’ve seen before.
In theory, it’s a clever approach to refreshing the material, so it comes as a bit of a disappointment that the film falls back on the laziest tropes of the genre – and the franchise – so quickly and so frequently.
Set 13 years after the events of The Ring Two, Rings casts Italian model Matilda Lutz and The 5th Wave actor Alex Roe as a teenage couple who get caught up in the deadly curse of the haunted video cassette – which has now gone digital – that dooms anyone who watches it to a grisly death in seven days. Roe’s character is a student at a local college where a professor played by The Big Bang Theory actor Johnny Galecki is conducting a secret, high-tech experiment with the video in order to explore the nature of the human soul. As one might expect, the project takes an unfortunate turn, and the young couple soon find themselves desperately tracking down information about the mysterious girl, Samara (played by contortionist Bonnie Morgan), at the heart of the video’s curse.
The idea to bring the old-school device at the heart of the original film – a cursed VHS cassette – into today’s world of smartphones, digital compression, YouTube, and video calls is intriguing, to say the least. And with more than a dozen years of gruesome history behind the curse, it makes sense that someone along the way would figure out a way to study it while somehow avoiding the deadly outcome that caught up with past victims.
In that respect, Rings shows some promise early on. The goals of the experiment run by Galecki’s character remain frustratingly ill-defined, but the system he develops for avoiding the curse suggests that he’s far from the typical, naïve victim, and the promise of seeing how one could use all of that technology to deconstruct the curse is one of the movie’s most compelling story angles.
Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived plot point. And just as things are at their most interesting, The Ring quickly devolves into a rehash of the two films that preceded it.
Both The Ring and The Ring Two focused their mysteries on the tragic life of Samara, the murdered girl who repeatedly crawls out of her well to seal the demise of anyone who watches her cursed video. After starting out fresh, Rings ends up doing more of the same stick we’ve seen before, opting to once again send its protagonists on a relatively technology-light hunt for clues about Samara’s early years in the hope of ending the curse.
Just another chronicle of dumb teenagers making bad decisions.
It’s a narrative decision that feels all too familiar at this point, and even a bit strange, given how much potential there was in the initial, high-tech story angle.
Rings also changes gears from the previous films by aging down its cast and effectively turning the film into just another chronicle of dumb teenagers making bad decisions.
This decision is almost as disappointing as the missed narrative opportunity with modern technology, as both the 2002 film and its sequel did a respectable job of making Naomi Watts’ protagonist seem fairly intelligent and capable. Lutz and Roe’s characters, in comparison, tend to be the sort who see nothing wrong with throwing open every foreboding door they come across and splitting up in creepy buildings for no good reason.
Although Lutz and Roe fall into traditional roles in the film, Galecki is a standout in an otherwise forgettable cast. Unfortunately, the film shortchanges the elements of the story dealing with his character’s experiment, giving the audience frustratingly little exposure to his character.
Also playing a memorable part in the film is Daredevil actor Vincent D’Onofrio, who’s become fascinating to watch in just about any role lately. As the blind caretaker of a cemetery Lutz and Roe’s characters encounter, D’Onofrio plays a supporting role that’s entertaining for the brief amount of time he spends on screen. His part feels like a cameo, but he plays it like a much larger role.
By far the weakest entry in the series so far, Rings feels like a let-down all around, lacking the scare factor of the original – and its sequel – and neglecting to make up for it by bringing something fresh and innovative to the franchise. The characters all feel too cookie-cutter at times, doing everything they shouldn’t do in the grand tradition of forgettable horror films. Even Samara herself seems to have lost a step in the scare game, and falls short of prompting the sort of pants-wetting response that her early appearances in the franchise provoked so easily.
With how quickly it falls back on old tricks, Rings is content to coast along on its reputation instead of surprise its audience, and the end result is a movie that feels far too generic than it should be with its unique premise.