There was a time when horror films would be most prominent around towards the end of the year, the darkening evenings encouraging scary stories told by the fireside, the spirit of Hallowe’en in the air, but in recent years there has been a second concentration of horror releases as an “alternative Valentine” for those who do not find romantic comedies sufficient encouragement to attend the cinema.
The caveat to this is that the material released in that window is generally substandard, films for which the studios had higher hopes than the finished product justifies: consider The Bye Bye Man, The Forest, The Boy, Devil’s Due, Texas Chainsaw 3D, all of which received significant marketing spend in hopes that saturation advertising would overcome the absence of quality even in a genre whose audience does not demand quality. Rings is such a film.
Third in the American Ring sequence, twelve years after Naomi Watts’ Rachel Keller last faced the demonic ghost of Samara Morgan, it follows the model established in Hideo Nakata’s original 1998 adaptation of Kôji Suzuki’s novel of a cursed videotape which kills all who view it but does not revisit any of the principal characters other than Samara herself whose childhood has received significant revision.
Eschewing the traditional method of building atmosphere and dread, slowly twisting an apparently normal situation to the point where both the characters and the audience come to truly believe that something terrible is about to happen, Rings opens with the major setpiece of the film as Samara unleashes her nensha upon an aeroplane on final approach to Seattle, manifesting through the seatback monitors.
From this overblown opening scene it then jumps two years into the future where Gabriel (In Time‘s Johnny Galecki) is scouring a fleamarket for a videocassette recorder for no apparent reason; the one he finds, complete with tape inside marked “watch me,” once belonged to a man who died in a place crash two years previously. At home that night, he obeys the instruction…
Elsewhere, sweethearts Julia and Holt (former model Matilda Lutz and The 5th Wave‘s Alex Roe) say their farewells before he departs for college, promising to Skype every night, but less than two months later Holt breaks their date, Julia instead connecting with a hysterical girl who demands to know where Holt is. Concerned, Julia drives to Holt’s college where she meets his associate professor of biology, Gabriel, who lies to her about Holt’s whereabouts…
For those unfamiliar with the story of Ringu, all is explained in an opening scene so gratuitously dumb it is difficult to comprehend how what follows could be worse before unleashing a narrative car crash whose galloping timeline and utter disdain for suspense speak of a fundamental inability to grasp the genre on the part of director F Javier Gutiérrez which might explain why release has been delayed over a year past the originally proposed date of November 2015.
The script astonishingly a collaboration of three experienced writers, David Loucka who penned what became the incompetent bungle of Dream House, Mean Creek‘s Jacob Aaron Estes and I, Robot‘s Akiva Goldsman, the two key characters are women, Julia and the vengeful spirit of Samara, yet it reads as though collectively none of the writers have ever actually spoken to a girl in their lives so woefully are they represented. While Samara was born without a soul Julia was born without a personality, and it is difficult to decide who of the two is the less fortunate.
A far cry from Naomi Watts’ independent working mother, Julia is an unformed child defined solely in terms of her relationship with a man, Lutz drifting through every scene with listless apathy. Wistfully staring at her phone when Holt doesn’t text, she barges into his lecture theatre and, rather than explaining justified concern about a missing student, instead burbles “I’m looking for my boyfriend,” prompting Gabriel to, understandably, dismiss her as unimportant.
There are scant moments which are effective, the rain flowing up the windows as lightning flashes reveal a landscape which should not be there, but Samara Morgan has simply never been as interesting or as creepy as her Japanese counterpart Sadako Yamamura whom she still echoes, Rings already having been beaten to the punch in several plot points by Sadako vs Kayako which at least offered a valid reason why an ancient videocassette recorder be acquired.
Dull, predictable and so dingy as to make it seem the concept of a lighting director was abandoned altogether, the sole original idea of a tag-team cult built around the curse is ludicrously handled (how many dozens of people did Gabriel show the video to in the first week before they started dying?) then squandered in favour of yet another retread of the earlier films.
With a final “shock” scene which is featured almost in its entirety in the trailer, like so many horror sequels Rings should have been thrown into the bottom of a deep well and bricked over, if only were it not for the fear that it would continue to broadcast its curse from beyond the grave.