Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez. Starring Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D'Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan, Laura Wiggins. (2017, PG-13, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 10, 2017
JVC may have manufactured the last VHS tape back in October of 2008, but that hasn’t curtailed the heretofore presumed moribund Ring franchise, in which assorted millennials die seven days after watching a cursed videotape featuring vengeful, screen-hopping ghost girl Samara and her long, long hair. While Gore Verbinski’s original 2002 The Ring – itself a remake of J-horror auteur Hideo Nakata’s 1998 mindblower Ringu – was a surprisingly excellent Americanization of a very Japanese genre film, Nakata’s film remains the go-to high dark-water mark for fans. Both films had plenty to say about the craven nature of humanity when confronted with viral doom, but the inevitable stateside sequel (2005’s The Ring Two) closely followed the law of diminishing returns, despite the participation of Sissy Spacek. Which brings us to Rings. I had hope that the digitization of a dead media spirit might offer a fresh take on the series, but while there’s an abundance of spooky atmosphere courtesy of director of photography Sharone Meir, the story, by screenwriters David Loucka and Jacob Estes, feels like a stretch, with too little characterization of its human protagonists and way too much backstory on Samara. (A mysterious figure to begin with, piling on more explanatory exposition only serves to advance the plot in fits and starts while depriving the specter of her slimy, contortionistic, and reality-shattering charm.)
To director Gutiérrez’s credit, Rings starts off with an in-flight bang before getting into the meat of the story: Twentysomething Julia (Lutz) has lost contact with her off-at-college boyfriend Holt (Roe). Setting herself in full-on Nancy Drew mode, she discovers her guy is part of an experiment led by human behavior professor Gabriel (Galecki), who has digitized the original VHS footage and is using his students as guinea pigs in a frankly baffling attempt to prove the supernatural exists. Or something along those lines. The theory that seems to be in play here is that if one were to keep passing the tape on to another (the only way to prevent a viewer's certain demise) within a closed loop of people, no one would ever have to risk Samara’s wrath. Yeah, right.
Rings is an unfortunate and often incomprehensible mess that kicks off with a neat premise and then never fully explores it. The denouement, in which – spoiler! – the digitized Ring video is released online for all the world to see, is about the only truly memorable, not to mention horrific, shock in a film that’s otherwise a snoozy retread of what’s been done better elsewhere. Even Vincent D’Onofrio’s blind cemetery caretaker with a hidden secret barely leaves a mark on your psyche. Die-hard fans of the original Japanese Ringu films are instead encouraged to check out the gleefully bonkers Fantastic Fest favorite Sadako vs. Kayako, in which the ghostly antagonists of Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge go head to head (hair to hair?), a la Freddy vs. Jason, only with far more entertaining results.