Back in 2002, The Ring heralded the mainstream Asian horror crossover trend, and earned creepy-flick immortality on the strength of its unique (to American audiences) story, complex characters well-played by talented actors, and disturbingly moody visual style, courtesy of director Gore Verbinski. A lackluster sequel followed in '05, and after that, most assumed that malevolent, visually glitchy spirit Samara's haunted videotape had gone the way of, well, videotape.
But this is the horror genre, where you're never truly out of ideas, because digging up something that had some box-office success a while back and rebooting or serializing it is considered "an idea." And so, more than a decade later, we're offered a third look into Samara's backstory — one that manages to exemplify pretty much everything that's wrong with this kind of filmmaking.
The film opens with a brief plane-crash scene so hacky and unbelievable, you're actually surprised when it doesn't turn out to be a movie-within-a-movie playing on a screen somewhere within Rings' real opening scene. The wholly unnecessary vignette not only places two strangers who've both happened to see the same lost and urban-legendary videotape within a seat of one another on the same flight, but also features some massive collateral damage that runs completely counter to one of the franchise's central conceits: beyond those who knew Samara while she was alive, only people who watch the video are in mortal danger.
Fast-forward into the not-too-distant future, when morally ambiguous college professor Gabriel (played by Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki) buys one of the plane crash victims' VCRs at a market; it still has the tape in it, and through a lethally unfortunate series of events, he discovers that the video kills whoever watches it, seven days after the viewing. Fast-forward a bit further (yes, again), and we meet good-looking young lovers Julia and Holt, who are starting a long-distance relationship as they attend different colleges. Holt is headed to the school where Gabriel teaches; naturally, it's not long before Julia can't get him on the phone or Skype. When one of her calls is answered by an extremely distraught young woman who's also looking for Holt, Julia drops everything and goes in search of her man.
After questioning the not-at-all-suspicious Gabriel, Julia discovers Rings' only potentially interesting, if laughably implausible, plot point — that, in order to gain whatever knowledge the video possesses about the afterlife, the professor is recruiting students to watch it, then lining up other students to watch a copy just before the previous viewers' seven days are up, thus sparing their lives in a sort of direct-selling pyramid scheme of the damned. This particular story element is immediately discarded, though, as Julia finds Holt and discovers that he's watched the video, but lost his back-up. She watches the video to save his life and, as apparently the only person in the film with a functioning conscience, refuses to pass the curse along.
The rest of Rings is a more-or-less complete retread of The Ring, as Julia and Holt dig into Samara's life and death in a desperate, dwindling attempt to find a way to keep Julia alive. Sure, some details have changed — it concerns the girl's birth parents instead of her adoptive parents; there's a doomed town instead of a doomed little island; a Creepy Blind Oracle (played with gimme-my-money ambivalence by the normally stellar Vincent D'Onofrio) and an innkeeper provide exposition instead of, um, whoever did it in the first flick. But none of those little changes dilutes the frustrating feeling that we've seen this exact story before, executed much more compellingly.
There have been eleventy billion horror movies. The most effective ones show true fans of the genre something — a story, a conflict, a monster, a jump-scare, hell, even a visual effect — we haven't seen before. And seeing digital Samara climbing out of a flat-screen rather than analog Samara climbing out of a tube TV doesn't cut it. That's not adhering to a classic, tried-and-true formula; that's just a lazy cash-grab, and the horror cinemascape is littered with the corpses of franchises murdered by such a mindset. In a way, Rings retells that story, too — and it's another one that grows more tedious every time fans hear it.
2 out of 5 stars
Rated PG-13. Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez.
Starring Anna Ingrid Lutz, Johnny Galecki, Alex Roe, Vincent D'Onofrio.
Opens Fri., Feb. 3.