Samara Morgan, the demonic, well-dwelling little girl with a face constantly obscured by wet, black hair, never really got her fair shake as an American horror icon. Introduced in 2002’s The Ring—a remake of the Japanese horror hit Ringu and one of the rare American remakes to vastly surpass the quality of its progenitor—Samara seemed destined to ride that film’s huge success into the big leagues of franchised horror. She had a unique look and a terrific gimmick, and therefore met the basic standards for admission into the genre’s rogues’ gallery. Yet apart from a single sequel (2005’s wholly forgettable The Ring Two), Samara found herself left behind, stuck down in the dank well of forgotten would-be franchises.
The Johnny-come-lately third sequel Rings finally dusts Samara off and puts her back into play, but with the lingering sense that her moment has passed and cannot be reclaimed. After all, vengeful she-wraiths are a dime a dozen in contemporary horror (Blumhouse alone employs scads). The Ring brought J-horror to the masses at a time when the last vestiges of Scream had died out and left a vacuum in the genre that desperately needed filling. But the J-horror well also dried up, replaced by torture-porn, which was usurped by the remake boon, which gave way to the found-footage trend, which is now also on the wane. Horror trades on trends more than any other genre of film, and The Ring’s moment in the sun was several fads back. As with Scream 4, the onus is on Rings to find a way to cleverly reinvent itself for the new era it now occupies. And as with Scream 4, it fails to meet that challenge.
At some point years after the efforts of Naomi Watts’ Rachel Keller to rid the world of Samara, the precocious little ghost is still playing at her signature game. Her cursed videotape is still making the rounds, infecting all who watch it with the seven-day death march (replete with the courtesy call to inform the watcher of their impending doom). In the nifty opening sequence, one viewer experiences his one-week reckoning while on a crowded plane. The tape belonging to that doomed passenger winds up in the vintage-tech-loving hands of Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), a college professor with no clue of what he’s entering into when he hits the play button on his VCR. We are also introduced to blandly perfect couple Julia and Holt (Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe), sweethearts trying out the long-distance thing when Holt leaves for college. After a period of no contact from Holt, as well as an unsettling Skype call from one of Holt’s classmates (Aimee Teegarden), Julia decides to drive to the campus to see what’s going on. There she finds that Gabriel has been running a network built around the videotape, encouraging students to watch it while enlisting others to act as “tails,” watching copies of the tape to inherit the curse before passing it along and continuing the cycle.
After bearing witness to a Samara attack, Julia learns that Holt is next on the chopping block. Despite Holt’s urgings to the contrary, Julia watches the tape to absolve Holt of his damnation. However, she isn’t content to simply pass the curse along to the next poor sap and keep the chain going. She wants to stop it altogether, and she feels that the way to do that is to find out what happened to Samara during her brief, tormented life and bring the restless spirit a measure of peace. Emboldening Julia in her quest is the fact that her copy of the tape contains new footage never before seen in previous versions.
The rules that govern the world of The Ring are ripe with so much potential for fun tweaking, especially in the exponential ways that technology has evolved since 2002, back when VHS was still a thing. What’s frustrating about Rings is how it sidles up to some of these conceits before backing away sheepishly and embracing the tried and true. That plane sequence falsely gives the indication that Rings is going to tinker with convention by taking Samara’s guidelines to exciting new places. In the previous films, Samara claimed her victims in dark houses with few (if any) eyewitnesses. What happens if someone hits their seven-day mark in a large crowd of people? That’s a fascinating idea, but Rings neglects to explore it, cutting away from the plane sequence far too soon rather than seeing it through and then dealing with its ramifications. Further, what happens if someone were to load the video onto YouTube and it goes viral? What if someone aired it during the Super Bowl and then Samara had to claim a large chunk of the planet’s population at once? The whole concept is positively juicy with creative possibilities.
So what does Rings opt to do? Why, retrace the plot of the first film, of course. Julia sets off on a quest to a small town to dredge up details about Samara’s childhood, just as Rachel Keller did before. Julia also meets the same sorts of shady or haunted yokels who know more than they let on about the past. Along the way, Julia also has to deal with the visions and paranormal hinkiness that accompany the weeklong curse. The film unfolds so similarly to The Ring that it acts more in the capacity of a remake than a sequel. More bafflingly, it also borrows bits of data from The Ring Two while also contradicting some of that film’s revelations, which is perplexing since 1) most people couldn’t tell you one thing that happened in The Ring Two if you put a gun to their heads, and 2) even if they did remember anything from it, this movie rewrites that film’s chain of events. Rings can’t decide if it’s a film for Ring aficionados or Ring neophytes, making it a film essentially for neither.
In a brutally nondescript cast, only Galecki shows any personality, harkening back to his pre-Big Bang gig in I Know What You Did Last Summer. The only other casting choice of note is Vincent D’Onofrio as a character whose gist is immediately clear from the fact that he’s played by Vincent D’Onofrio (this also leads to a climax that’s like an inept microcosmic version of Don’t Breathe). The film also lacks the dread-saturated atmosphere that Gore Verbinski brought to the original film. What’s left is a whole lot of nothing in particular. It also leaves Samara in the same cultural limbo she’s resided in for 15 years, still not emerging as the memorable figure of terror that she was initially. The real kicker is that Sadako, the Samara counterpart in Ringu, has just been deployed in Sadako vs. Kayako, where she fights the villainess of Ju-On, the original Japanese version of The Grudge. That’s a fun concept, more novel than anything in Rings. Maybe Samara needs to step into the ring with Annabelle to keep afloat, culturally.
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