In third grade, I distinctly remember the coolest kids in school speaking in hushed whispers about a film almost too scary to talk about: THE RING. Considering the fact that I even had to get PG movies approved by my parents, my virginal mind couldn’t fathom the concept of willfully electing to view and enjoy a horror film. Titillated by the dark wonders of my imagination, I was entirely preoccupied with the concept of the film: a cursed videotape that would kill anyone a week after viewing it. In order to gain some social capital, I constructed a blatant lie and informed everyone that I had watched Gore Verbinski’s J-horror remake. Making up plot points on the fly, I became one of the coolest kids in school for a few days, wisely avoiding those who had actually watched the film over the shoulder of their older siblings. My version of the story and mythos probably made just as much sense as whatever the Hell is going on in RINGS.
Apparently still firmly dedicated to spreading misinformation about one of Japan’s most successfully imported cultural products, I walked into F. Javier Gutierrez’s English-language debut firmly convinced that it was a reboot. But no; in fact, the financial warlocks of Paramount decided to give us a threequel that nobody was clamoring for 12 years after the THE RING TWO was dead in the water. In the present day, resident spooky spirit Samara Morgan (Bonnie Morgan) is still busy sending hapless teenagers to sleep with the fishes after a week-long grace period. When college professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) buys a VCR with an old VHS containing Samara’s cursed footage, he is inspired to set up a research facility where he has his students watch the tape, record their experiences, and be freed from a gruesome fate when the next volunteer takes up the mantle. Julia (Matilda Lutz) heads to the college that Gabriel teaches at to find her boyfriend, Holt (Alex Roe), who has recently been missing in action. She discovers that Holt has been participating in Gabriel’s experiments, and watches the tape after Holt fails to find someone to be next in the chain. Julia, however, resolves to put the vengeful spirit to rest once and for all instead of passing the curse on to someone else, leading to a journey back to Samara’s hometown to try to figure out how it all began.
The first half-hour of RINGS is the kind of gleefully incoherent drivel endemic of the first horror film of any given year. Indeed, I was often reminded of this year’s example, THE BYE BYE MAN, as the script sputtered and lurched in an attempt to assign any semblance of justification or verisimilitude to its plot. Ignoring the fact that the film opens on a doomed airplane, with a shot of the Paramount logo on the seat-back screens suggesting a strange vortex where the movie exists within its own world, the levels of suspension of disbelief required to swallow Gabriel’s research facility approach the astronomical. The film seemingly unknowingly manages to hit upon the youth’s morbid fascination with the type of urban legend that Samara’s tape represents, considering that the tape now amounts to a killer meme, with the context of the last few years of internet culture, but the execution of the theme makes no sense. Did Gabriel really construct the entire laboratory and get a self-sufficient horde of willing test subjects in a matter of weeks? Why are we suddenly told that interest is drying up and that nobody will take one for Team Holt? Why is Samara still scary if we are literally given a clear-cut and empirically proved method for keeping her at bay, which our main characters then decide to blatantly ignore? The script’s multiple writers and I don’t seem to have the answers at the ready.
But then, while not exactly finding its footing, RINGS manages to at least land a few steps in the same direction. Julia and Holt’s journey to Samara’s hometown of Sacrament Valley, and the sleuthing and spooking they experience within, marks a distinct shift into the realm of an entirely different movie. Clearly having sweated its way through enough footage to requisitely tie the film in with the previous two, the remaining two-thirds of RINGS aren’t nearly as embarrassing as the first. It’s still grossly copy-pasted from every subpar genre outing from the last ten years, but Samara is at least given the chance to seem appropriately menacing, and there are some mildly interesting visuals that bear some consideration from time to time.
The search for Samara’s corpse, which will allegedly free the spirit if burned, takes Julia and Holt to lonely graveyards, empty bed and breakfasts, and the home of an initially friendly blind man named Burke (Vincent D’Onofrio). Things may not exactly be masterful, but I was at least inspired to put my fingers over my eyes a few times as Julia crawls into ever more dark and claustrophobic spaces, upsetting several ghosts in the process. But then, as Burke is revealed to be more intimately connected to Samara, the film throws up its hands and elects to become a cheap, bastardized DON’T BREATHE clone, with Julia and Holt having to quietly stop, drop, and roll their way around Burke’s home. More impressed with the audacity and laziness than I was with the actual narrative shift, I can’t say that the film doesn’t end stronger than it begins, but that’s only because it seems content to unapologetically ape the surface-level aesthetics of its more vetted horror peers.
However, even though RINGS wipes at least some of the egg off of its face, there is no excuse for the resolutely putrid acting that infiltrates every modicum of the viewing experience. Characters seem constantly baffled, not only by the circumstances surrounding them, but by the fact that they have to occasionally deliver lines of dialogue to begin with. Matilda Lutz’s lack of human emotion in the face of any and every supernatural challenge that faces her has us admiring her bravery while also questioning her vitality, and Johnny Galecki’s haughty gentlesir projections and saucy eyebrow movements are laughably overdone. Alex Roe’s acting isn’t atrocious enough to take away the appeal of his washboard abs, and Vincent D’Onofrio successfully confirms our assumption that he’s the only one here who has any idea what he’s doing, but the soulless and eye-rolling interjections of minor bit characters will continually keep the audience rolling in the aisles. Even Bonnie Morgan, a bona fide contortionist, doesn’t even get to do any particularly gritty body movements, typically electing to stand menacingly in the reflection of mirrors.
The shame of it is that, had Paramount elected to do so, a reboot of the franchise actually does make a quantifiable amount of sense. With a decade of shock videos, creepypasta, and viral video content between the film and its predecessors, Samara and her cursed .mov could reasonably carve out a new niche in the modern public consciousness. Online forums share things comparable to Samara’s video like wildfire, and it’s a shame that RINGS doesn’t make even the slightest attempt to address the ubiquity and pervasiveness of online sharing apart from the final minute of the film. With just enough studio flare and production value to confirm the depressing realization that some people actually gave a shit (the soundtrack, in particular, is a hoot), RINGS doesn’t even manage to be fun. But as a horror fan, I already know I’ll inevitably throw my money at the next installment, so at the end of the day, the franchise has already won.
Although mildly saved in the second half, Rings is so disjointed and half-baked that it’s ultimately a lost cause.