Director: F. Javier Gutiérrez
Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Johnny Galecki, Alex Rose
What next for the presumed-dead Ring movies? It’s a question that Rings – the third installment in the American iteration of the franchise – struggles to answer, flitting from one idea to another and steadfast refusing to settle. There are four or five little movies all fighting for control here. Whether any of them are honestly worth pursuing remains debatable. As the Se7en-style end credits roll, nothing feels decisive. This is a messy, ill-thought-out excursion. Fleetingly interesting in parts, mystifying in others.
Hideo Nakata’s original film which kicked all of this off is 20 years old, near enough, and is as much a part of horror history as the VHS cassette is an artifact of technology now deemed arcane. Technophobia recurs in horror cinema through the decades, working best when it twists new i.e. ‘current’ devices against us. Think the underrated Unfriended from a couple of years ago (Ring‘s true spiritual stepchild), effectively warping Skype and social media against a bunch of teenage dirtbags. But the Ring series is sentimental about that black plastic brick housing cursed videotape – at least initially – so it’s still a videotape that kicks everything off.
Or is it? The film’s pointless cold open is good news for those late to the screening, as it has no bearing whatsoever on the film that follows. A ‘cute’ boy on an aeroplane tells a ‘cute’ girl next to him that he’s watched the tape. Then everyone aboard sees the ‘tape’ on their in-flight screens (why? how?). Then the plane seemingly goes down, presumably into one of the narrative black holes that pop up with semi-regularity as the film goes on. College lecturer Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) watches a tape, but after that the film seems happier relying on data files. The method of distribution has lost significance. What has replaced it is unclear.
Principally we follow well-meaning nice girl Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) as she goes looking for her long distance boyfriend Holt (Alex Rose) when he stops returning her calls. Driving to his campus, she discovers he has become involved in a clandestine (but not particularly careful) study group researching the dreaded Samara film.
This idea of a kind of awful hipster pyramid scheme piques early interest as its purpose is only loosely defined. Gabriel tosses off a line about researching the existence of the soul, but it feels like there are other motives underlying that. The communal death wish aspect – vaguely cultish – is a curious one. Gabriel is the mastermind behind the project, finding ‘tails’ for those taking part in the experiment; someone to deliberately save a cursed person by freely following them into Samara’s seven day cycle of terror in order to perpetuate it. Yet, just like the plane at the beginning and it’s consequences, this aspect too will fall by the wayside as Julia’s experience of the cursed video opens up another avenue of intrigue. Julia sees a new set of images, leading her and Holt to investigate the history of Samara even further, in essence returning us to the structure of film one.
Director F. Javier Gutiérrez looks to ape the pallid green-tinged visual style of his predecessors and, in fairness, with his perpetual rain and dreary interiors, manages to at least make Rings look as though it belongs in the series. However, the way in which he assembles his film with editors Steve Mirkovich and Jeremiah O’Driscoll feels grab-bag. Scenes don’t feel as though they flow easily, shot selections feel jumbled and scatterbrained. Like the stop-start narrative, Rings doesn’t feel cohesive even within individual scenes.
A glance at the credits reveals why the story seems so disjointed. Multiple writers are listed and one can sense the push-pull of conflicting ideas still playing out as the film rolls. Julia’s investigation into Samara takes up the film’s back-end, but there’s no momentum to it. By the time we’re in this stretch, the rules have been polluted. Does she even have seven days anymore? Keeping track of time seems irrelevant so as a result there’s no urgency. The disconnected images in Julia’s version of the tape only seem to exist in order to fulfill breadcrumb trails on a cliff-noted and dissatisfying mystery that revolves around Vincent D’Onofrio’s blind man Burke. D’Onofrio runs on fumes here, not quite giving enough effort to mask the whiff of pay-cheque snatching. The finale caps it all, bending the series into a new realm seemingly for the hell of it. What an odd series of choices.
The film isn’t scary. Gutiérrez doesn’t seem to have the patience for horror, or doesn’t quite understand how to effectively create an atmosphere of dreaded tension. So instead Rings plays as a dour supernatural mystery, but it’s rather like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle using the pieces from several different boxes. You might manage to join enough pieces together, find your corners and thread the thing into a neat enough rectangle, but the picture’s a total mess and nobody’s going to be able to determine what they’re looking at.
There are enough interesting half-ideas here to make the film watchable, but it’s regrettable that nothing comes together robustly. That it’s been assembled like this suggests a rush job, a film made to a deadline that simply doesn’t exist (nobody was counting down to this were they?). If that’s the case why not hold off until the material is worth the expenditure? I’ve sat through enough dire straight-to-streaming titles on Netflix to know that this isn’t nearly the worst that horror has to offer. But that’s precious little comfort. Rings feels like exactly what it is; a belated and unlikely second sequel to a dying franchise. Unless someone drags this vehicle up-to-date with a coherent vision, there’s no real reason for Samara to continue flopping damply out of television screens anymore.