Rings (2017) Directed by F. Javier Gutierrez. Starring Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex Roe and Johnny Galecki. Vengeful spirit Samara Morgan returns to terrorize bland characters and leave rubbery faced corpses behind, but now she’s in a digital file instead of that banged up old videotape. Fancy!
Whether you’ve read Koji Suzuki’s novels or seen the Japanese and American film versions, by now we all know the story of the girl pushed into the well. She lived for seven days of torment, gazing up at the ring of sunlight filtering in around the well’s stone cap. Later, her spirit imprinted itself on a VHS tape in the form of a black and white art house snuff film. Upon viewing it, you get a helpful phone call informing you that in seven days, your ass is grass. Sure enough, a week later your television vomits an angry ghost onto the living room floor. And then you die, unless you make a copy and show an unsuspecting someone the footage, freeing you from the curse and damning them.
In this third film, following 2005’s “Ring Two,” a college professor named Gabriel acquires the dreaded VHS tape and forms a group of death-defying students called The Sevens. They view and analyze the video before copying it for their “tails”, the clueless folks who serve to remove Samara’s curse from the Sevens by taking it on themselves. Gabriel hopes to scientifically prove the existence of the soul beyond the death of the body using Samara’s strange form of immortality as a template, which makes as much sense as trying to prove the existence of fire by bathing yourself in napalm first.
We know that they’re very serious about all this science stuff because each member of the Sevens is given a special elevator key that leads to the 7th floor of a college campus building, where the gang of morons hang out in a secret nightclub-slash-laboratory. As monitors count down the time each has left to find themselves a tail and save their own lives, they sit around drinking and flirting. I mean, sciencing!
Does “Rings” attempt to legitimize all this silliness with even a shred of comprehensible pseudoscience? Nope! We only know it has something to do with something.
The screenwriters don’t even understand what the Sevens and their pot smoking leader are up to, so communicating it to the audience is beyond their reach.
After a student named Holt goes into hiding towards the end of his seven days, his girlfriend Julia shows up on campus asking questions. Within a few minutes, she has obtained the elevator key, infiltrated The Sevens double secret nightclub, read Gabriel’s book about Samara and finally met the long-haired spirit herself.
For all the film’s many failings, their meeting through the glass pane of a door is a little eerie because Samara can’t kill her.
After seeing the horrific result of watching the video, Julia immediately watches a copy of Holt’s video and saves him, seemingly dooming herself. Instead of receiving the traditional hand print mark on her back like other viewers do, Julia has a word in Braille burnt into her hand. She discovers that her version of the video is longer than everyone else’s. It contains new images of cicadas, a church in the wilderness, a flood, a flock of birds, a pregnant teenager and more.
Guided by these visions, Julia and Holt head out to find Samara’s final resting place and uncover the truth she is trying to broadcast from beyond the grave. Their journey takes them to the tiny rural town of Sacrament Valley and a cemetery watched over by a mysterious blind man who reveals dark secrets about Samara’s painful origins.
The problems with RINGS are threefold:
1. Nothing that occurs in the entire 102 minutes is scary.
There’s no mystery anymore, because we know exactly what happens at the end of your seven-day death sentence. And without the element of the unknown, the fear dissipates. The first film had a ticking clock meets mystery element shot through with urgency. “Rings” is a tranquil Hawaiian vacation by comparison…nobody cares what day it is. You can just put your feet up and relax. With barely six hours left to live, Holt decides to take a nap. Huh? If it were me, I’d be out on the streets ringing a bell and wearing a sandwich board that read: “Wanna Watch A Free Video?”
After the publicized release delays that pushed the film back and the fact that it has three credited screenwriters and one of them wrote the hilarious 1997 disaster-piece “Batman And Robin,” we knew “Rings” would face an uphill battle.
2. The script is a jumble of half-formed ideas and nonsensical character motivations.
After Julia watches through a keyhole as Samara kills a woman on her 7th day, she elects to befriend and assist the incredibly hostile spirit. They don’t quite get to the level of painting each other’s toenails during a sleepover, but it goes in that direction. Seeing firsthand the fright-faced corpses Samara leaves in her wake, Julia makes the counterintuitive decision to support and trust the wicked phantom. And she seems to have been mystically chosen for the position of personal assistant, despite the lack of any defining character traits. We learn only two things about Holt and Julia: they’re in love and not particularly smart. There’s nothing wrong with a horror movie where story is emphasized over blood and guts, but with such a simple back story and character motivations so all over the place, it just doesn’t hang together.
A good chunk of the back half of “Rings” feels very much like a Lifetime Original Movie involving sexual abuse, predatory men and abduction. The sequel also attempts to link Samara with Biblical plagues and twist her into being a kind of Karmic punishment for a religious man gone wrong by giving her an origin involving evil horny priests.
Gone is the atmosphere of slowly suffocating dread and mystery conjured up by Gore Verbinski in “The Ring,” a remake that stands up strong to its Japanese counterpart. That film also benefited from Naomi Watts’s warm, empathetic performance. Which brings us to the third problem.
3. Matilda Lutz is a bad lead.
Lovely Swedish actress and model Matilda Lutz plays Julia in a kind of sleepy hypno-trance. Conveying emotions and distress is essential for a performer in a horror film, and Lutz is virtually neutral.
If we don’t buy into Jamie Lee Curtis’s terror at the end of “Halloween” or Marilyn Burns running in abject panic from Leatherface in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” there’s no sympathetic anchor to latch onto.
There exists the argument that actors need not bring their best efforts to a horror film because often characters are dumb cannon fodder with killer bodies and highly removable clothing. And my response to that is Jane Levy (“Evil Dead,” “Don’t Breathe”) or Sharni Vinson (“You’re Next,” “Bait,” “Patrick”) or Angela Bettis (“May,” “Toolbox Murders,” “The Woman,” “Scar,” “Wicked Lake”). These are just a few women who deliver compelling performances time and again.
Admittedly, Matilda gets little assistance from the weak script. Julia makes a series of magically instinctual decisions in the film that defy logic in the process of serving the anemic story. And her dialogue is…well, see for yourself. Here’s a taste of the scene where Holt goes off to college:
“I’m gonna miss your smell.”
It’s Oscar winning material. And once the doofy romantic stuff is over and Julia plays detective, matters take a turn for the worse. She never seems troubled by the fact that her lifespan is suddenly one week, or that people around her are dying in horrendous ways. Her absence of concern gives her character a lack of substance. And we need to believe in her.
Johnny Galecki does well as Gabriel Brown, the douchebag college professor who risks the lives of his students by exposing them to the video as part of a vaguely defined study involving the immortality of the soul. Or something. And Vincent D’Onofrio is very convincing as blind cemetery groundskeeper Galen Burke, who watches over Samara’s bones after Naomi Watts brought them up from the well in “The Ring.”
His character has significant impact on the story, but the script fails him and us with a ridiculous resolution to his arc. Part of his story illustrates an odd healing power we didn’t know Samara had, which creates a rather silly payoff towards the end.
Three films in, is it really wise to suddenly unveil yet another fantastic magical ability into a fairly rigid mythology? In “Superman 3,” Clark Kent didn’t grow 100 feet tall and then go “Hey, guys. I could do this all along, but I just chose not to.” It’s cheating. Instead of honoring the rules of the mythology by finding a clever way to navigate through them, they simply smashed the format in service to a narrative that wasn’t worth all the rule breaking.
My guess is that director F. Javier Gutierrez saw “The Ring” and was so spooked by it, he decided to comfort himself by crafting a sequel that stripped Samara Morgan of her ability to scare anyone. Gone is her eerie, menacing allure. If you must subject yourself to this watered-down insult to horror fans, you should hurry, because the sequel ironically serves as an inverted form of Samara’s own personal time-table: she appears in seven days, and “Rings” will vanish in a week from theaters.