You're an evil spirit who propagates herself via a creepy short film on a VHS tape. Whoever watches it dies seven days later. Nineteen years after you first burst on the cinematic world in the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, your native format is a thing of the past. The only people likely to fall prey to your seven-day curse are hipsters going through boxes of junk at garage sales. Do you (a) accept your obsolescence gracefully, or (b) get yourself digitized and uploaded and start systematically taking out the entire population?
Is that even a choice? Not for Samara, the grainy analog ghost child of the American franchise that began with Gore Verbinski's effectively chilling The Ring in 2002. In this belated sequel to the forgettable The Ring Two (2005), we know she'll go digital and viral; the only question is when. Unfortunately, in Rings, directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez from a hash of a screenplay credited to three writers, the path to that inevitability is meandering and not very scary.
The film starts with a tense teaser set on an airplane, which will prove virtually irrelevant to the plot. Next, it takes its time introducing two of the blandest, most underwritten, most woodenly acted protagonists in recent horror history: high school sweethearts Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) and Holt (Alex Roe).
They've been separated by college, where Holt has fallen in with a gang of students researching the killer video clip under the tutelage of a mad-scientist professor (Johnny Galecki). This part of the film cribs a clever idea from the short film "Rings" (created as a bonus feature for The Ring's 2005 rerelease): The kids game the ghost's system, escaping death by passing on her curse like a chain email.
When the buck stops with Holt, Julia voluntarily takes on the curse in his place. Jettisoning the promising college setup entirely, the story now speeds off to the small town where Samara's bones supposedly reside. There, in blue-tinged scenes full of imagery straight out of an uninspired demonic-possession flick (buzzing flies, defiled crosses), Julia attempts to appease and exorcise Samara by uncovering yet another chapter of her dull, derivative backstory. Anyone who has seen The Ring knows exactly where this is heading.
Waiting for our heroine to figure out what we already know, we can enjoy scenery chewing from Vincent D'Onofrio (as the town's resident exposition giver) and epically underwhelming jump scares. One involves a barking dog. At another point, the director is so desperate to goose the audience that he cuts to someone opening an umbrella very loudly.
Koji Suzuki, author of the original Ring novel, gave his story a twist that subverts horror conventions. It's a hard act to follow with more of the same — especially when the march of technology offers far more disturbing possibilities for the Ring concept. The black-and-white, surrealist-inspired imagery of the deadly short film will never stop being creepy, even with the superfluous additions it receives here. And the motif of the cursed clip resonates even more nowadays: How many of us have clicked on a video we later wished we could unsee?
By taking a few risks and giving the concept a true update, Gutiérrez and co. might have rebooted the franchise. Instead, they offer a disconnected hodgepodge of familiar scares. The final scene is nicely done, but it comes way too late to compensate for the preceding 100 minutes. Seven days after seeing Rings, you won't remember a thing about it.