Ring, the original novel by Koji Suzuki, works from a killer premise. It focuses on a haunted videotape: if you watch it, you receive a mysterious phone call. Once you have answered that call, you have seven days left to live before the ghost of a murdered psychic girl named Sadako kills you. The only way to survive is to show the videotape to someone else. Then they have seven days to live. Suzuki plays the horror across multiple levels: the biological fear of a virus, the social fear of the urban myth, and a cultural fear based on Japanese folklore. The novel exploits the myth of the yūrei: vengeful drowned ghosts, soaking wet, with white faces and straggly black hair. Suzuki simply re-purposed these horror traditions for a modern readership.
Given the novel’s success, it is not a surprise that it was adapted for the screen, not once but numerous times in Japan, South Korea and the USA. While the American iteration of the franchise – in which Sadako was renamed Samara – appeared to die off with The Ring Two in 2005, it received a much-delayed revival 12 years later in the form of F. Javier Gutiérrez’s Rings.
The film limped into cinemas after a protracted delay. It was made for an American release in November 2015. That date was shoved back to April 2016, then to October 2016, and finally to February 2017. The finished film can’t help but show why: Rings is an inconsistent mess. If it did not receive a significant reshoot during its long delay then at the very least its screenplay was rewritten into oblivion. Depending on the given scene, Rings feels like three different sequels at once.
So there is the Ring-as-Final Destination opening, which looks to reframe the supernatural thriller into something more visceral and adolescent. There is the edgy college experiment first act, in which a secret university project has students watching Samara’s videos and recording the results. From there the bulk of the film comprises a more youthful remake of the original film, as students Julia (Matilda Lutz) and Holt (Alex Roe) go searching for wherever Samara’s remains were buried after they were recovered the first time.
Only one of these versions feels as if it has a purpose (the experiments), and its potential is squandered. While there is some effective horror imagery, the film is too quick to show off its supernatural effects and abandons any real chance of generating tension. When the film takes Julia into the college to uncover the experiments, it rushes things terribly. When she and Holt head off into rural America it slows down to an absolute grind. The lead performances are earnest but bland. The supporting performances, including actors Johnny Galecki as a seedy college professor and Vincent D’Onofrio as a blind cemetery attendant, are practically caricatures.
Ring is a source material with enormous potential, but a little of its technology-powered supernatural horror goes a very long way. Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake showed off an admirable restraint, and successfully replicated the original film’s rising dread to great effect. Made 15 years later, Rings feels as if that cursed videotape has been copied a few generations too many. One kind of hopes this is the end of it.