It’s been nearly fifteen years since “The Ring” terrorized American audiences with its stomach-churning tale of a deadly VHS tape. Since then, much has changed in technology and horror, forcing the third installment of this freaky franchise to break new ground, and break away from the plot’s video cassette roots. Regrettably, this glitchy sequel is more underwhelming than upgrade.
In “Rings,” the world has moved from VHS to Quicktime, yet the plagued video lives on, and its cryptic creator Samara soon finds a new naive heroine to torment, in tenacious college co-ed Julia (Matilda Lutz). When her long-distance boyfriend (Alex Roe) stops answering his phone, Julia bolts to his campus to find he’s fallen into a cult-like extracurricular project that involves watching the tape and charting one’s experience with Samara, who threatens to stalk, torment, then murder her prey in seven days. But when the contingency plan of the smirking college professor (Johnny Galecki) go awry, a student ends up dead. And more will follow unless Julia and her doe-eyed dope of a boyfriend figure out how to stop Samara by unlocking new secrets of the contorting creeper’s origin. This sends them away from campus, and on an all too familiar path that bizarrely discards the franchise’s well-known and effective “seven days” ticking clock device.
Screenwriters David Loucka (“Dream House”), Jacob Aaron Estes (“Mean Creek”) and Akiva Goldsman (“Winter’s Tale”) establish an intriguing new setting for Samara to terrorize: a college campus full of attractive but smug teens all too willing to gamble their lives to impress their “cool” professor. Much mayhem and a gruesome body count could be had here. But then–just as things get rolling–“Rings” screeches to a halt, and ships Julia off to a remote town, where she’s doomed to retrace the investigation plot of “The Ring.” Sure, the specifics are different. This time we learn about Samara’s damnable birth parents instead of her flawed foster ones. But the results are foreseeable and therefore gallingly dull. By the time Vincent D’Onofrio shows up as a barrel-chested, blind local, you’ll get premonitions of the final act. And you’ll be right.
It’s a shame the script loses faith in the initial concept, then chucks it for one more familiar. This choice invites more direct comparisons to “The Ring,” and Lutz suffers greatly for it. Though “The Ring”s single-mom Rachel Keller is never mentioned in this spun-off sequel, Naomi Watts’ performance lingers over “Rings” like a specter, reminding us what true terror looks like.
Watts’ film had intense stakes. Rachel was fighting to protect not only herself, but also her child, and even her irksome baby-daddy. Julia is fighting to save her sweet but otherwise undefined boyfriend, who is more a concept than a character. More importantly, Watts sold Rachel’s desperation and terror with a performance streaked with tears and accented by ragged breaths and rib-cage rattling screams. Astoundingly, Julia is defined by her lack of fear of Samara. Which means Lutz is left to fight for a thinly defined boyfriend, and with all the emotional resonance of a sleepwalker, leaving the audience numb instead of petrified.
On top of all this, the iconography of “The Ring” franchise hasn’t aged well, in part because the long-haired creepy girl has become so omnipresent in horror and its parodies that the icon has shifted from scary to unavoidably campy. Adding new black and white footage to Samar’s tape has promise but little payoff in scares. Even as director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to spin cicadas as the new flies, and strives to make Samara pulling herself out of a cellphone not ridiculous, it still falls flat. Truly time might be “Rings” greatest enemy.
The horror sequel has major flaws that prevent it from being as mind-meltingly scary as the first one. But it is cruel fate that planted “Rings” on a release date after we’ve learned that far scarier things can happen in seven days.
“Rings” is in theaters now.