It's been nearly two decades since the Japanese horror movie Ringu introduced the world to a new kind of specter, a pale-grey ghost with stringy black hair and the hitch-like movements of a body that looked like its bones had been reversed and rearranged. (For non-horror fans, it's something akin to Elaine Benes dancing on Seinfeld.) A sudden influx of J-horror flooded genre festivals and indie theaters and a wave of early 2000s Americanizations followed, starting with the 2002 hit The Ring and continuing with films like The Grudge, Dark Water, and One Missed Call. The trendlet had nearly run its course by the time The Ring Two cashed in three years later, and audiences seemed content to leave it at that.
Until now, apparently.
Nearly 12 years after the sequel, Rings has arrived to answer all the questions audiences can't possibly remember having asked. There's nothing inherently wrong with a J-horror revival — the genre cycles through its past as frequently as any — but Ringu and The Ring are rooted in an era when VHS was the dominant format, and the specific qualities of the cassettes and the images were important to their visceral effect. After all, the hook of The Ring series is that people who watch an unmarked tape have seven spooky days to live before a ghost emerges from a well on the TV screen and drags them into the hereafter. It's not really a Blu-ray or streaming sort of idea.
Nevertheless, the makers of Rings — which is to say none of the directors, screenwriters, or cast members of the previous incarnations — try their best to update to Version 2.0. After an opening stinger on an airplane, where a passenger sweats through the last few minutes of his seven days, the film settles on Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), a college professor who picks up an old VCR from a street vendor. (He's told that its previous owner died in a plane crash two years earlier.) When Gabriel brings the machine home and hooks it up to his TV, he discovers a mysterious tape inside and decides to check it out, after which he gets the dreaded phone call telling him he has a week to live.
From there, the professor makes the format change from VHS to a digital file and he manufactures his own viral sensation as a way of sparing his own life. As each new student watches the video, they become the focus for Samara, the murderous ghost, and so they in turn expose another student to it for temporary protection. (The rules are similar to It Follows, a vastly superior horror film from a couple years ago.) When one of the affected students, Holt (Alex Roe), goes missing, his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz) tracks him down and they venture off together to a mysterious, childless town to understand what happened to Samara and figure out how to lift the curse.
Because of the seven-day rule, the big scares are generally limited to the bookends, when Samara finally crawls out of the well and does her grisly business. The first American version of The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski, proved extraordinarily effective in making that long second act count, shifting nimbly from a shocker to a chilling gothic mystery, steeped in the cloudy ambience of the Pacific Northwest. Rings pursues the same strategy, with Georgia a frugal substitute for Washington State, and the notion of a childless town with a secret is a potent one, especially when a hulking Vincent D'Onofrio turns up as its most eccentric resident.
But Rings cannot make sense of the hodgepodge of old and new mythology, which confuses a Samara origin story that had already been settled in the other entries. Director F. Javier Gutiérrez and his screenwriting team abandon Gabriel and his nefarious operation on campus, but they struggle to fill the time with anything more than exposition and the occasional jump-scare to jostle the audience awake. At one point, an umbrella is opened in front of the camera. It's the biggest shock in the movie.