Jean-Luc Godard once said something to the effect that a story needs a beginning, middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Rings doesn’t really have much of a story, but it does have three beginnings, so it must be really, really good. Right?
It’s nearly 20 years since Sadako first started menacing screens of varying sizes in the original Ring, Hideo Nakata’s collision of traditional Japanese ghost tale and modern urban culture. It was a film that kicked off a western interest in all things J-horror, spawned a series of Japanese prequels and sequels, and an inevitable American remake, directed by Gore Verbinski in 2002. The Ring then got a sequel in 2005, and now we have Rings – an attempt to rethink the franchise’s VHS-based terrors for a digital age of massive flat-screen tellies and smartphones.
Much of the first reel is dedicated to explaining what on earth the Ring curse is, probably for a teen audience who’ve never even seen a videotape before. In short, watching a mysterious VHS tape full of surreal images leaves the viewer lumbered with a dreadful curse: after exactly seven days, the victim will suffer a terrifying death. The only way to lift the curse is by duping someone else into watching the tape.
In Rings, the cycle begins all over again when high school teen Julia (Matilda Lutz) discovers that her college student boyfriend, Holt (Alex Roe out of TV’s Hollyoaks) has gone missing. Driving over to the campus, Julia meets shifty science professor, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki out of TV’s Big Bang Theory), who’s found the videotape and used it for a rather spurious-sounding battery of experiments. This means the curse is back, and both Julia and Holt find themselves right in the middle of it.
Directed by Spain’s F Javier Gutierrez, Rings emerges as a muddled and unexpectedly low-rent supernatural thriller that’s more Edgar Allan Poe than exotic J-horror. Yes, the grainy footage and the lank-haired spectres are back, but the story – such as it is – soon becomes preoccupied with the history of a decaying old village and its surly inhabitants. Gutierrez gives isolated shots at least a modicum of visual flair, yet none of it really adds up to much: the jump-scares are sign-posted, and occur so regularly that you could almost set your watch by them.
Rings’ story is credited to David Loucka and Jacob Aaron Estes, while they’re joined in the screenwriting credits by industry stalwart Akiva Goldsman. I won’t claim to have inside knowledge of the movie’s production, but I’d be willing to bet my 1996 Akai video recorder that Rings was subjected to some liberal rewriting before its release. This would at least explain those three beginnings, the first of which, unaccountably, occurs on a plane and has no connection to the rest of the movie.
From there, Rings nosedives and never really recovers, largely thanks to a stunning confluence of banal dialogue, flat acting and almost non-existent characterisation. We learn nothing about Julia and Holt other than that they quite like each other. Galecki’s professor exists only to trigger events and spout exposition, before shuffling off because the story requires it. Vincent D’Onofrio turns up in a beard and sunglasses, having seemingly agreed to sign on only if he can play the part in disguise. Plot points are introduced and then swiftly dropped. Julia and Holt do things that defy explanation. Creepy things happen for no purpose other than because, I’m guessing, they happen to look quite cool when cut into a trailer.
Frustratingly, there’s almost certainly a better movie to be made about the Ring curse and the Web 2.0 era. What would happen if the evil footage turned up as an embed in a tweet, or disguised as a pirated Taken sequel on a Torrent site, or – lord forbid – as a viral video on YouTube? The closest Rings gets to anything like this is in the revolutionary idea that the VHS tape could be digitised and saved as a Quicktime file. This would have been a cutting-edge development, say, 12 years ago.
If Rings is intended as the foundation for more movies to come, its stale ideas and all-round half-heartedness may have nipped those plans in the bud. If Rings lingers at all, it’ll probably be because it’s unintentionally funny in several places: a real stand-out is the high-tension scene where Julia sees an image of a snake swallowing its tail (the ouroboros, pub trivia fans) and wails, “But I don’t know what that is!” in a voice worthy of Ron Burgundy at his most melodramatic.
Like the Wicker Man remake before it, Rings will likely have audiences shaking in the aisles – though not for the reasons its makers intended.
Rings is out now in UK cinemas.