The makers of “Rings,” yet another of Hollywood’s long-gestating sequels, had an unenviable task: updating a horror franchise based on the premise of a cursed video tape that dooms those unlucky enough to watch it to die horribly in a exactly a week, unless they pass a copy on to some other unsuspecting watcher who will take on the curse in their place. Japanese director Hideo Nakata struck gold with the idea in 1998’s “Ringu,” and Gore Verbinski found success with his typically inferior English-language remake “The Ring” (2002), which in turn spawned its own Nakata-helmed sequel, “The Ring Two” (2005).
Now, twelve years later, VHS tapes and VCRs have gone the way of the dodo and even their successors, DVDs and Blu-rays, are falling out of favor, but that hasn’t stopped a new director—F. Javier Gutierrez—and writers David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman to try their hand at reviving the property. They adopt what was probably the only plausible tack in bringing the premise up-to-date—tracking the new “outbreak” to a guy interested in “vintage” stuff. In constructing a narrative around this notion, however, they fail miserably.
The responsible party is a university biology professor, Gabriel Brown (Johnny Galecki), who comes upon a copy of the dreaded tape in a VCR he buys at a flea market—once owned by a fellow we see in a prologue meeting his demise on an airline flight that naturally ends in disaster—and makes the mistake of watching it. Believing that it can reveal truths about the existence of the soul and the afterlife, he enlists some unsuspecting students in what amounts to a pyramid scheme, inducing them to watch the tape and then pass it on.
How this process could possibly achieve Gabriel’s intended goal is never explained, but that’s simply tossed aside to focus on one of his students, Holt (Alex Roe), who’s among the test subjects. Happily—or not—Holt’s girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz) intervenes, and before long she’s watched the tape to save the boy she loves. But there’s a twist (also unexplained): she sees more creepy images on the tape than others have—clues that lead her and Holt to the sleepy town of Sacrament Valley. Their goal is to discover how the tape originated and how to end its progressive reign of terror. That will involve them with a couple of the nearly-deserted burg’s few remaining residents: the close-mouthed owner of the local bed-and-breakfast (Jill Jane Clements) with the forbidding name of Styx, and Burke (poor Vincent D’Onofrio, stuck again playing a supporting role in a piece of genre junk), the blind guy who guards the town’s cemetery.
What ensues is narrative chaos of almost unfathomable proportions, involving—as far as one can make out—child abuse, hidden skeletons, symbols that are for some reason in Braille, reincarnation and that old standby revenge, to list only a few of the elements. Periodically the spooky black-and-white footage from the VHS tape of the original “Ring” movies is revisited, with additions; unfortunately, its strobe-lighty effects have lost much of their punch, and the new material—shots of floods, burning flesh, swarms of insects and snakes, among other things—doesn’t raise any goose bumps. An attempt at a closing twist is designed to push the concept fully into the digital age, but while it paves the way for a sequel that will probably never come, it pretty much makes mush of the resolution that’s preceded it.
Gutierrez probably never had a shot at generating any suspense or shocks from this grab-bag of inane horror tropes, but he, cinematographer Sharone Meir and editors Steve Mirkovich and Jeremiah O’Driscoll don’t even seem to have tried, adopting a lethargic, sleep-inducing pace accentuated by painfully murky visuals. Even Matthew Margeson’s score sounds undernourished. Predictably, the acting suffers from the same defects. Except for D’Onofrio, who chews whatever scenery is on hand with relish, the actors appear to be tired—or perhaps are merely suffering from the same fog of confusion the movie induces in the audience.
It’s customary to say of a horror movie that had it been done up with more imagination, it might have worked. In this case, however, the very notion of resurrecting “The Ring” was so wrong-headed, given the fact that time has so definitively passed the premise by, that it’s difficult to imagine it could ever have resulted in something even passable. It’s hard to understand what prompted Paramount to back such a foolhardy venture; it can only speak to the studio’s desperation after so many of its big-budget ventures have tanked and its last el cheapo horror franchise, the lucrative “Paranormal Activity” series, stumbled to a dead end. Whatever the cause, this redoubled “Ring” is no better than one you might find in a Cracker Jack box.