So far, 2017 has not been kind to long-delayed horror releases. Remember The Bye Bye Man? What a dreadful way to kickstart another year of screams. Surely no other genre equivalent could dethrone such a paltry paranormal effort, right? You’d have to be a tone-deaf, spookless, convoluted bore to challenge the dumpster-fire we call The Bye Bye Man.
Enter F. Javier Gutiérrez’s Rings.
I wasn’t prepared for just HOW misguided a sequel Rings would end up being. “Maybe the four different rescheduled premiere dates were strategic,” I thought, “and not telling of Paramount’s inability to salvage Samara’s name.” What a blissfully ignorant life I led right before that famous VHS static kicked in, and my basement-level expectations were shattered by horrendous franchise misdealings.
Gutiérrez opens with a midair disaster à la Final Destination, brought on by some random “bro” who stinks of distress. “It helps to talk,” says the cute girl next to him. “OK. Well, I watched this tape and I’m supposed to die seven days later, which would be today.” Great conversation starter, right? Doesn’t matter. The chatting only lasts long enough to mention a club called “The Sevens.” Then the plane goes haywire, all the video monitors play *THE* video and Samara emerges from a digital cockpit dashboard.
What the fuck.
In the first three minutes, Rings embraces digital re-evaluations without any reason. This scene means absolutely nothing to the remaining film besides a passing mention. Cold open on airborne disaster, then cut to a pot-smoking, student-banging college professor played by Johnny Galecki – seriously – who’s buying an old VCR (it belonged to sweaty airplane boy). Guess what beaten-up tape Galecki finds inside? YUP. He brings the junker home, only to fiddle with it after asking his sexy visitor to leave (HE’S A BADASS IN CASE YOU DIDN’T GET IT). The “study-buddy” exits, Galecki’s professor Gabriel lights up a joint and Samara’s video starts rolling.
*title card flashes Rings*
Wait, that was all lead-in material?! I couldn’t fathom where David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay-with-no-definition could possibly go next.
No, seriously – I couldn’t in a million years have predicted that Rings abandons ALL horror at this point. We meet girlfriend Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) and her college-bound boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe), the latter of whom gets involved with the raddest professor on campus – you guessed it, Gabriel. Julia begins to worry about Holt after texts/calls go ignored, so she turns into stalker GF and shows up in Spokane to rescue her beloved. He couldn’t possibly be losing interest because of long distance, something must be wrong.
Alright, let me get this plot garbage done in fast-forward: Julia learns that Holt watched a killer video tape, Gabriel hosts some sort of death club (The Sevens) based on his “Samara Enigma” research, a student dies because Samara is growing stronger, Julia plays savior by watching a copy Holt made, Julia then gets her own custom video courtesy of Samra, and we end up in some Podunk country town so Julia can cremate Samara’s remains before seven days pass.
Here’s the issue – Rings doesn’t care about scaring you. Few moments actually embrace terror or fear, and they’re mostly contained to black-and-white video clips banking on shock value. In reflection, only a handful of moments set out to achieve what genre fans will consider a “scare,” from one super-telegraphed keyhole jolt to Samara’s second-thought entrances.
Vincent D’Onofrio is introduced as a blind ex-preacher who goes all Stephen Lang in Don’t Breathe, but besides that, Rings is a romantic drama about hometown sweeties researching a nasty curse. Dramatic musical scoring reminds of your grandma’s favorite soap operas, cinematography captures dull, dreary (but empty) tones, and pacing is horrendously constructed. At 80 minutes, Rings would have been unbearable – at 106 minutes, it’s coma-inducing.
Rings is one of those squeals that muddies previous mythos, especially once D’Onofrio’s “Burke” starts spouting wisdom. Without spoiling the big stuff, Burke’s inclusion brings forward information about Samara’s *real* family. Gutiérrez is directing an origin story while also trying to establish Samara’s digital footprint, neither of which are explained nor explored properly.
Scenes shamble forward, never questioning how new pieces of information fit within previous facts. There’s never an attempt to address why cops might leave an overturned car in a ditch with no attention, or to explain why D’Onofrio’s plans aren’t enacted immediately (brail plays a large part, all I’ll say). Dumbfounded characters make for confused audience members, none of whom know how to grasp the “enigma” before them.
Performances are a casualty of Gutiérrez’s inability to deliver anything resembling “horror,” only made doubly-worse by hambone dialog. “Whatever you are, leave my boyfriend alone!” Julia says to a computer screen before sacrificing herself. UGH. Julia becomes this obsessive girlfriend character, helpless without her boyfriend’s responses. Don’t mistake blind devotion for something heroic – she drives 500 miles on a whim because Holt isn’t answering some texts. Defeating Samara isn’t her initial motivation. She’s the “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme in real life, and every action afterwards is for dreamboat Holt. Now you understand the sappiness that replaces nightmarish encounters with an undead contortion queen – a trade that poisons Gutiérrez’s well.
Where The Bye Bye Man suffered from a brainless lack of backstory, Rings couldn’t be farther down the spectrum. Gutiérrez upgrades to Samara 2.0, but in doing so, sacrifices all the eye-gazing awfulness that comes with her presence. Horror movies shouldn’t be this boring, nor should white-knight romantics overtake a franchise’s bread and butter doom. All systems read “critical” here, as confirmed by the man who slept and snored through the last half of my 10PM screening. Can you blame him? It was late, and Rings read a pulse no stronger than Aimee Teegarden’s first on-screen victim. Seal the well and don’t look back, because if this is the direction we’re going in with Samara, she’s better left buried forever.
Categorizing Rings as "horror" would be a disservice to genre films, because at least the lowest of the low attempt a scare here or there.