Friday The 13th.. A Nightmare On Elm St.. Halloween. Saw.. Hellraiser. These are all horror film franchises that have survived through seemingly endless installments, remakes, reboots and sequels. What you might not realize is that the story of The Ring has been used for just as many films, if not more, certainly more than the last three franchises above. Nearly two decades ago in 1998 Japanese director Hideo Nakata started with the first adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s Ring trilogy of novels, about a cursed video tape that kills whoever watches it, in his brilliant, standard-bearer of the J-horror genre, Ringu. That was followed shortly by a sequel, a prequel, a South Korean remake, four alternate reality sequels, and later, three American remakes, the most recent of which, Rings has just been released to theaters all across the country. The majority of them have all been terrible, opting to tread the exact same familiar territory that involves a new character having to discover the secret of the cursed video all over again, without any real sense of continuity or continuing storyline. With the exception of a 2005 short film called Rings, which existed as a bridge between the 2002 American remake and its sequel, this year’s Rings is the first of its kind to truly deviate from the norm and attempt to offer audiences a unique take on the premise. That’s not to say it’s very good however, but its first half at least displays worthy enough filmmaking to kill time, even if it ultimately devolves into the usual ridiculous and illogical horror clichés that plague the genre these days.
Perhaps as a nod to tradition, Rings begins like many of the others, with two characters discussing the existence of the cursed video, leading up to the death of one of them. It’s a convenient and practical way to both satisfy a convention of the horror genre, beginning with a kill scene, and introduce the strange, convoluted rules surrounding this story’s premise. From this point, previous films then switch to a different character, as he/she very slowly journeys to unpack what was just seen, as the same thing happens to them and they attempt to trace the origin of the curse in order to put an end to it. Rings jumps to a college professor (Johnny Galecki) who accidentally stumbles on the tape, and subsequently starts his own “ring” on the college campus, recruiting groups of students to act as “tails,” and exploiting the way out of the curse that involves making a copy of the video and showing it to a friend. As long as there is someone left to give it to, nobody should die in the ensuing arbitrary time limit of seven days. After a second cold opening, that shows the professor discovering the tape, the story of Rings begins in the middle of things, with a host of participants already involved in the “experiment,” but of course somebody’s “tail” is about to not come through.
Focusing on this aspect of human interaction with the cursed video is a refreshing twist on these films, and promotes the mythological aspect of the story, not unlike Clive Barker’s Hellraiser films, which were all isolated tales ultimately intended to explore avenues of human psychology with the horror as catalyst. For a brief couple of reels Rings approximates this, and teases a story of an egoist preying on the lives of naive college students to further his selfish academic pursuits, and director F. Javier Gutiérrez’s consistent use of extreme close ups and rack focus captures these human guinea pigs by isolating them from their surroundings. Sadly though, this is not Rings‘ endgame, as it soon introduces the dominant storyline involving the jilted girlfriend of one of the college students, concerned by his erratic behavior on Skype, and ultimately drawn into the stale retread of uncovering the origins of the curse, after altruism and love leads her into watching the video to save his life. Abandoning everything remotely interesting, it’s here where Rings completely derails itself, and cooks up a half-baked history that makes Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake look like a paragon of immaculate plotting.
By the the time the mystery angle takes over, too much time has been wasted in pursuit of other things to effectively draw out any suspense. Gutiérrez has nothing to do at this point other than film the screenplay’s action, which unfolds in a travesty of convenience and easy, obvious characters, that cannot even be saved by the great Vincent D’Onofrio as a blind graveyard caretaker. By process of elimination it’s not hard to figure out who the villain is in all of this, even as the realization sets in that Rings of course has to have a boogeyman to hang everything on, and any trafficking in the grey area of human morality was a mere ruse. The climax is very dimly lit, and the action is confusingly staged and disorienting, alienating anyone who has still managed to care about what happens to these characters. It’s not until the end again, with its “gotcha” cliffhanger, another callback to the storyline of previous films, that Rings earns back some of its respect, even coming on the heels of a string of empty plot points void of meaning and resonance.
If there are more Ring films, which this version’s domination at the box office its opening weekend almost guarantees, I hope the filmmakers realize that it is not the convoluted story that attracts discerning audiences. The non-discerning ones will show up regardless, so why not treat people to an engaging human story? Everybody likes to answer the question “what would you do if…?,” and live vicariously through characters faced with a fantastic dilemma or decision that ignites their base human instincts and predilections. Who is this girl climbing through the television set? What happened to her? What does she want? These questions have been answered ad infinitum, and ad nauseam, through what has now been eleven different versions of the same story. I submit that nobody cares anymore. So why not try to make a good film that will leave a lasting impression? Explore what the existence of a cursed videotape will mean for society, or the cursed individual, and how the more insidious aspects of our personalities or desires can exploit such a curse. That’s the direction these films should take. I’ve been saying it for over a decade now, and it’s extremely sad that not a single person has bothered to try or follow through. Rings comes the closest, but its reach far exceeds its grasp.
The Verdict: Pan