In the entirely hypothetical ranking of various rings, the new horror movie Rings belongs somewhere far, far below the following: Wagner’s Ring Cycle, onion rings, engagement rings, The Lord of the Rings, the rings inside trees, the rings encircling the planet Saturn, Ring Pops, and the botched Olympic ring at the Sochi Games in 2014.
That Rings is not good will probably come as no surprise to those who’ve seen the trailer, or who know how horror franchises tend to go after the second film. Still, it’s disappointing enough for anyone who enjoyed the 1998 Japanese classic Ringu or either of the American films it inspired, 2002’s The Ring and 2005’s The Ring Two. Fifteen years after mainstream U.S. audiences were first introduced to J-horror, Rings is presumably making some kind of nostalgia play by bringing back one of the scariest monsters in recent cinema: the undead girl who crawls out of the TV and kills you seven days after you watch her videotape unless you make a copy and show it to someone else. But the story of Samara Morgan, once potent nightmare fuel, has become less scary with each new iteration, culminating in this new, ridiculous installment directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez.
Rings begins with two short, irritating backstories that shakily aim to set up the plot: a plane crash, and an estate sale in which a the deadly video tape is uncovered. But 20 minutes in, it’s still completely unclear how the movie will seek to expand on the Samara mythology. The protagonist is Julia (played by the Italian actress Matilda Lutz), whose boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) goes off to college and quickly gets roped into a secret experiment involving the video tape, which was found by a college professor named Gabriel (The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki) who’s now seeking to prove the existence of the human soul.
All this—the going away to college, Julia’s discovery of the experiment, her discovery of Holt’s involvement, Gabriel’s explanation of the experiment—manages to take up the first one-third or so of the film. And it unfolds in the most awkward, unintuitive way possible, with odd time jumps, cringe-worthy character interactions, unexplained tonal shifts, and weird dream sequences. Given the amount of time spent setting up this storyline, it seems for a while that Rings is going in a somewhat intriguing, and unexpected, science-fiction-y direction. But then the story lurches again, trudging down a totally different, more predictable path involving Samara’s origin story.
As the first film in the American franchise without Naomi Watts, Rings makes it immediately clear how much the Anglo-Australian actress elevated the story. Lutz and Roe do what they can in their roles, but they’re not nearly magnetic enough to overcome the jumbled mess they’re stuck with (few are, to be fair). Julia’s inexplicably fearless obsession with the video tape and the visions she’s suddenly plagued with is meant to drive the plot, but her reasons never feels authentic, despite her half-hearted insistences that she has a connection with Samara. (“I can feel her pain and suffering; I’m sick with it and it’s getting worse.”)
As for the scariness: Rings largely fails at re-capturing the terror of Samara, whether it’s trying to remind old fans or convert newcomers. That’s because it sells her malevolence with two lazy approaches. First, it makes different characters discuss the urban legend in the most basic ways possible (“There’s this video, and a chick calls you in seven days.” ) Second, the movie bashes viewers over the head with the sheer freakiness of Samara and her tape, both of which make a dizzying number of appearances, diluting the suspense considerably. Ringu and The Ring, meanwhile, deployed the girl and the video strategically, to maximize scares and to cultivate some mystery.
Rings takes itself way too seriously, which, combined with a weak grasp on tone, translates to the film being unintentionally hilarious from start to finish. When Gabriel heard the voice whisper “seven days” on the phone and demanded, “Who is this!”—the audience in my theater laughed. When a student (played by Aimee Teegarden) called Julia over Skype and screamed, “She’s coming! There’s no stopping her!”—they laughed again. When Vincent D’Onofrio appeared later and intoned mysteriously, “You’re looking for the girl,”—they laughed some more.
Which may offer a glimmer of hope to those who still feel any desire to see Rings: It’s pretty funny! (It may also be a small comfort that the trailer has little to do with the main plot, so there are some surprises left in store.) After watching, it’s hard not to assume production was a torturous process requiring a ton of revisions—the film was originally due out in November 2015, and the story feels like a large puzzle that someone just sort of randomly taped together. So the only merciful thing to do at this point would be to put the story of Samara and her perpetually sodden hair-mop to rest for good. Unfortunately, the logic of her curse closely mirrors the logic of sequel-making: Watch the story, make a copy, and force someone else to watch it quickly as possible, no matter the cost. The real-life version of this curse is far scarier than Rings—and far less funny.