FEBRUARY 3, 2017
With the arrival of each new late-coming sequel (Blair Witch, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, etc.), I become more and more worried about the new Saw and Friday the 13th films that are coming in October. It seems our Hollywood overlords are having trouble reviving old franchises as of late (and audiences aren't fooled, either), and Rings doesn't do anything to change that course. Originally slated for late 2015, the film has been clearly reworked some over the past year and change, and now finally hits theaters as counter programming for the Super Bowl instead of making the easy money it could have made in October (Of 2015 or 2016; it was once dated for both), and even the biggest sports hater in the world will probably wish they were watching the game after about 20 minutes of this lifeless attempt at reviving a series that never should have gotten a sequel in the first place.
To its credit, it doesn't ignore the events of Ring Two - the Sissy Spacek character is a major part (though not played by Spacek, as we just see quick shots of her as a younger woman) and, as the title suggests, the "Rings" club from the same-named short film (which was a prequel to Ring Two, if you recall) makes an appearance. Considering the entirely new cast and creative team, it wouldn't be crazy to assume that this would be a kind of stand-alone entry (or pseudo-remake, even), so as a fan of continuity and the like I'll at least give them props for not doing a reset. Oddly, it might be better to go in blind, because if you know the reveals from the first two films, you'll be far ahead of our heroes for most of the runtime, so if it's been a while I'd suggest skipping the Wiki recap if I were you. It won't save the movie by any means, but at least it'll give you one less thing to roll your eyes at while silently (or not, if the theater is empty) pleading with the film to stop being so goddamn boring.
A big part of the problem is our two leads are total blank slates. They're very nice to look at, sure, but I couldn't tell you a goddamn thing about either one of them, and I just spent 100 minutes watching them make their way through a not particularly complicated movie. It's also not particularly SHORT, clocking in at around 105 minutes, so there's no reason the film couldn't have included a few basic identifying traits for the main characters. The male, Holt, might like Afghan Wigs because there's a poster of them in his room, but that could be his roommate's for all we know. And we know even less about... *consults IMDb because I literally forgot already* Julia, who is an 18 year old who isn't going to college (like Holt is) because she has to take care of her mom, a character we never see and possibly doesn't exist. Julia seemingly sleeps at Holt's, which his dad doesn't seem to mind, and when Holt goes missing she up and takes off to find him hundreds of miles away, seemingly without informing the mom she supposedly has to take care of "after what happened" (your guess is as good as mine as to what that was), nor ever calling her during the week ("SEVEN DAYS!", you know) that she's in/around Holt's college.
But this plays into a larger issue, which is that absolutely nothing in the film feels genuine in any way. It's like every character in the movie came into existence the second the cameras were turned on, giving everything a vague, cold veneer that the film is powerless to overcome. It's also just plain phony and half-assed, and I'll give some examples that may sound like nitpicking, but hear me out, there's a point. In the first 15 minutes:
- Holt and Julia agree to a 9:30 Skype (specifically Skype), and then they cut to a generic chat app and the time is 9:07 (call already seemingly far in progress).
- A character says he had to find a VCR in order to watch the cursed tape when someone gave it to him. Later, he has other VHS tapes, like Aliens and Jurassic Park, in his belongings.
- Julia enters a classroom she doesn't belong in. For no reason, she cuts across a row of seats and... stands in the opposite back corner, a move that exists only to draw attention to her.
- Holt stops answering his phone. After six days, she drives to the school - instead of asking his dad if he's heard from him, or calling the school, or anything a normal person might do.
- Someone uses a screwdriver to hook up a VCR.
Now, yes, any one of these things on their own are fine - movies are movies, this isn't the point, etc. But when you add them all together (and again, all in the first reel), it just tells the audience that this is a sloppy, very phony movie - which makes it harder to buy anything the movie wants to sell us when it really gets going. If I can't believe any of the normal, non-scary stuff, how the hell am I supposed to accept the supernatural goings-on that will occur later? Again, these aren't interesting characters - the least the movie can do is make us believe they're just regular, average kids - and you can only do that by placing them into a normal, believable world. Not one where parents don't care about their minor children sleeping together and a girl takes notice of a VCR at the flea market by studying the BACK of the damn thing (seriously, she spies it from like 10 feet away and just stares at the console's rear panel. Big fan of AV jacks, I guess).
It's possible some of this stuff made more sense or had a different context in an earlier cut, but as with Bye Bye Man, I am not going to give the movie a benefit of the doubt when they're not charging audiences any less to make up for it. However, I WILL note that lots of things in the trailer do not appear; most curious is a line from Vincent D'Onofrio explaining a mark that appears on Julia's hand - in the finished film, the translation of the mark is saved as a reveal for the film's final scene (and does not involve D'Onofrio at all). We also see Julia watching the tape under different circumstances, so I'm curious just how much of the movie was overhauled and if it was actually good at one point. Considering how slow-paced it is (not usually something you say about a re-cut movie - they tend to speed things up, trading away coherence in the process) I am going to guess this one was never in any good shape, but if I were presented with an original cut I wouldn't be opposed to seeing for myself. Funnily enough, I COULD have seen an earlier cut, on several occasions - the theater I saw the film at, which is the one closest to my house (though I usually go to one a bit further away as this one doesn't have coffee or a rewards program), is where they hold a lot of the test screenings in the area. In fact it was a bit of a running joke of how many times the film tested (sometimes paying people to do it, which isn't always the case); I dug through my emails and found at least three invites for the film dating back to its original release date of October 2015. And that's just how many times I happened to get the invite (to my old AOL account, where I signed up for one of these lists ages ago), which means there were almost certainly more.
If I had to guess, the testing audiences didn't warm to the film's back half, because that's where it starts to feel less like a new concept (which is how it starts) and more like a remake of the original. And it's a shame, too, because there are some interesting ideas floating around in that first act, such as the Rings group. Basically, Holt's professor (Johnny Galecki) is trying to prove the existence of a soul, and to do so he has his students work extra credit by first watching the tape and then assigning them "tails" (someone that they can pass the curse on to). But obviously he can't do that if no one is dying, so (we have to infer this much, the movie doesn't bother clarifying and he's written out of the narrative by the halfway point) he lets some of the kids die by purposely botching their "tail" assignments, or at least, that's how it read to me. He also has this like, club (?) for all of them? It's on the 7th floor of the college (dorm? study hall? who knows) and you need a special key to access it, and all these kids are just chilling, like it was a bar or something. I couldn't tell if they were waiting to be tails, or under observation (for the whole week?) or what, but it seemed like it'd be a bigger element going forward. Alas, details are not this movie's strong suit, so whatever its actual function was didn't matter, because the movie shoots itself in the foot, dropping all of the "Rings" stuff shortly afterward to focus on, sigh, another goddamn proper burial plot.
Yep, I don't mean to spoil anything, but I shit you not - the movie eventually becomes another attempt to stop Samara's curse by giving her a proper burial, because her body was moved (and put in a wall) for reasons the movie clunkily clarifies in its third act. I don't know how many supernatural horror movies I've seen where the climax comes down to someone prying apart a wall or floorboard and finding a skeleton or mummified corpse, but I hope that whatever that number is (let's say 30) that it never gets much higher. All it does is remind me of superior films (like the first Ring) and practically guarantee that it won't work, because the damn ghost always comes back after being "properly" disposed of anyway. Speaking of the first Ring, new director F. Javier Gutiérrez tries to ape Gore Verbinski by drowning the film in blue, but he also lights like Peter Hyams, so get used to squinting your way through scare scenes. There's a shot late in the film where a decrepit room de-ages around Julia (broken objects repair, peeled wallpaper plasters itself back to the wall, etc.) and you can barely see the effect, which seems like a silly waste of money for a complicated CGI shot.
Regular readers of the site might be thinking that I levied a lot of these complaints at The Bye Bye Man (bland characters, phoniness, etc.), but ultimately even that one rises above this, because as bad as it was, it was at least goofy enough to give it a pulse. There aren't a lot of big horror scenes in the film (the trailer spoils the two best ones - the airplane and the hair), so you'd assume that when they DID come they'd be worth the wait, but no - they're just as indifferent as everything else, and Gutiérrez and his writers (including Akiva goddamn Goldsman, so you know you're in trouble) can't be bothered to deliver anything even remotely as insane/memorable as the first film's horse freakout on the boat, or even the first sequel's much lambasted deer attack. Even D'Onofrio can't save it; he's by far the best thing about the movie, but he's only in two or three scenes and spends most of them just spouting exposition while sitting in a chair. Even the obligatory "Samara climbs out of the TV" bit is botched, and no one thought to have any fun with the idea of the analog-driven Samara adapting to an all-digital world. Sure, the tape spreads through Quicktimes instead of VHS tapes (there's an honest to god plot point about the file size of a copy being larger than the original), and when she climbs from the TV it's a nice big HDTV set, but it's only in the film's obligatory sequel set up (good luck with that) that they think to do anything like spread it through social media and the like.
While I was fighting to stay awake (I saw the movie at 11 AM, I should mention), I tried to think of the last movie I saw that was this uninvolving, and oddly enough I think it was Shut In, starring ex-Ring lead Naomi Watts. If The Cure for Wellness (from Gore Verbinski) is a snoozer as well, I'm going to start seriously plotting out a meta-Ring sequel where the real curse is that no one can seemingly ever live up to it when they try to go back to the horror/thriller genre (and yes, there's a "back to the well" joke to be made, but I just refuse to). I didn't love Ring Two by any means (I never felt compelled to watch it again after opening night), but at least it was just your typically underwhelming sequel, whereas this is a straight up bad movie, and a bizarre approach to trying to revive a long-dormant "franchise" to boot.
What say you?