To this film’s credit, it doesn’t waste any time. Mere minutes pass before one character first asks another, “Have you heard about the videotape that kills you if you watch it?” Shortly afterward, we get our first gruesome death at the hands of Samara, the undead girl who first haunted American movie screens back in 2002’s The Ring. She’s returned to whisper “seven days” over the phone and crawl out of TV screens to mutilate careless videotape viewers, but we’re used to that shtick by now. As a threequel, Rings suffers a bit from franchise fatigue. It tries to fix that by giving viewers an even deeper look at the mythology of Samara and the videotape, with mixed results.
More than a decade after The Ring Two, Rings starts over with a fresh cast. Pretty boy Holt (Alex Roe) is off to college, leaving his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz) behind in the suburbs to look after her mom. At school, he meets an “experimental biology” professor named Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), who inherited the Samara videotape from the film’s first victim. Gabriel welcomes Holt into his elaborate system that allows him and his students to continue watching, analyzing, and passing on the Samara tape without ever getting killed themselves. Predictably, this elaborate Rube Goldberg machine for spreading horror comes crashing down, but not before Julia catches a version of the cursed tape with some extra footage. Those scenes point Julia and Holt in the direction of Samara’s birthplace, which turns out to be a small town with a haunted atmosphere and depleted population. A blind resident (Vincent D’Onofrio) seems to have a handle on things, but he’s clearly not saying everything he knows. Together, Julia and Holt search for Samara’s birthplace and final resting place in the hope that they can finally put her spirit to rest. In the process, they uncover some nasty secrets and witness some gruesome deaths.
In a way, The Ring series itself has always been about the horrors of virality, the ways evil can jump from one person to the next on the basis of peer pressure and selfishness. This adds some metafictive flavor to Rings’ experiments with late-franchise tricks. The final minutes of the movie, for instance, reveal a plot twist that parallels The Invitation in the way it retroactively rewrites the meaning of most of the movie. But unlike The Invitation, this twist is clearly not meant to stop viewers in their tracks with disturbing implications, but rather to serve as a potential jumping-off point for future franchise installments. In this cultural moment, not even Samara is shy about her love for reboots.
But it’s a double-edged sword. Rings embodies a common problem of attempted franchise revivals: indecision about its intentions. The film tries going in a few too many directions at once, and some wires get crossed. Storylines that seem important at first (like Julia’s mother’s sickness or Gabriel’s affair with a student) end up going nowhere. Characters appear and then fade back into the background. But in the end, there are enough grotesque corpses and symbolic visions of haunted wells to give fans what they came for. C+