Starring: Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, Vincent D'Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden
Rated PG-13 for Violence/Terror, Thematic Elements, Some Sexuality and Brief Drug Material
When a movie is a sequel/reboot/something to a remake that hasn't been relevant in the last decade, was released in January with an advertising campaign that could charitably be called limited and has been withheld from critics, it's usually a bad sign. A very bad sign. I walked into this movie expecting a trainwreck; my silver lining was the faint hope that at least it couldn't be as bad as "Split." Yeah, I was not excited to see this movie. Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised.
"Rings" isn't a good movie, but it's nowhere near as bad as I expected. There are problems (some of which are serious), and I can't recommend watching it except as a relief for boredom when it's streaming on Netflix, but it's not terrible. For a January release with so much going against it, that's almost a compliment.
Holt (Roe) has left for college. His girlfriend Julia (Lutz) is staying at home to care for her mother. Holt promises to Skype every day. But he doesn't. She thinks he's being an asshole until she gets a strange and desperate Skype call from some girl. Believing that he might be in danger, she drives to his campus to find out what's going on. It turns out that he's a part of an experiment into the phenomenon of Samara Morgan. Having watched the tape, Holt's life is in danger, so she takes the plunge to watch the infamous video. But when she tries to duplicate it and show it to another poor sap, it doesn't work. The head of the experiment, a shady professor by the name of Gabriel (Galecki), realizes that there are new images hidden within the code that might explain it. Now Julia and Holt have to unravel the mystery before Julia's time is up. And considering how she is showing symptoms of the curse long before anyone else, she may not have the traditional seven days.
The best horror movies leave the scares as after thoughts. Well, of course, you watch a movie to get scared, but in the best horror movies, they're layered onto an already strong foundation. With "The Ring," it was Rachel Keller's search for the truth and her quest to save her son that anchored the film. In "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," it was the court case and the philosophical divide between faith and fact. Here, director F. Javier Gutierrez makes the mistake of thinking that the scares come first. The story moves too fast 'and there are too many special effects. Gore Verbinski trusted the story and the characters enough to allow for a more minimalist approach. This allowed the audience to get sucked into the story and for the atmosphere to envelop them.
When I say the film moves too fast, I mean in terms of editing and storytelling as well. Gutierrez shows his cards too quickly. There's not enough of a sense of mystery to draw us in. Horror movie villains in this sort of horror movie ("Halloween" and "The Descent" don't count) work best when they are seen as little as possible. Their threat must be felt, but they have to be an albatross hanging over the characters. For example, Freddy Kruger was much scarier in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" because he was kept off screen. He was always talked about, but he was just a background specter. That doesn't happen here. Samara is too much at the forefront. Less jump scares and a slower pace would have helped the film.
The acting is adequate, even effective when taken by itself. Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe have nothing to be ashamed of and I hope to see more of them in the future. But when compared to Naomi Watts and David Dorfman, they come up short. Those two were more precisely defined individuals with a certain confidence and charisma that Lutz and Roe lack. The screenplay and the direction are partly at fault, but ultimately Julia and Holt just aren't as interesting as Rachel and Aidan.
"The Ring" wasn't a great movie, but it was effectively creepy with some truly unsettling scares. "Rings" just isn't up to that level.