Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Films of 2017: Rings

[Here there be spoilers. Proceed accordingly]

I hope my next statement doesn’t read as ageist, but I suspect that it is easier to process and appreciate a sequel like 2017’s Rings if you lived through the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

That was the great age of low-rent horror sequels, wherein brilliant originals such as Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Child’s Play (1988) all gave rise to less-than stellar follow-ups.

But I’ll confess it right now, I have soft spot for low-rent horror sequels. 

You know you’re watching one when the protagonists are attractive but vapid teenagers, or when old, familiar boogeymen (or boogey-women, as the case may be…) return…even though their central crisis is resolved.

You also know you’re watching a low-rent horror sequel when the murder scenes are more elaborate -- the carnage candy principle at work -- and old narrative terrain is revisited, with only an occasional inspiration here or there.

That’s the kind of sequel we get in Rings (2017), and I just can’t bring myself to hate it.

It’s no masterpiece, but nor is the film from F. Javier Gutierrez as mind-numbing and horrible as many critics complained.  Rather, the film is merely evidence that The Ring (2002) saga has entered its flabby mid-life stage, no longer top-of-the-line, but not exactly at the end-of-the-line, either.

The only real question regarding your interest in a sequel like this one -- which regurgitates the soundtrack, color palette, and plot-twists of the 2002 film -- is, simply: do you want to see long-haired Samara return for more murderous mischief? 

If the answer is affirmative, by all means, see Rings (2017). By-and-large, it is a respectful and faithful continuation of the franchise.   

If the answer is negative, then there’s really no need to watch a sequel that is content to ape a much-better horror film.

“Tell the dead man he can’t hide.”

More than a decade after the events of The Ring (2002), vengeful Samara returns to curse the living. 

In particular, if someone should watch Samara's videotape, he or she will die in precisely seven days unless two things are done. 

First, the would-be victim must make a copy of the tape.  Second, the imperiled individual must make someone watch that copy, so that the curse is never-ending.

The curse finds its way to Holt (Alex Roe), a student attending college in Spokane, Washington. His girlfriend back home, Julia (Matilda Lutz), goes in search of him after he stops communicating with her following a viewing of Samara’s VHS tape.

Julia learns that a professor, Gabriel Brown (John Galecki) is researching Samara and the after-life, and worse, using his students in a dangerous experiment. He has volunteers watch the tape, and then tracks them for seven days, until providing them with a “tail,” someone who will watch the tape (after it is copied) and relieve them from the curse. 

Holt is one of these volunteers, but he has not been assigned a tail yet. Understanding the danger Holt faces, Julia watches the Samara tape, but her curse experience is different from the others, more accelerated. 

Also, Julia cannot copy the tape, which now features imagery involving an isolated town, Sacrament Valley, where Samara’s corpse was laid to rest.

Julia and Holt head to Sacrament Valley to learn the truth about Samara’s burial, and talk to one witness, a blind man, Galen Burke (Vincent D’Onofrio), who may know more than he is willing to share with Julia and Holt.

“This curse…it will never stop…’

The Ring (2002) and The Ring 2 (2005) both featured as a protagonist a mature, professional woman and single mother, Rachel Keller, played by Naomi Watts. Rings delves almost immediately into the world of shallow college students, perhaps an attempt to tap today’s youth demographic. 

That’s okay, of course. I grew up watching (and loving) horror films with teenagers as the protagonists, but it is nonetheless impossible not to note the shift from a mature cast of characters to a team of doe-eyed youngsters.

Julia and Holt are supposed to be courageous and loving, and supportive, but they just don’t earn that much audience sympathy or interest. They are simply...generic; like any young lovers you might have seen in any other mainstream horror sequel. The fact that Holt and Julia are forced to go on a copycat sort of journey of discovery doesn’t help make the characters feel distinctive or unique.

The movie attempts to add some layers to the protagonists in an opening scene which involves dialogue about Orpheus, and his myth; about the way he lost his love, Eurydice. As you may recall, Orpheus had to actually see her to believe that Eurydice was present with him on his return trip from the Underworld.  Unfortunately, Hades' one condition to release Eurydice was that Orpheus could not gaze upon her until exiting Tartarus. Orpheus could not trust. He had to "see."

His tale ties in neatly with Rings' subplot about “sight,” and gives Julia a mission: “seeing” Samara so as to save Holt.  But the performances and new characters are still superficial at best.

Perhaps more troubling is the fact that Samara’s story was complete by the end of the first two films. There is no need for her to return and kill again, so Rings has invented a new and bizarre mythology for her. 

Basically, Samara didn’t like where she was buried (in the home-town, Sacrament Valley, of her birth father) and so -- in death -- has launched yet another attack against the living like she did on Moesko Island. 

In the process of investigating this background, Julia and Holt learn more about Samara’s family ties, namely about her birth family.  Her mother was a rape victim, her father a rapist, and a priest.  His story also ties into the running leitmotif about sight, since he willfully blinded himself so Samara could not hurt him.

Going back to the qualities I noted for "low rent" horror sequels, Rings opens with a carnage candy prologue. It involves Samara claiming a victim (The Vampire Diaries’ Zach Roerig) aboard a passenger plane in flight

The scene features a cabin full of TV sets, and that means a cabin full of potential victims, but ends before the audience can figure out what happened to everybody.  This opener is not particularly well-orchestrated, and stretches the “rules” regarding Samara's powers.  

For her to kill someone, that victim has to to have seen the tape seven days before.  All the victims on the plane except one, however, are random ones. And they have never seen the tape.  Yet, apparently, she downs the whole plane and all the passengers and crew  The scene features more victims, greater danger, a memorable setting, and absolutely no real scares, unfortunately.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Rings is simply that the narrative repeats the same "map" as the original film. 

Here, Julia is our substitute Rachel. In order to save someone she loves (a boyfriend instead of a son), she must back-track a creepy story to a half-forgotten location/town (Moesko Island/Sacrament Valley). 

There, she uncovers the dark domestic family secrets that “created” Samara’s evil (in both films). Julia then rights the wrong of that tragedy, and finds that Samara’s vengeance can’t be satiated, thus setting up a final “sting” for the movie. As you may recall, this is how Rachel's story also resolved. She "freed" Samara, only to have Samara's curse continue.  

The copycat narrative is accented by the overly-familiar cinematography, which includes a lot of rain, and much creepy green coloring.  Hans Zimmer’s haunting score is also excerpted quite frequently here.  On one hand it is nice to hear these musical motifs again, but on the other hand the familiarity of the score contributes to the feeling that there is not much new to enjoy here.

So why did I enjoy and appreciate aspects of the film?  

Well, there’s definitely an attempt to apply an intriguing sub-text to the film, concerning sight. Gabriel, the instructor, lectures his students (and the audience) about quantum physics, and the idea that by observing particles move, the observer impacts reality. Then we have Galen Burke (who possesses the same initials as Gabriel Brown, incidentally), a man who shuns sight; blinding himself so he can’t see Samara anymore.  And finally, as I noted above, we have the discussion of the Orpheus Myth, in which sight is again crucial. Orpheus cannot trust; he must see.  This is the same flaw that ultimately harms Julia. 

Samara’s evil is also dependent on sight. She wants others to experience her pain, and the key to that empathy is the act of seeing the creepy video. 

See how everything ties together? I can connect all the strands, even if, finally, there isn’t much pay off for doing so.  The last thirty-minutes of the film are pretty underwhelming, and again, not very frightening

I did, however, enjoy the film’s climax, which sees Samara’s tape go viral, and which thus promises a total apocalypse for Rings3, or Rings Cubed.  

But the promise of another low-rent sequel may be too much for some to bear.  This curse...it will never stop...


  1. Anonymous10:22 AM

    I've certainly seen much worse horror sequels than this one, but I have to admit I had more fun watching last year's Sadako Vs. Kayako, so I'd prefer a sequel to that one.

    Btw, is there any chance for A Cure for Wellness review in the future?

    Ratko H.

  2. John, your review of RINGS is yet another example of why your analysis is always impressive because it is so very thorough. I agree with your thoughts on low-rent horror films.



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