The American Ring series has always misunderstood or mistrusted the power of Hideo Nakata's Ringu, which is terrifying for its feral irrationality. By disappointing contrast, Gore Verbinski's The Ring set about polishing and “explaining” the cursed videotape that inflicts a vengeful wraith on its viewers. The script seemed to be at literal-minded odds with the eerie tension of the tape's imagery, which abounded in pagan-like symbols that suggested both a pretentious student film and snuff, reveling in an illusion of unprocessed rawness that helped pave the way for horror cinema's found-footage wave.
Rings, the third film in the American series, arrives 12 years after The Ring Two, and it's unsure as to whether it's a sequel to the other entries or a contemporary reboot. That indecision begets a screenplay that's almost entirely composed of numbing exposition pertaining to Samara (Bonnie Morgan), the pale, black-haired entity that scares to death those who watch the mysterious videotape that contains hints as to the nature of her demise. Samara's mythology here doesn't quite align with those offered by The Ring and The Ring Two, though it's close enough to inspire audiences to wonder why yet another film has to be devoted to establishing an origin story that was never that interesting or important to begin with.
Rings is unsure as to whether it's a sequel to the other entries in the series or a contemporary reboot.
Director F. Javier Gutiérrez adequately but unremarkably apes the aesthetic of the series, which is visually defined by a palette of deep blues and greens, and by actors who're instructed to move through the screen as if they're underwater. The first act has a promising hook: Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) is a hotshot professor who initiates an underground lab/cult so as to study what Samara's tape reveals about the undead, which is actually a pretense to save his own ass by offering his students up as victims to the demon in his place. This is a chilling premise on which to hang a horror film, and Galecki amusingly hams it up as an educator drunk on his own ego.
But American horror films are often neurotically insistent on providing blandly pretty young characters with which their typically young-adult audience can “identify,” and so Gabriel is sidelined for Julia (Matilda Lutz) and Holt (Alex Roe), two twentysomethings who unearth Samara's origins, falling multiple times for the bait-and-switch where a villain masks him- or herself as a victim. Instead of the horse ranch of the prior films, the origin of all evil is revealed to be underneath a cemetery, then a church, then the wall in someone's house. Samara's corpse has been moved around so many times that one expects the filmmakers to make an intentional joke out of their convoluted and tedious narrative, yet they never do.
Often, Rings doesn't even seem to be trying to scare us, apart from a few feebly obligatory fake-outs. Until the predictable conclusion, Samara hardly matters to a narrative that has virtually no present tense. With their endless investigating, Julia and Holt come to suggest students studying for the final in a seminar on American Horror Filmmaking in the Wake of Ringu, a Survey of Pre- and Post-Found-Footage Movements. In other words, we're reduced to watching characters do homework, and they're slow on the uptake.