J-Horror—that peculiar, immensely popular brand of Japanese horror in which restless demonic spirits (frequently in the guise of pale-skinned tykes) haunt the living—derives its unsettling scares less from crashing noises and grotesque monsters than from its depiction of the world as severely off-kilter, unhinged, and illogical. When Samara, the limping fiend who slays those foolish enough to watch her arty videotape of death, transcends her cathode ray prison at the end of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, she becomes an image of reality-tilting terror in which the natural order is shown to be fundamentally, dreadfully amiss. Adapted for American consumption by Gore Verbinski in 2002 as The Ring, such mind-bending dread was made palatable via exhausting exposition, its deranged Buñuel-by-way-of-Lynch VHS mosaic foolishly transformed into a puzzle that newspaperwoman Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) has to decode in order to save her son Aidan (David Dorfman) from Samara’s clutches. Verbinski’s revision explained what was meant to be unexplainable, and thus despite his enhancements to Nakata’s original—such as providing a reasonably compelling protagonist, something normally absent from J-Horror—the film was too orderly, too comprehensible to truly frighten.
Nakata himself grabs the reins of The Ring Two, which follows Rachel and Aidan as they attempt—unsuccessfully, of course—to flee Samara by moving to a sleepy Oregon town. Yet despite a humorous intro featuring a teenager’s futile attempts to annul his own death sentence by conning a naïve girl into watching the tape, this erratic sequel imprudently departs from both its Japanese and American predecessors by focusing very little on Samara’s evil video and more on her dogged attempts to possess Aidan and claim Rachel as her new mommy. By turning the increasingly backstory-burdened Samara into nothing but a homicidal lonely kid desperate for some maternal attention, the series strays further away from mystery and toward enlightenment, a process made clumsier by Nakata’s ungainly use of CGI to depict the ghoulish girl and her fuzzy-television forest surroundings. Samara eventually gets inside Aidan (setting up the requisite exorcism) and sends Rachel a patchwork black-and-white vision via simple physical contact (making one wonder why an outmoded cassette was necessary in the first place) that propels the distressed heroine in search of Samara’s birth mother Evelyn. And since obviousness is screenwriter Ehren Kruger’s guiding principle, it comes as no surprise when the killer’s mental hospital-confined parent turns out to be a lunatic Sissy Spacek with long, stringy black locks similar to her daughter’s (and, more chillingly, an upturned nose seemingly borrowed from Michael Jackson).
Watts brings a frazzled, desperate indignation to her underwritten role as sacrificial matron saint, even as the film fails to explore either its forbearers’ fascination with man’s relationship to technology or Rachel’s conflicted guilt at having selfishly doomed others (at the end of the first film) in order to save her own son. The Ring Two doggedly treads familiar soggy ground, supplying a cardboard cute guy (Simon Baker’s Max) for Rachel to rely upon, a disturbing green-and-black cinematographic palette, and an absolutely ridiculous fixation on water, which Samara fears (because of her alone time down in the well) and which regularly flows underneath doors, around people’s feet, or—in a rare instance of disorienting upside-down imagery—straight up to the ceiling. Nakata’s sole shining surprise comes during an ordinary car ride on a remote, tree-lined road (given that it’s the only unexpected moment, I’ll say no more) that taps into the film’s nature-gone-awry undercurrents. But just as the director’s creepy gliding camera endlessly haloes his distraught characters, The Ring franchise now appears content to simply go around in circles.