Rings brings Samara into the digital age–do the scares go viral? Read our movie review to find out:The scary tape is back and the rules haven’t changed. If you watch the VHS tape of spooky images in Rings, you’ll be killed by the wet and barefoot girl Samara in seven days (as specified in a following telephone call).
But who watches VHS tapes anymore? Since the last Ring movie, entertainment media shifted from VHS to DVD to hard digital copies to digital streaming. Imagine how terrifying it would be if the cursed video went viral and nearly every human being absorbed in social media trends would die out. Samara would be considered a threat to humanity and society would change itself to prevent the spread of streaming content. That would be a cool premise, but this isn’t that movie. This is the prequel to that movie that may never come as the Ring franchise still believes it has some integrity left.
Similar to the previous string of supernatural horror movies, Rings attempts to dig deeper into the concept of supernatural powers with history and a little science. There’s a strong opening to establish the length of Samara’s reach as she can follow you onto an airplane, traveling through the in-flight movie monitors and crawl out of radar screens in the cockpit. This is a silly scene, but it opens the doors for how easier it is for Samara to claim her victims in this era. We have electronic monitors on everything from fridge doors to giant billboards. Can you imagine a giant Samara exiting a billboard to claim another soul? Sorry, this isn’t that movie either.
In this movie, Samara’s tape is discovered by college professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) at a flea market. He is intrigued by the effects of the tape (now transferred into a digital file) and sets up a secret project with fellow students. He studies them after being exposed, tracks the days until they will die and then prevents death by providing them with another student to show a copied version of the video file to, essentially playing hot potato with the Samara curse.
Why would college students ever agree to such a ridiculous experiment? Aside from the very posh club he sets up for participants in his secret laboratory with loud music and drinks (I wish I was making that up), the professor reasons that he can find a solid answer for the existence of souls after death. I’m not sure what made him believe he could find such an answer in that cursed tape, but he must have made a compelling case for students to potentially sacrifice their lives for this project. That secret club must really be worth it.
One person drawn into this experiment is Holt (Alex Roe) who soon has his girlfriend Julia (Matilda Lutz) voluntarily watch the footage to save her boyfriend’s life. But, oh no, the video file can’t be copied for some spooky and unexplained reason. The only way to prevent Julia from being murdered in seven days is to find Samara’s bones and burn them to set her free. The mystery is afoot as Julia and Holt venture off the campus and into the countryside of ghost stories, haunted churches and dark secrets. Don’t worry about Samara’s curse, you students who wanted extra credit. The bland hunk and bland girlfriend are on the case!
With an eerie score by Hans Zimmer, there is a decent atmosphere to a lot of the scary scenes as Julia ventures deeper down the well hole, even if these scenes are only cosmetically frightening. Julia searches a crypt for the body of Samara, only to find herself sealed inside the tight space, shackled and nearly drug down a well. She starts having visions of Samara’s mother and Samara’s living environment the closer she draws towards the bones.
One unlucky student experiences Samara’s power first-hand when the ghost pops out of an HDTV that has been slammed to the ground. I even dug the look of Samara with her dimension-defying entrances and her jittery appearance of digital distortion. While these scares rely on some not-so-believable CGI, they are at least decent in their setup, though they fail completely for jump-scares.
While trying to get to these lukewarm frights, however, the script doesn’t bother to give us a reason to care about the characters or even know them all that well. How much do we really know about Julia to hope she’ll survive an encounter with Samara? From what I can gather in the few scenes that don’t involve the investigation, she likes to use Skype and smell her boyfriend’s shirt. What do we know about Holt? He makes dumb choices in college classes and likes to show off his abs. There is not a single scene where their chemistry feels real as their devotion to each other is seen more as a basic requirement of the script. Most of the scenes between them in bed are inane and non-sexual with vapid talk of stories that go nowhere. How can two young people so full of life and ambition be such a snooze to be around?
I don’t expect the most profound of dialogue out of these simple ghost stories, but maybe I should if subpar writing and acting such as this has become an acceptable norm. Matilda Lutz somehow finds a way to make the most mundane of plot-pushing dialogue sound silly and boring. She mutters such lines as “look, a bird” and “she was your daughter” with an unemotional tone in scenes where she should be terrified and uneasy.
Alex Roe feels wasted in a role where the funniest thing he says is a tired joke about chicken fried steak (“Is it chicken or steak?”). His bland delivery of this line along with the confusing sarcasm of the old woman who say he’s funny make a rather dull scene of exposition more cringe-worthy than it should be. Even the usually reliable Vincent D’Onofrio doesn’t feel in top form as a blind priest that doesn’t have much personality.