It’s hard to overstate just how refreshing the wave of Japanese horror films collectively known as J-Horror felt when it first started to hit our shores in the late-‘90s and early ‘00s, when seemingly every U.S. horror movie was trying, and failing, to be the next Scream. After watching one movie after another kill off the cast of young stars on loan from WB and UPN series, films like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure and Pulse and the Ringu series offered new and, crucially, scary approaches to the horror movie. But they also offered something old, dragging the elements of classic ghost stories and the darker corners of folklore into the modern world. Turns out creatures from the beyond could still be scary in a wired world, maybe even scarier if they short-circuited technology and used it to their own ends.
That, however, was a while ago. As the cycle played out and started to repeat itself in Japan, Hollywood tried, with limited success, to offer its own spin on J-Horror via remakes of Japanese successes like The Grudge, One Missed Call and others. The one real exception came in 2002 with The Ring. Gore Verbinski’s stylish remake of Ringu improved on the Japanese original and proved that a PG-13 movie could be as scary as its more explicit peers. It worked a simple premise for all it was worth: There’s a cursed videotape and anyone unfortunate enough to watch it will die in seven days at the hands of a vengeful, stringy-haired ghost named Samara — a ghost polite enough to deliver a courtesy call informing viewers of this immediately after the tape ends.
But, again, that was over a decade and one so-so sequel ago. So why revive the series now? Rings doesn’t provide much in the way of an answer. After an awkward, quickly forgotten opening on an airplane, the fatal tape resurfaces inside a VCR purchased by a pot-smoking “experimental biology” prof named Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) with a fondness for vintage technology. After he watches the 30-second experimental black-and-white art film previously seen in the first two movies, the curse resurfaces, and is soon passed on to college freshman Holt (Alex Roe) and Julia (Matilda Lutz), Holt’s hometown girlfriend who comes to campus when he stops returning her phone calls.
The film plays with some clever ideas it never finds ways to chase down. Early on, we see Gabriel presiding over a lab filled with computers tracing the exact time Samara will return to claim her victims and overseeing a staff of volunteers who’ve devised a way to neutralize the threat by systematically passing the curse on to new victims while arranging for others to take it off their hands. That soon falls by the wayside, however, and we’re back in familiar Ring territory as Holt and Julia explore Samara’s origins, yet again, and travel to a creepy town whose residents include a mysterious blind man played by Vincent D’Onofrio who definitely does not have a secret to hide because D’Onofrio is the sort of actor you hire to play a normal person for a scene or two when you’re making a horror movie.
Making his Hollywood debut, Spanish director F. Javier Gutiérrez scares up a couple of memorable images early on, including an early scene in which Samara won’t be letting flat-screen televisions get in her way. What he can’t scare up is, well, scares (the pretty, bland leads don’t help, either). Mostly Rings offers the warmed-up leftovers of a style that hasn’t felt fresh since the first George W. Bush administration. It’s an unkind rewind.