Samara, the spectral problem child of The Ring, has finally gone digital. VHS, the vengeful ghost’s format of choice, was already on borrowed time in 2002, when Gore Verbinski’s spooky, autumnal J-horror remake hit theaters. Fifteen years later, how many of her potential victims even have the ability to play tapes anymore? Rings, the new chapter in this long-dormant series, winks at the technological obsolescence of its premise, treating a VCR at a yard sale like some ancient relic, pulled from the catacombs of a dead civilization. It’s not long, however, before a dipshit professor (Johnny Galecki) converts Samara’s cursed bootleg into ones and zeroes, unleashing a monster of the Blockbuster age onto laptops and smartphones. (Red Box customers can rest easy; Samara skipped right past DVD.)
Rings may update its watch-and-die gimmick to accommodate contemporary viewing methods, but that’s about the only update it makes. Much more so than the (justly) forgotten The Ring Two, this belated second sequel is a faded copy of its predecessor, the generation loss evident in everything from its performances to its recycled scares. In place of the determined journalist Naomi Watts played in part one, our new heroine is teenage Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), who helps her boyfriend, Holt (Alex Roe), move away for college, only to find out that he’s watched a certain creepy avant-garde video and that his seven days left to live are almost up. Building off the hanging implication of The Ring, which posited that one could stave off the death sentence by selfishly making a copy of the tape for someone else, Rings presents a whole classroom of students trying to pass their hex off on unsuspecting viewers. Besides the moral dilemma, there’s a human drama embedded in the urban-legend hokum: the relatable story of a girl concerned that her boyfriend has completely left her behind, getting mixed up in the new complications of campus life, like keg parties and college girls and well-dwelling demon kids.
It’s not a terrible setup. But Rings doesn’t end up doing much with its fresh ideas. Instead, it transforms into a kind of remake of a remake, borrowing not just the washed-out look of Verbinski’s movie—lots of blue hues and overcast skies—but also its basic plot structure, which was itself lifted from the Japanese original. Discovering a film within Samara’s film, Julia and Holt embark on another scavenger hunt into the dead girl’s troubled past, trekking out to some depressed Pacific Northwest hamlet to uncover more pertinent backstory. This involves lots of tediously explanatory conversations with the locals, including a haunted blind hermit (Vincent D’Onofrio, hamming it up in the Brian Cox role). There was plenty exposition in The Ring, too, but none of it quite as clumsy as the dialogue in Rings. When, for example, Galecki‘s character discovers that dusty old VCR in the opening minutes, he announces aloud that it’s being sold by the family of a guy who died on an airplane—information he has no good reason to possess or to share.
Speaking of which, the only decent set piece here is the first one: a nightmare at 20,000 feet, cleverly extending Samara’s malevolent reach to the seat-back monitors of a commercial flight. Otherwise, Rings just offers more of the same old slithering-out-of-the-screen tactics, made no more frightening by the fact that the number and variety of screens has exponentially increased. (The film also vaguely, casually swipes from the Final Destination series and—almost surely by accident, given how long it’s been sitting on the shelf—Don’t Breathe.) The real problem with Rings, though, is that the characters are bland nothings. On top of its primo PG-13 scares, The Ring pivoted around a strangely endearing family dynamic—a single mother trying to connect to her oddball kid, and the hipster-doofus father trying to belatedly work his way into the family. You felt every tick of the seven-day clock because you actually cared about these marked-for-death Seattleites. In Rings, Samara can’t show up soon enough, to put us all out of our misery.