Like the dangerous, haunted short film at its center, the Ring phenomenon spread virally. It began as a Japanese novel, reached huge Asian audiences as the (later much-imitated) film Ringu, crept into the West via festivals, late-night screenings, and region-free DVDs, then reached the world at large via a Hollywood remake directed by Gore Verbinski and starring Naomi Watts. It's also the rare cultural product that improved as it got passed around. What the American version lacked in original spark, it made up for in coherence, style, and intensity. A sequel proved inevitable, and its progress almost requires a scorecard: It follows the American-produced version of The Ring, but it's not a remake of the 1999 Japanese film Ringu 2, the sequel to the original Ringu. But it is directed by Hideo Nakata, who directed and co-wrote both Ringu and Ringu 2. Nakata didn't write The Ring Two, however. That credit belongs to Ehren Kruger, who wrote The Ring. Got it?
The story follows a straighter line. It simply picks up where the last Ring left off, finding Watts and dead-eyed son David Dorfman attempting to forge a new life in a quiet seaside town some distance from the Seattle high-rise of The Ring. The spirit world has other ideas, however, and when Watts happens upon a videotape-related death, she knows she has to take action, even if it means attracting the unwanted attention of the franchise's hairy, hungry ghost.
The Ring Two deserves some credit for audacity; after a tense opening sequence, it essentially ditches the idea of the infectious videotape. But what does that leave? Watts and Dorfman have to confront a less specific threat that's more dangerous, but also less frightening. In place of the chilled, deadly logic that drove The Ring, Nakata substitutes a ghost-on-the-loose realized through an uninspired combination of teasing reveals, CGI effects, and, in what has to be one of the least-effective horror setpieces of recent years, a deer attack. (Is the film attempting to channel the nightmares of grass and fungi?)
Casting aside its source material's brilliant collision of modern technology and an old-fashioned ghost story, The Ring Two relies instead on a plot that could have come from a 1970s Italian Exorcist rip-off. It's passably gripping and occasionally lively, particularly in a mood-lightening guest turn from Gary Cole as a real-estate agent trying to hide the grim past of one of the last film's locations. But The Ring Two bends the original Ring concept to the breaking point, and as the sequel to what may be this decade's only memorable American horror movie to date, it can't escape the ghost of the better film that came before it.