Remember that videotape everybody was talking about a couple years ago? The jumpy, grainy black-and-white footage of a woman brushing her hair, a single tree near an ocean, a mysterious white ring. After watching it, viewers died precisely seven days later. Unless ... and this was the great twist -- you could get somebody else to watch it. A deadly curse transferable through benign home-entertainment equipment and our desire to watch something cool.
That was the core of 2002's The Ring, Gore Verbinski's American adaptation of Hideo Nakata's 1998 Japanese thriller Ringu. And like the maligned deadly videotape, the Ring cycle continues. Nakata helmed a sequel, Ringu 2, in his native land and now has come stateside to direct The Ring Two, the continuing adventures of Rachel, Aidan and that creepy not-quite-dead-yet girl, Samara.
Rachel (Naomi Watts), having duplicated the tape for her own protection, has relocated from Seattle to the pretty seaside town of Astoria, in Oregon (if I'd had the troubles detailed in The Ring, I'd have moved where there was less water). She's hyper-protective of her little boy, Aidan (David Dorfman), especially when a local teen dies after watching That Tape. Soon, the pair ferret out that Samara has also moved south and still has a lot of unresolved issues that appear to revolve around them.
Ring Two quickly abandons the novel cursed-tape narrative of its predecessor and instead adopts a two-pronged attack based on the more typical thriller tines of demonic possession and matricide. Two treads the same psycho-social paths as Ring: single mothers, imperiled children, family secrets, messages delivered in nightmares -- all as dully familiar as a shelf of V.C. Andrews novels (but with lots more roiling water).
Plot threads start and stop abruptly, and there's no overarching query to be answered, no real intrigue to support a nearly two-hour film. Samara is just back, OK, because she wants to be back. Figuring out how to get rid of her doesn't carry the same urgency as helplessly watching those seven calendar pages flutter away.
In the atmosphere department, what was freshly creepy the first time -- a faucet that doesn't work right, a TV on the fritz -- teeters between tedious and laughable this time. Instead of a cogent plot or an overriding mythology, Two just lards up on random mysterious events: Aidan's temperature drops, his pet fish die, the image of a burning tree snakes up his bedroom wall, and in the film's most ridiculous scene, a dozen multi-pointed bucks go plumb crazy and batter Rachel's little car for no reason.
Midway through the film Rachel confronts a real-world threat that actually has some plot value: The doctors want to know why her kid has extreme hypothermia, is covered in bruises and is in a catatonic state.
Ah, child abuse. You might recall from The Ring that the story turned on discovering that Samara had been adopted by parents who proved less than ideal. So Rachel returns to the very same Ye Olde Horse Farm and Scary Barn, where she now discovers two alarming things: a scrapbook of disturbing illustrations compiled by Samara's birth mother, and an unctuous real-estate agent (Gary Cole, who seems to have just popped in from Office Space). Oh, and before all the lightbulbs flicker out, there in the corner of the basement is a huge pile of deer antlers ... of which we will never speak again.
Meanwhile, back at the hospital, Aidan does a mind-meld thing that causes the pushy child psychiatrist to inject herself with an enormous hypodermic needle. Say what? The Ring mythology is getting pretty raggedy -- we're all over the freaky-shit map, and nobody is even mentioning these videotapes circulating about killing unsuspecting viewers.
Poor Watts -- was she contractually obligated to return? She spends most of the film crying out "Aidan? Aidan!" and delivering one stupid keeper line that will haunt her career for a decade. Dorfman, the poor man's Haley Joel Osment, talks in that flat preternatural way the smart kids in spooky movies do. Simon Baker shows up as a potentially useful adult male, then disappears into a plot hole. An encounter with an institutionalized woman (Sissy Spacek) proves key: Remember, in thrillers, crazy people usually have the best advice.
The Ring was a supernatural detective story in which the disturbing video held clues that Rachel, being an investigative reporter, followed to a reasonably logical conclusion. Yet, that film, a little smarter, edgier and slower than run-of-the-mill thrillers, also allowed the audience to ruminate on meatier topics, such as the escalating repercussions of abuse and the omnipresence of technology. The threat, however absurd, that a videotape could kill you felt plausible. Deep inside we daren't acknowledge the hold that audio-visual devices have over us; they are already controlling much of our lives, and we invite it.
The conclusion of Ring Two tries very hard to be exciting, but if you've seen The Ring, you've got it covered. Oh, except for this one little detail, though it hardly matters in a story as ineptly plotted as this. And that solution, the final capper, the reason this dripping hell-raiser of a girl is back, turns out to just be ... so dumb.