Rings (2017)

First published by Sight & Sound, April 2017

Review: Ever since Koji Suzuki published his 1991 horror novel Ring, it has spread as virally as the haunted videotape at its centre. Its best known versions were Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998) and Gore Verbinski’s US remake The Ring (2002), but there was also an earlier Japanese feature (Ring: Kanzenban, 1995), a Japanese TV series (Ring: The Final Chapter, 1999), a Korean remake (The Ring Virus, 1999), and a slew of sequels – as well as countless imitators in the early-Noughties wave of J-horror that Nakata’s film was pivotal in starting. Along with Koji Shiraishi’s crossover grudge match Sadako Vs Kayako (2016), F. Javier Guttiérez’s Rings is just the latest iteration, even if these reincarnations of the franchise coincide with the year in which production of VCRs finally came to an end. The equipment through which angry spirit Sadako (or her American counterpart Samara) enters our world – equipment which in 1991 marked her adaptability and modernity – has now itself become redundant tech. For this vengeful ghost of the past to keep invading our present, she must evolve.

So evolve she does. Experimental biologist Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) may chance upon a copy of Samara’s VHS in a ‘vintage’ VCR at a flea market, but it is not long before the flickering, fatal video has been converted to a datafile and shown to his volunteer students on laptops or smartphones. Now those who have watched Samara’s monochrome clip (resembling the old-school experimentalism of Buñuel and Dali or Maya Deren) are contacted by her on their cellphones. Now Samara emerges from flatscreen TVs (or even the control monitor in the cabin of a plane). Now digitised, Samara’s deadly message can be disseminated globally as a viral video. The age-old memento mori that she delivers comes here in new forms. Similarly, as Julia (Matilda Lutz) and her boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) race back to Samara’s hometown to disinter her horrific origin story, they are also inadvertently helping to write her next chapter.

One way to survive Samara’s curse is to pass it on, copying her tape and getting someone else to watch. Accordingly, Rings – whose very plural title betokens replication – repeatedly marks itself as a second- or third-generation copy. Not only does it reference (and distort) all the previous Ring films, but its plane-set prologue alludes to the opening of another film (and subsequently, franchise) devoted to inexorable mortality, Final Destination (2000), while an image of ants on a severed ear evokes the hidden smalltown horror of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Meanwhile, more ancient models – expressly the myth of Orpheus, and more implicitly the myth of Oedipus (which also featured a misunderstood vision, a vain flight from fate, and an act of self-blinding) – frame Rings as a story that has been copying itself throughout human history.

In Rings, the cicada – an insect whose long periods of underground dormancy are punctuated by rebirths – becomes a recurring motif. It is how the film figures the cyclical return of the repressed, in which the long-buried awareness of death always finds new ways to resurface. The sense of creeping dread is backed up with an unsettling confusion of surreal imagery – and finally there is a promise/threat of many more, and very different, sequels.

Synopsis: Spokane, Washington, present day. Experimental biologist Gabriel chances upon Samara’s cursed VHS, and starts getting his students, including Holt, to copy and watch it, passing on the curse in a widening circle. Holt’s girlfriend Julia discovers that he has been cursed. To prevent his death, she watches the video, and immediately starts having visions. These – and an extra video hidden in the digital code of the copy file that Julia makes – guide her and Holt to Sacrament Valley, where they hope to end the curse. There they find Samara’s grave empty. They meet blind Burke, who tells them that the corpse was moved after its curse brought floods to the town. More visions lead Julia to the town’s church, where she discovers a hidden basement prison. Physical evidence and further visions reveal that Evelyn, a girl who disappeared from the town decades earlier, had been held captive by the former priest, Burke, while she carried his child, Samara. Julia confronts Burke, who reveals that he must stop anyone hoping to reawaken Samara. Fleeing, Julia finds Samara’s skeleton in Burke’s house. Samara restores Burke’s sight only to kill him. Julia and Holt cremate Samara’s skeleton – but she is reborn in Julia’s body, and sends her video across the internet.

© Anton Bitel