"The Ring Two" is a half-intriguing, half-tedious follow-up to DreamWorks' 2002 creepy sleeper. Although the franchise has come full circle back into the hands of Hideo Nakata, director of the two original Japanese "Ringu" pics in 1998-99, new item has virtually nothing to do with "Ringu 2."

The Ring Two” is a half-intriguing, half-tedious follow-up to DreamWorks’ 2002 creepy sleeper. Although the franchise has come full circle back into the hands of Hideo Nakata, director of the two original Japanese “Ringu” pics in 1998-99, new item has virtually nothing to do with “Ringu 2.” Most importantly, it brings back from the first American installment Naomi Watts, who once again proves her graceful and understated ability to carry a film virtually on her own. Although short on “Grudge”-like shocks, DreamWorks release has enough menacing atmosphere to approach the B.O. totals of its predecessor, which racked up $129 million domestically and $120 mil overseas.

When Gore Verbinsky bowed out of helming this sequel, Nakata grabbed the opportunity to make his first feature in the West (he did docu work while living in the U.K. in the early ’90s). Returning scenarist Ehren Kruger, evidently feeling little compulsion to follow the storyline of the smash second Japanese entry, instead worked up a reasonably plausible continuation of his first script that in the beginning minutes neatly disposes of the original’s gimmick of teens dying after watching a weird video.

Newspaper reporter Rachel Keller (Watts) has scrammed Seattle with son Aidan (David Dorfman) to seek peace and quiet in Astoria, Ore., a modest-looking seaside burg where she gets a gig on the local paper. When a teenage boy turns up dead and his girlfriend goes catatonic, Rachel realizes the video that terrorized her in Seattle has followed her down the coast.

Subsequent disruptions prove increasingly unnerving: Aidan, a kid whose unrelievedly serious demeanor makes him seem like a little man, takes photographs of himself in a mirror in which the spectral image of Samara, the stringy-haired tyke from the original video, appears to be imposing herself; Aidan’s body temperature begins dropping alarmingly; a herd of large-antlered deer surrounds Rachel and Aidan’s car in a forest and some of the deer attack the car, and the electricity in the house fritzes out.

Pic’s first half concludes with a nifty bathtub set piece, accompanied by “Psycho”-like lunging strings, no less, in which it becomes clear — if it isn’t already — that Samara intends to claim Aidan for herself, although it takes the remainder of the picture to find out exactly why.

With her son finally hospitalized, Rachel returns to the Seattle area to find out all she can about sinister Samara and her birth mother. The latter is found in a psychiatric hospital, giving Sissy Spacek, in a one-scene cameo that’s arguably too brief, a chance to return to horror turf for the first time since “Carrie.” In a climax that returns to the bathtub for a sacrificial rite whose Old Testament undercurrents are all the more effective for being unstated, Rachel battles Samara for possession of Aidan’s body and soul.

Apart from the sporadic shock sequences that include dream interludes and a very nice desaturated elaboration of the original, quasi-surrealist video, Nakata directs in a precise, low-keyed gear that keeps a firm hand on mood but sometimes stalls out for lack of dramatic energy.

With all characters, save for Rachel, Aidan and Samara, from the first American “Ring” having been jettisoned and scarcely anyone of consequence having replaced them, new film is mostly a two-character piece. As she has repeatedly shown since hitting the big time four years ago, Watts is just as compelling when silent and alone in a scene as she is mixing it up with other actors, making her ideal for an assignment like this in which her character is forced to go it alone amongst newcomers who are necessarily clueless as to how to help her.

Although there are a few lapses in credibility, mainly having to do with characters being left alone in situations that would strongly dictate otherwise, Watts doesn’t have to cope with the large question marks that hovered over her character’s behavior the first time around. Dorfman paints Aidan as an eerily self-possessed little boy, even as another entity endeavors to possess him.

In briefly are Simon Baker as Rachel’s hunky newspaper associate, Elizabeth Perkins as a condescending doctor whose know-it-all attitude is trumped by forces she can’t understand, and Gary Cole as a real estate agent blissfully unaware of the bloody past of the property he’s peddling.

Production values are modest but sharp. Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain takes his cue from the generally overcast weather and predominant water motifs to ground the film in somber grays, blues and greens. Rick Baker is back to provide imaginatively creepy makeup effects, while the score by Henning Lohner and Martin Tillman is effectively derivative, not only from Hans Zimmer, whose themes from the original “Ring” are credited, but of Bernard Herrmann, Igor Stravinsky, et al.

The Ring Two

Production

A DreamWorks release of a Parkes/MacDonald production. Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald. Executive producers, Mike Macari, Roy Lee, Neil Machlis, Michele Weisler. Co-producer, Michele Imperato Stabile. Co-executive producers, Neal Edelstein, Chris Bender, JC Spink. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Screenplay, Ehren Kruger, based on the novel "The Ring" by Koji Suzuki and the motion picture "The Ring" by The Ring/The Spiral Production Group.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Gabriel Beristain; editor, Michael N. Knue; music, Henning Lohner, Martin Tillman; themes, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jim Bissell; art director, Christa Munro; supervising set designer, Lorrie Campbell; set designers, Cosmas A. Demetriou, Gary Diamond; set decorator, Lauri Gaffin; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), David MacMillan; supervising sound editors, Ethan Van Der Ryn, George Simpson; sound designer, Van Der Ryn; special make-up effects, Rick Baker, Cinovation Studios; visual effects, Rhythm & Hues, Hammerhead Prods., Digital Filmworks; assistant director, Doug Metzger; second unit director/camera, Mark Vargo; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, March 10, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Rachel Keller - Naomi Watts Max Rourke - Simon Baker Aidan - David Dorfman Dr. Emma Temple - Elizabeth Perkins Martin Savide - Gary Cole Evelyn - Sissy Spacek Jake - Ryan Merriman Emily - Emily VanCamp Samara - Daveigh Chase Betsy - Kelly Overton Doctor - James Lesure

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