“Rings,” the latest franchise horror sequel that has no organic reason to exist, opens on an airplane, where a dude asks the young woman seated next to him, “Did you ever hear about the videotape that kills you after you watch it?” By now, the most appropriate response to that question would be, “What’s a videotape?” Instead, she listens politely as he jabbers on about the tape and the phone call you get after you watch it, the one that says you have only seven days to live. He then explains that he’s five minutes away from powering through those seven days. Uh-oh! Moments later, his nose is bleeding, insects are buzzing, the black sludge is oozing from the bottom of the bathroom door, and — oh, yes! — the plane is crashing. (All that’s missing is a gremlin on the wing of the plane.) This is how you die in “Rings”: Decisively, accompanied by a great many omens, most of which probably don’t mean very much. But about that videotape…
“Ringu,” the celebrated Japanese horror movie that started it all, was released in 1998 (“The Ring,” the not-bad American remake, came out four years later), and back then, VHS tapes — not to mention teenybopper-voiced phone calls of death placed on landlines — didn’t come off as a form of technology ancient enough to have been used in Druidic rituals. At the time, DVDs were coming into vogue, but this wasn’t just a matter of which format people were going to use to watch stuff at home. The whole category of J-horror played off the fusion of ancient spirits and digital technology — the ghost in the machine — and “Ringu” used its sinister flash-cut black-and-white videotape, with its twitchy pulsating images that looked like “Un Chien Andalou” turned into a snuff film, as a metaphor for the insidious menace of technology itself. It was a dawn-of-the-Internet-age horror film, and it put forth the message that the future wouldn’t bury the past — it would re-code it.
All of that seems so long ago and far away. The tech revolution is no longer The Scary Exciting Future. It’s simply the air we breathe. And so “Rings,” the third entry in the American “Ring” franchise (after “The Ring” and “The Ring Two”), is just a blah generic ghost story that’s half-heartedly built around the premise of a videotape that kills. It’s now the file-share that kills. I don’t know why that’s less threatening, but it is, kind of like seeing your favorite album cover reduced to a digital postage stamp.
Johnny Galecki, from “The Big Bang Theory” and “Roseanne,” is cast against type as Gabriel, a surly college professor who’s gotten hold of the classic old-school “Ring” videotape — woman combing her hair, seaside rocks, lone housefly, slithery centipede, woodland meadow, girl with face draped in body-length black tresses dragging herself out of a stone well — and is in the midst of an experiment that involves showing it to a bunch of college kids, all to provide scientific evidence for the existence of the soul, or the gateway to the other side, or something. The way the rules now work, if your seven days are up but you make a copy of the tape and show it to somebody else, you’ll survive and they will die (unless they do the same thing, etc.), making this the Ponzi scheme of living-dead videos.
Julia (Matilda Lutz), after a disturbing Skype conversation with her boyfriend, Holt (Alex Roe), trails him to college, where she discovers that he’s one of Gabriel’s guinea pigs. For a while, “Rings” seems to be about the undergraduate seminar from hell — and since Gabriel actually uses a VCR, the videotape metaphor lives on, sort of (for about 45 minutes). But then it all gets turned into laptop files, and it also becomes a matter of the video-within-the-video. In this one, there’s a new set of flickering images — church flood, burning corpse, cicadas in the shape of a crucifix, a snake eating its tail — to keep you awake nights going “Now WTF does that mean?” But the new images aren’t all that different from the old images. As a horror film, “Rings” goes to the well once too often.
The images turn out to be clues to a mysterious disappearance, which leads Julia and Holt to Sacrament Valley, the kind of quaint small town that has a dark secret that can only register as the most perilous of clichés. The lady who runs the rooming house is creepy, the photograph on the wall of the girl with the violin is creepy, and Vincent D’Donofrio is even creepier as a jaunty blind local who simply can’t be up to anything wholesome. I’ll reveal no more, except to say that “Rings” takes the “Ring” formula and merges it with the premise of “Room,” with its opportunistic fusion of depravity and PC victimization. The movie, which will be lucky to eke out a weekend’s worth of business, isn’t scary, it isn’t awesome, and it doesn’t nudge you to think of technology in a new way. But it does make you wish that you could rewind those two hours, or maybe just erase them.