“I want to show you something.” If you’ve seen The Ring, or better, Ringu, you know this simple invitation was made odious. The something was a videotape featuring lots of static and a couple of gothish girls, brushing their hair and falling off cliffs, crawling up well walls and brushing their hair some more. As you will recall, it was all very scary, very overwrought, and very figured out at the end of the first films, both the Japanese original and the remade U.S. version.
The Ring 2, directed by the original’s Hideo Nakata (U.S. companies do pay well), begins again with this invitation, rendered by Jake (Ryan Merriman) in hopes of passing on the curse of that videotape to “some girl from school,” Emily (Emily VanCamp). (To recap: if you watch the tape, you die within seven days, unless you make a copy and have someone else watch it, whereupon that someone else becomes the designated victim, all ordained by the apparently preternaturally tech-savvy Samara [Daveigh Chase], or maybe Evil Samara [Kelly Stables], drowned by her adoptive, hair-brushing mother and so cursing everyone who comes within her bitter, gnarly reach to die a similarly hideous death.)
This first scene in the sequel ends much as you expect, with a dead body and someone screaming. It occurs in the same small Oregon town where Rachel (Naomi Watts) and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) have moved in an effort to escape their own painful memories of encounters with the Samaras and the videotape. Even more darkly hollow-eyed than in The Ring, Aidan remonstrates mom for making this effort, or at least that’s the way that she reads his long silences, focus on his new pastime (photography), and emotional distance. “All this space and fresh air, it’s really great,” she observes, a little feebly, before launching into what sounds like an apology. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We did what anyone would do: we started over.”
Famous last words. What Rachel misses in her rationale is the fact that she’s living in a horror movie sequel, which ordains that she’s not anywhere near “starting over” in the usual sense. Rather, she’s starting again, repeating the same scares and falling into the same pattern of investigation and descent into evil (the well is a useful metaphor, as are various shadowy stairways and wuthering heightsy cliffs). As before, she is most interested in saving Aidan, though now the threat is less precise (Does the ghost want to be the boy? Possess the boy? Possess the mother of the boy?) As Aidan has since turned nine or so, he’s looking slightly taller and more haunted than before, though about equally numb. This kid has never been one for over-emoting, and for that you might be grateful, as he seems a still center around which the rest of the ringy nonsense swirls.
This time’s nonsense suffers from coming late in a line of J-horror incarnations, not to mention Gore Verbinski’s first U.S. remake. The Samara story is known, and the rehashing here is uninteresting. Again, Rachel seeks/needs the help of a hapless male, a reporter at the newspaper where she’s working, Max (Simon Baker), and again, he has no idea what he’s getting into. When he suspects that Rachel is drowning her son in the bathtub, he delivers them both into the technological claws of the local hospital, where the unfortunately named shrink Dr. Temple (Elizabeth Perkins) suggests Aidan’s strange bruises and hypothermia might be a result of Rachel’s bad or at least inept parenting.
Rachel is horrified, of course, not only by the suggestion but by her subsequent separation from Aidan. Plotwise, it sends Rachel forth into her investigative mode, so she can drive off to visit old hospitals and houses (one for sale by smarmy real estate agent Gary Cole: don’t blink or you’ll miss him), clamber through basements, and stumble on terrible secrets — all about bad mothers. Indeed, this time, not only does Samara’s backstory include the stepmom who stuck her in the well, but also, it turns out, an actual mom, Evelyn, who’s been locked up in an incredibly well-lit and hugely airy institutional cell for decades.
The fact that Evelyn is played by Sissy Spacek in a Loretta-Lynnish big black wig (quite nesty and knotted because she has apparently not been brushing her hair) makes her somewhat thrilling as an idea. It’s as if she’s Carrie come back as someone’s mother, weaned on Piper Laurie and still angling to get back at those who judge her wanting. Rachel is aptly alarmed but also intrigued when Evelyn begins nattering on — urgently, of course — about what makes a good mother. “Listen to your baby,” she hisses intently. Rachel looks appropriately taken aback at this advice, as Aidan’s requests have hardly seemed sensible of late. That and, Evelyn’s verbal and visual allusions to Andrea Yates are less an indictment of the oppressive culture of perfect-momism than of the insanity of mothers.
This even though The Ring‘s most ingenious indictment had to do with commercial culture and viral technologies, with the insidious, ubiquitous videotape the transmission vehicle. Perfect, in its way, and yet so diluted here, as the film “opens up” to allow scary specters that extend beyond the original’s tight focus on the hard-to-parse video images. Here Aidan has taken up another technology, digital photography, by which he captures shots of his close relation with Samara as well as the film’s thematic insistence on mirrors’ many functions. This opening up also leads to the film’s set piece, wherein a herd of big-antlered stags assault Rachel’s car. As grim and stompy as their attack may be, their purpose remains elusive. They might be reminding you and Rachel of the horses in the first film. Or maybe they’re just enacting aggressively digital retribution against those bad drivers who hit deer on remote woodsy roads.