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Hollow ‘Rings’: Horror franchise tries, fails to stay relevant

Matilda Lutz in "Rings." | Paramount Pictures

“First you watch it, then you die” is not the wisest of taglines to pin on a movie that feels like it’s literally trying to bore you to death.

Horror movies can commit, and survive, many cinematic sins and still be worth watching. They can be slow (“The House of the Devil”). They can be silly (“Tremors”). They can be mind-bogglingly stupid (“Killer Klowns From Outer Space”). But the absolute worst thing a horror movie can be is boring.

The original “The Ring” (2002) was a stylish, slow-burning horror film that used atmosphere and a building sense of dread to deliver lingering chills. It also came out at just the right time to capitalize on the concept of a cursed video tape, at the tail end of tube TVs and television snow, when home media centers were still transitioning from VHS to DVD. Now, in a second sequel 15 years since the original, we have ghost girl Samara climbing out of cell phones and popping up on the backs of airplane seats.

It just feels desperate.

So does the plot, such as it is. Stumbling across the tape and unleashing hell upon the world this time around is Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), a pot-smoking, whiskey-swilling “experimental biology” professor with a soft spot for old technology at flea markets. He takes home his vintage VCR, pre-loaded with a tape labeled “Watch me.” He does just that, then gets the phone call, a child’s voice whispering “seven days,” the amount of time he has left to live if he doesn’t make a copy. It’s game on.

In this world, experimental biology professor is a gig apparently shiny and lucrative enough to land you an entire top-secret floor in a university building to conduct experiments, which is where Gabriel has used his discovery of the tape to launch “The Samara Enigma: Neuroscience of the Afterlife,” an experiment to prove the existence of a soul. The writing in “Rings” is painful enough when the dumb characters are talking; it’s agony when it tries to sound smart.

Among the students pulled into Gabriel’s web is Holt (Alex Roe), who is rescued from certain death when his concerned girlfriend Julia (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) drives in from out of town to see why her boyfriend has been acting so weird lately. These are our two leads, and they have the perfect blandness of unbuttered white toast.

Then the stupidity really gets revving, with Holt and Julia running off to play detective and figure out why the spirit of murdered Samara is so angry this time. Along the way there are boilerplate jump scares (a bird out of nowhere! A dog! A snake! Cicadas!), dumb leaps of logic (touching the puckered pin marks on a sheet of paper and – zoinks! – of course those weird marks on that one girl’s hand are braille) and endless exposition (the characters literally vocalize what we’re seeing on screen).

The only joy to be had is accidental, thanks to Vincent D’Onofrio being gloriously miscast as a mysterious blind weirdo who can’t help but telegraph he’s a bad guy from a thousand miles away. He is not the actor you cast when you want subtlety and surprise on your side.

But then, there’s nothing subtle or surprising about “Rings.” It’s just another thoughtless cash-grab sequel in a horror-movie franchise better off dead.

Let Samara rest in peace, already.

Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by F. Javier Gutierrez and written by David Loucka, Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman. Rated PG-13 (for violence/terror, thematic elements, some sexuality and brief drug material). Running time: 102 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.