#ThrowbackThursday – The Ring Two

Original US release date: March 18, 2005
Production budget: $50,000,000
Worldwide gross: $161,451,538

Regular readers know by now that The Ring (here’s my #ThrowbackThursday review) is my favorite horror movie of all time.  It was hugely successful, both with critics and general audiences, making a gigantic profit and setting the stage for a widely anticipated sequel.  The Ring Two dropped a few years after its predecessor and was surrounded by much excitement, though it ultimately resulted in a feeling of disappointment for fans of the original horror classic.  It still managed to make plenty of money, easily garnering a profit, but the enthusiasm for the property had been virtually extinguished by the lackluster reaction to the new film.  What went wrong?  Is it really that bad?

Well, no, but it’s not that great, either.  After Rachel (Naomi Watts) and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) successfully avoid a gruesome fate at the hands of Samara in The Ring, the two leave Seattle in search of a fresh start and the chance to forget their horrific ordeal.  Unfortunately, Samara’s reach is vast and she has other plans in mind for Rachel and Aidan.

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The film is competently made, but one factor working against it from the start is that it faced the unfair expectations of living up to its iconic predecessor.  Very few sequels are capable of pulling such a feat off when the original film is as beloved and revered as The Ring (though, as I’ve stated endlessly, The Conjuring 2 pulled it off, as have a handful of others over the years).  But such a thing should never be outright expected.  The film underwhelms from that point of view and, for most of the general moviegoing audience, “underwhelming” is synonymous with “awful”.

It’s not “awful”, though.  Naomi Watts is great, as always, though not much is required of her.  And the narrative reveals more about Samara’s past, so it adds to the mythology of this American version of the property.  It’s also a very professionally-constructed production – everything looks and sounds nice (except for dialogue during the carnival scene, which is drowned out by the ambient noise).  Ehren Kruger returned to the franchise to write the screenplay after also penning the screenplay for the original film.  This time, however, he crafted an original story, not based on any of the Japanese films or comics.

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Some cracks begin to show as we get deep into Kruger’s script.  The additional insight into Samara’s past is welcome, but getting there – and getting there with Rachel and Aidan in tow, particularly – requires some regrettable concessions and inexplicable narrative gymnastics that both distract and clutter the entire mythology.  Most of these revolve around Samara, herself.  Her motivations and abilities were very clear in The Ring and they helped mold her into one of the all-time great horror movie icons.  She was evil.  And she wanted to hurt as many people as possible, and she would target those who wouldn’t help her to tell her story.  “Do what I want, or you die.”  That’s Samara.  And there were very clear and specific rules for how she would both choose and execute her victims.

But with this sequel, all of that is seemingly jettisoned and rewritten into something far more confusing and far less threatening.  Now she has the ability to possess people.  And she can also perform mind-control.  And she suddenly wants certain things for which she never previously displayed a desire.  And those desires soften the character.  It’s too much.  Keep it simple.  Samara was great, before.  These changes dilute her.

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So why make them?  Because the filmmakers didn’t understand why Samara clicked with viewers.  Kruger is very hit-and-miss and it’s clear that he has trouble seeing films from outside his own perspective.  In addition, the desire to bring Watts back into the fold (which is understandable) made it even trickier.  According to the previously defined rules, there is no longer any reason for Samara to have any interest in Rachel or Aidan.  They played her game.  She should have moved on from them as she moved on from everyone else who played along.  So, if Watts was to return, Samara’s motivations would have to expand.

If I had been writing the film, I would have had Rachel continue to hear tales of Samara’s ongoing terror, feel guilty about her role in it all, and then proactively attempt to find a way to stop Samara once and for all.  However, Rachel herself is different in this film as compared to first, as well.  She isn’t the proactive hero we know from before.  Rachel is almost entirely reactive, even when Samara begins to directly threaten her and Aidan.  She sits back until something happens and then essentially throws her hands up and shrugs until something else happens.  She does a little digging into Samara’s past, but she puts very little effort into actually stopping Samara, herself.  The inconsistency in her character does nothing to help the film.

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Another issue is that director Hideo Nakata simply doesn’t understand his audience.  After building a successful career in Japan, including directing the original Japanese film Ringu (upon which The Ring is based) and its sequel, The Ring Two was his first American film.  Japanese audiences and American audiences react very differently to horror films.  Nakata appears to at least try to adjust his style to approximate what American audiences are looking for, but it never quite works.

His timing is off, so the suspense fails to properly build and the jump scares fail to surprise.  In addition, there are really bizarre attempts at horror involving deer and water.  So.  Much.  Water.  Water is often considered scary to Japanese audiences (Nakata even wrote and directed the original Japanese version of Dark Water, which was remade in America into a film of the same name starring Jennifer Connelly), but water isn’t scary to Americans unless something is actually in it.  Samara’s new powers also lose the benefit of being visually frightening.  Samara’s effectiveness lies in the visuals.  Nakata fails to find a way to compensate for this misguided attempt by Kruger to freshen up the proceedings.

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On paper, I can understand how bringing Nakata in to direct the sequel when The Ring director Gore Verbinski bolted for the Pirates of the Caribbean series would seem like a great idea.  But, in reality, it caused more problems than it was worth.  The cultural differences were too much to overcome and they, along with handing Kruger the narrative keys, essentially killed the franchise.  The third film in the series, Rings, was released earlier this year and, despite what most reviews felt obligated to proclaim, it was much better than this film.  But, it didn’t matter.  Audiences were bored by The Ring 2 and had lost interest, twelve years prior.  It’s unfortunate because The Ring franchise was poised to be one of the all-time great horror series but creative misdirection and inexperience derailed it right after it busted out of the gate.  The film world should always consider itself fortunate to have The Ring, but The Ring Two will exist only as a slight mythology builder and a mild curiosity as an illustration of how there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

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