The strange history of the ‘Rings’ franchise
This weekend, 12 years after “The Ring” movie franchise last haunted North American theaters, the vengeful ghost Samara and her cursed video are back in search of new victims and $10 million to $14 million at the weekend box office.
Like any savvy supervillain with staying power, she’s learned to adapt: In “Rings,” Samara’s third go-round (at least in the U.S.), she’s upgraded from frightening curious souls to death through that worn-out VHS tape to killing them via handy, easy-to-transfer digital files.
Hollywood loves a good horror franchise: Ever since “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” kicked it off in the 1980s, and all the way through to today’s “Saw,” “Insidious,” “The Conjuring” and “The Purge,” studios and indies have been offering scare fans series after series.
“Rings” is the third film in a series, preceded by 2002’s “The Ring” and 2005’s “The Ring Two.”
The first two months of 2017 have been kind to genre fare like M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” which just crossed $100 million globally for Universal, and the STX Entertainment slasher “The Bye Bye Man,” which has taken $24 million on a $7.4-million budget.
“It’s been a good year for horror movies,” said comScore box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, predicting a mid-teens opening for “Rings.” “But the question is, how long is the shelf life on a franchise like this? Has it been too long?”
While audiences run hot and cold on other go-to studio genres like romantic comedies, horror has a way of hanging tough at the box office — especially in the barren wasteland that is the first quarter of the year.
Horror is relatively cheap to produce and potentially very lucrative, the perks of discovering the kind of billion-dollar boogeyman (or woman) who can fill endless sequels with new victims to claim. But the “Ring” franchise has taken an incredibly bizarre path on its way to stateside theaters, spread across three countries, concurrent and non-canonical chronologies, prequels, sequels and crossovers yielding three American “Ring” films, six Japanese movies and a film made for TV, and a South Korean film.
The catnip bringing fans to “The Ring” franchise has always been its high concept with a simple hook: A cursed videotape kills its viewers in seven days. Moviegoers across the world now know how this one goes — pass on the curse like a chain letter, or suffer death by fright courtesy of an ashen, long-haired ghost lady called Samara in the States, Sadako in Japan and Park Eun-suh in Korea.
The first “Ring” flick, an American remake of the Japanese horror hit “Ringu,” starred Naomi Watts as a journalist trying to save her young son from the death curse that met everyone who viewed said tape, which came accompanied by a phone call from the ghostly Samara herself. Directed by a pre-“Pirates of the Caribbean” Gore Verbinski, it scored positive reviews, pulled in $249 million worldwide and turned Watts into a bankable star.
The Australian actress even came back for more in 2005’s “The Ring Two,” directed by Hideo Nakata, helmer of the original “Ringu,” but found herself anchoring a sequel of diminishing returns. Critics panned it and the film only made $76 million domestically, compared to “The Ring’s” $129-million North American take.
Unsurprisingly Watts, who earned her first Oscar nomination for “21 Grams” after carrying the first “Ring” film and graduated to more prestigious fare following the sequel, is sitting the third one out. Set 13 years after “The Ring Two,” “Rings” stars Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe as doomed young millennials who encounter Samara as part of a university experiment, watching digitized black-and-white footage of the wraith crawling out of that well on their laptops.
With screens everywhere nowadays, Samara’s developed a new ability to hack into in-flight airplane broadcasts with her home video and haunt thumb drives. Even in the digital age, her cursed VHS finds a way.
“Rings” attempts to further expand the mythology as Julie (Lutz) discovers that her boyfriend’s been marked by the curse after watching the video for class at the behest of his professor (“Big Bang Theory’s” Johnny Galecki), who’s trying to use the tape to prove the existence of the human soul.
Audiences will determine whether or not Paramount takes that new thread and runs. “The third installment tells you if should you move on and continue or wrap it up,” said Dergarabedian, noting that Super Bowl weekend and a theatrical market flooded with competition might put the kibosh on “Rings”’ future. “It is the tipping point.”
Twenty-six years ago, stay-at-home dad and author Koji Suzuki sat down to write his second novel. “Ringu,” about a reporter investigating the deaths of four teenagers found dead after watching a mysterious videotape, became a Japanese bestseller.
It earned Suzuki the nickname “the Stephen King of Japan.” A Japanese film adaptation directed by Nakata confronted societal anxieties of modernism and motherhood and broke box-office records.
Japanese distributor Toho, capitalizing on “Ringu” mania, released a sequel called “Rasen” at the same time based on Suzuki’s novel sequel “Spiral,” lending a more bio-supernatural scientific bent to Sadako’s legacy. (A South Korean adaptation, “The Ring Virus,” hit theaters in 1999, starring “The Host” and “Cloud Atlas” actress Doona Bae.)
After “Rasen” bombed, the studio decided to pretend it didn’t exist. Nakata came back to direct “Ringu 2” the next year, which effectively became the Japanese franchise’s first official sequel. (There was a prequel, too: “Ring 0,” based on an anthology of short stories written by Suzuki in the “Ring”-verse, was made into a movie in 2000 but also fell flat with Japanese audiences.)
Meanwhile, Hollywood adapted “Ringu” into the Verbinski-helmed “The Ring” and sparked its own J-horror craze.
“The Grudge,” a Columbia Pictures remake, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, of Japanese hit “Ju-On: The Grudge,” turned the original story into the tale of an American woman encountering a vengeful ghost woman in Japan. It opened in 2004 and made $187 million against a modest $10-million budget, spawning two more sequels.
Buena Vista’s 2005 “Dark Water” starred Jennifer Connolly as a mom investigating spooky spectral water leaks in her new apartment, a closer attempt to follow the “Ring” path by remaking another Nakata-directed hit, adapted from a story by Suzuki. But anemic returns and mixed reviews signaled the imminent death knell of the Japanese horror remake business.
Just a year later, in 2006, the widely-panned “Pulse,” a Weinstein Co. remake of the Japanese techno-horror film “Kairo,” failed to make its money back in domestic release (but still managed to eke out two direct-to-video sequels). In 2008, Warner Bros.’ “One Missed Call,” a remake of a Takashi Miike film, earned the title of the worst-reviewed film of that year and served as the final nail in the J-horror coffin.
Like its brethren, the American “Ring” franchise fizzled out when “The Ring Two” opened to critical and commercial disappointment. For seven years, no new “Ring” movies were made anywhere on the planet — until “Sadako 3D,” based on Suzuki’s “Ring” series novel “S,” picked up where “Rasen” left off in 2012.
Japanese audiences responded to the return of the vengeful Sadako, a character so iconic that when an actor dressed in her long hair, white dress and hunched shoulders showed up to throw the first pitch at the Tokyo Dome to promote the movie, it went viral. The film made $16 million in Japan and spawned its own sequel, “Sadako 3D 2,” renewing cross-cultural interest in all things “Ring.”
Two years later in 2014, Paramount announced it was bringing the English-language franchise back to life with Spanish director F. Javier Gutiérrez at the helm of “Rings.”
Canon varies across the “Ring” universe and throughout its various multicultural franchises, from continuities that lean into the haunted VHS tape urban legend to others that go off the rails with plot lines about cancerous viruses, filicide and hermaphroditism.
But the same central details remain throughout: The cursed videotape filled with disturbing images that dooms all who watch it, the phone call that follows promising death in seven days and the ghostly woman with techno-spooking powers who skulks out of her grainy lo-res home video to claim her victims.
There’s even a deliciously campy Japanese supervillain crossover, out now on streaming genre platform Shudder, adding a knowing wink to the growing “Ring” multiverse. “Sadako vs. Kayako” pits the long-haired Sadako of “Ringu” fame against the spider-walking ghoul of the “Grudge” franchise in the kind of epic IP battle not seen since “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Alien vs. Predator.”
Jump scares, creepy stares and deaths by Sadako’s long hair ensue as the two iconic supervillainesses of J-horror battle over who gets to kill the innocents in their path. But in this blatant cash-grab, these ghouls and their Internet-savvy victims are refreshingly self-aware — a harbinger, perhaps, of the direction Hollywood can go once it exhausts the straight-faced seriousness of the “Ring” movies and comes full circle. Again.
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