March 18, 2005,
The central character in The Ring Two, the anticipated sequel to Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, is an elderly woman (a cameo by Sissy Spacek of Carrie fame) who lives in a mental ward, but who nonetheless receives regular visits from the mothers of troubled children. Now, The Ring Two is a mediocre film, vastly inferior to its predecessor, but it does contain a dramatically compelling and deeply troubling reflection on mothers and children. Like Carrie, The Ring Two is a world from which fathers have vanished and where women endure tremendous burdens, up to and including the horrifying onus of seeing their love turn into hate, their will to give life into a will to enact death-dealing destruction.
Some critics have complained that the film leaves no good woman unpunished. There is something to that objection. But of course, the horror genre has always been about seemingly inordinate punishment of seemingly ordinary human beings. It has often had at its source an insight into the potentially devastating consequences of the Enlightenment’s excessive confidence in human reason, of the human ability to remake nature according to its own fantasies. Infidelity, both that of parents toward one another and of parents toward children, is also a standard source of the horror curse that cannot be undone and that afflicts children, trapping them in the evils of the past and depriving them of hope for the future.
The Ring Two brings these two themes together in Sissy Spacek’s character, who advises the confused Rachel, “Send it back…Be a good mother.” It is perhaps too much to see Spacek as a horror-world stand-in for the detached, Enlightenment rationalism of the pro-euthanasia philosopher, Peter Singer, although the best piece on Singer, Peter Berkowitz’s essay in The New Republic, bears the striking title “The Utilitarian Horrors of Peter Singer.” As poorly made as it is, the film nonetheless gets at the horrifying reality of such proposals in ways utilitarian logic never could.
It is too bad the film itself is not better. Although Verbinski, at work on a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean, was unavailable to oversee The Ring Two, fans of the first film had high hopes for the sequel, in part because Hideo Nakata, who directed the Japanese original Ringu in 1998, had been tapped as Verbinski’s replacement. Alas, the decision to involve Nakata was an afterthought, coming in the wake of numerous production problems and under a serious time constraint Naomi Watts had a previous commitment to appear in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
The problem can be traced to the script for The Ring Two, written by Ehren Kruger, author of both the first Ring and Scream 3. The script is much closer to the pastiche of Scream 3 than to the visually arresting Ring. Indeed, the opening of The Ring Two, with a boy and a girl alone in a house about to watch a horror film, calls to mind the Scream films. Along the way, it is fairly easy to detect allusions to The Exorcist and The Omen, with an introverted child around whom bad things happen and about whom suspicions mount. The film borrows from The Omen’s theme of photographs that contain otherwise unnoticed clues; there is even a “take me” scene that seems lifted right out of the final frames of The Exorcist.
The horror-genre cliché of an evil that cannot be escaped or suppressed pervades the film. We were set up for precisely such a sequel at the end of The Ring when Rachel (Naomi Watts) set loose upon the world the killer video that threatened the life of her son, Aidan (David Dorfman). As the sequel begins, mom and son have moved from Seattle to the small, picturesque town of Astoria, where she promises they will “start over.” What starts over is the curse of Samara, the murdered girl whose vengeful wrath was spread through the mysterious video in the first film. In her work for the town paper, Rachel discovers a strange death involving lots of water and a corpse with an oddly contorted face. That death involved the watching of a certain video, the copy of which Rachel retrieves and burns, saying in desperation, “We only made one copy.”
Of course, it is a truism of the world of horror that evil endlessly begets evil, either artificially through technology or through biological reproduction, where the children of the next generation inherit and imitate the evil of the parents. In its preoccupation with the technologies of image-making (TV, video, and cameras) and with the murdering ghost of a murdered child, The Ring Two runs parallel storylines of these two sources of the propagation of evil. If the implications of the making and watching of video images predominated in the first film, the mother-child theme is preeminent in the sequel.
In an effort to solve the mystery of Samara, Rachel visits the house where she lived as a child and discovers a strange remembrance book that contains both “Madonna and Child” images and a picture of a pregnant woman with the inscription “vessels of death.” Rachel’s attempt to free Aidan from Samara only serves to bring the two children closer together, so much so that Rachel begins to wonder whether her son has become the evil, vengeful child.
Because of Aidan's continued afflictions, Rachel is suspected of child abuse; on a number of occasions, the film turns its attention to postpartum depression and the evil that unhinged mothers do. The film veers so wildly from mother-love to mother-murder that the two appear at times to merge. The film attempts, feebly I think, to restore clear lines between life and death, love and hate, in its ending. But none of that erases Spacek’s troubling proclamation: “Send it back…Be a good mother.”
Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.