As The Ring Two begins, a snot-nosed teen is attempting to cajole his jailbait date into watching the now-iconic videotape that kills its viewers within a week. She is noticeably reticent, but not because she's aware of the thing's fearsome reputation. Instead, one surmises, she's merely evincing her generation's natural mystification with any format more primitive than DVD. Hand a kid a VHS tape nowadays, and he or she will just stare at you; this one's callous, careless suitor might as well be inviting her to take part in a thrilling round of ActiVision.
The same aura of obsolescence hangs over the entire uneventful sequel, which arrives not only after the VHS format has been largely discontinued, but in the wake of an Asian-horror boom the Ring franchise itself inspired. (Credit the first film with spurring the copycat stateside remake of The Grudge and at least 50 percent of the rental activity enjoyed by any given Takashi Miike flick.) But just as the American Ring series should be as the saying goes stepping things up a notch, it's largely content to offer more of the same. Single mom Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts, back by contract) learns that the notorious video is still in circulation; a make-good attempt to put it out of commission via burning fails to work, leaving her spooky kid, Aidan (David Dorfman), susceptible to the evil machinations of the tape's vengeful inhabitant, the ghost girl Samara. The ensuing battle royal takes us back to the lonely well in which Samara drowned, repeats the first film's flirtation with reality-bending visual motifs, and affords us remedial scans of the tape's once-jarring contents, which by now look as harmlessly familiar as Trent Reznor's wedding pictures. (See, Trent Reznor was a guy who … oh, never mind.)
Moments of genuine spook-show chutzpah the stuff in which the first film trafficked are few and compromised. One almost-brilliant sequence preys on the innate guilt of anybody in the audience whose car has ever hit a deer on a mountain road, but inferior CGI ultimately renders the passage funny-dumb instead of funny-outrageous. Otherwise, the shock tactics employed rely more heavily on cheap jumps than mounting terror. There's even an indulgence in that most reprehensible of cop-outs, the jaw-dropping calamity that turns out to have been whew! all a dream. The first Ring doled out enough honest scares to keep it existing giddily in the moment; for the most part, this cash-in has the thoroughly modern pull of a slowly expiring Tamagotchi.