It's the way Naomi Watts spits out the line "I'm not your fucking mommy" that got me thinking that The Ring Two isn't as obvious as it looks -- a cash-in horror sequel. Maybe it's a subtext-loaded thriller about child abuse.
Consider this: Watts is back as Rachel Keller, single mom to Aidan (David Dorfman), a sullen weirdo (with the eyes of Haley Joel Osment) who refuses to call her Mommy. Rachel keeps a tight smile going, but you can tell she's not pleased about leaving her cool job as a reporter in Seattle to move to Astoria, Oregon. She feels overqualified reporting for a local rag, despite its hottie editor (Simon Baker). But she needed to get Aidan away from that cursed videotape from the first Ring movie. You hit Play, take a gander at skanky, stringy-haired Samara (Kelly Stables), the ghost girl whose adoptive mother drowned her in a well, and you're dead in seven days.
So Rachel runs, and when the tape shows up again -- you knew it would -- she gets it in her head that Samara wants to possess Aidan. Rachel almost drowns him in a tub when he starts acting like Samara. When doctors intervene and see the bruises on his body, Rachel goes with her demon alibi. Then Aidan ever so sweetly starts calling her Mommy. Oooeeeooo.
At least the Medea theme -- bolstered when Sissy Spacek does a killer cameo as Samara's nut-job birth mother who tried to drown her -- gives you a provocative theory to chew on while the sequel goes about scare business as usual. The generic quality of the jolts is a surprise, considering that Hideo Nakata-the gifted Japanese director of the original Ringu in 1998 and its 1999 sequel -- has stepped in for Ring director Gore Verbinski. It's Nakata's first Hollywood film, and you can feel the tension between his dark J-horror (it's J for Japanese) instincts and the pressure to protect a PG-13 franchise (Verbinski's Ring grossed a sweet $129 million) that favors suspense over splatter, gloss over grit.
Then there's Ehren Kruger's script, which not only veers from Ringu 2 but strains credibility at every turn. Sure, Nakata delivers the heebie-jeebies. Look out for hostile reindeer, a doctor (Elizabeth Perkins) with a needle, and a corpse with a face contorted to resemble Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. But we don't buy into the terror until Samara adds some new twists to her old mischief of popping up on Aidan's TV and in his dreams. It's the actors who put dramatic meat on a bare-bones plot. Even in mottled, blue-veined skin, courtesy of makeup whiz Rick Baker, and only one eye exposed behind a hank of hair, Stables -- an actress in her twenties -- persuades us to see the lost child that we also see in Aidan. And the remarkable Watts finds nuances in a character built without them. Her scenes with Dorfman lend the film psychological gravity. The rest is horror hokum. Example: Aidan takes a digital photo of himself in a mirror. Checking the shot in the monitor, he sees Samara behind him. It's a still photo, frozen in time, but Samara is three-dimensional -- and moving. The chill might have cut deeper if The Ring hadn't already pulled the same trick with a fly.
Nakata gets back to speed for the finale, in which Rachel faces her demons -- real and imagined -- in a well. Scream or not, you have to admire Nakata's skill at letting the dead run free while hinting that we may have more to fear from the living. With a braver step in that direction, this middling movie would ring more than box-office bells.