Rings is the horror-movie equivalent of stumbling across a decade-old photo of yourself wearing God knows what kind of fashion disaster. Of course you recognise yourself; it's so recent that you can easily remember that outfit. And yet it feels impossibly long ago that that was the style, that this once seemed normal.

So it is with Rings, the first time in I truly cannot say quite how long that an American film has just gone ahead and done a J-horror thing. It's not that American horror cinema cribbing from J-horror is particularly "bad" (though in only an exceedingly few number of cases was it ever particularly "good"), so much as that it is impossibly dated; seeing the imagery that Rings parades across the screen for 102 minutes, in film released in 2017 (after having been shot in 2015), is as baffling an experience as I imagine it must have been for audiences in the mid-'70s to watch movies that seemed to assume without a whisper of self-doubt that hippies were still a major cultural force.

Doubly so given that Rings exists so transparently as an attempt to copy, down to some awfully fine-grained detail, the plot and aesthetics of the 15-year-old The Ring, to which it is nominally a sequel, but could just as readily be considered a remake. So we have not just a film whose cultural moment is years in the past, but which seems to exist entirely in the shadow of a movie that itself had transitioned from "shocking revolution in what American horror cinema could portray" to "well-loved piece of horror movie comfort food" a good dozen years before Rings itself ever hit theaters.

The net result of all of this is a film that feels totally exhausted of any shred of creative craftsmanship or viewing pleasure even before it starts playing. No, that's not right. Not any shred. In fact, Rings opens in a scene that's (dare I say it) even rather strong: on airplane, a passenger named Carter (Zach Roerig) has reached the end of his seven-day countdown, and the angry ghost of Samara (Bonnie Morgan) has come. No clue what any of that means? Well, fuck you for expecting the third film in a series whose last entry came out in 2005 to give you any kind of refresher on the exposition. The point being Samara's video-based curse is about to manifest, and it does so in one of the only interesting images to be found anywhere in this film, as row after row of those little airplane TV screens lights up with the decaying well of the iconic haunted videotape. And thus does a whole plane full of innocents end up dead at the hands of the wrathful ghost. Incidentally, best scene in the film or not, this could all be removed completely without altering the subsequent narrative in the mildest way.

Instead, the actual plot follows... it's kind of pointlessly convoluted, actually. There's this professor, Gabriel (Johnny Galecki, who hit the "old enough to play a professor" stage when I wasn't paying attention) who has engaged a group of students to watch the Samara footage, which he has conveniently digitised, mostly just to see what happens. I cannot fathom what course this could possibly be for, and I'd love to see what Gabriel wrote to clear this with the institutional review board. At any rate, one of his students is Holt (Alex Roe), and Holt's girlfriend is Julia (Matilda Lutz), and she is our protagonist, wandering around on the edges and wondering what the hell is going on with all these people. Which is, to be sure, a very fair thing to wonder.

The script is credited to David Loucka and Jacob Estes and Akiva Goldsman, from a story by Loucka and Estes, and the particular way that's written out gives me the suspicion that Loucka wrote a script, Estes wrote a quite different script, and they were mushed together at some point and Goldsman came along to tidy and polish it. That certainly fits the end result, a beastly kludge which, following that nifty opening scene, descends into impenetrable murk for a little more than half of its unreasonable runtime (the shortest in the American Ring trilogy, but still full of meandering longueurs), before jumping tracks to become a precise clone of The Ring. It's rather impressive that, regardless of which part of the film you're stuck watching, it seems like the other approach would work out better. For the first long bulk of the plot, it's ponderous gobbledygook, understandable only in the general way that we would prefer Julia not to die, and given that she has watched the video, that is going to be a very likely outcome, and that based on Holt and Gabriel's panicky behavior, it appears that Julia has somehow ended up with a super-cursed video (this, in fact, is true). For the remainder, we're faced with the grisly spectacle of watching all of The Ring's twists play out, only now they're not twists, because we saw them in 2002 (Rings doesn't seem to imagine that you might give a shit about watching it if you haven't seen The Ring, and I assume that it is correct). Also, they don't work at all given this film's different narrative set-up. But the bigger issue is that the plot of the last 30 minutes of the film is predicated on Julia attempting to succeed at doing something that we are very well aware cannot end successfully. Maybe it's meant to be dramatic irony.

This ugly splat of a story is treated with a workmanlike lack of interested by director F. Javier Gutiérrez, whose only previous feature came out a decade ago. The style is absolute boilerplate: if you saw any of the mid-to-late '00s J-horror pastiches and remakes that were briefly the only game in town for American ghost stories, you know exactly what to expect from the editing schema to the oversaturated, monochromatic color scheme (it's a chilly blue this time). The signature "contorted death mask" effects are rather less convincing this time around, being both overwrought and noticeably cheaper-looking, but at least the rest of the effects are tolerable, and the unavoidable moments when Samara emerges from various screens make good use of the new array of electronic devices we all have now that we didn't back in 2005, when The Ring Two seemingly put this branch of the international franchise to bed.

That's limited comfort at best, given how lifeless all the filmmaking feels: this is what happens when you make "a Ring picture", not when you have any thoughts at all on what the aesthetics were that made The Ring and the Japanese Ringu good in the first place. It is a dreary, dreadful slog all-in-all, the worse for being such a miserable retread that the nostalgia and brand loyalty which are the only reason for bothering with it end up actively working against the film. 2017 had a fair number of dodgy horror films, but this unquestionably deserves to rank among the worst.