The way it usually works in a horror sequel is, some foolish teenager who hasn't learned from experience even though half his buddies have expired under gruesome circumstances does something dumb (again) like walk into a dark place alone or pick up a telephone and follow the instructions of a maniac. Teenagers make poor choices (and therefore good horror-flick patsies) because that's what teens are wired to do as they test the thrills and dangers of adult sexuality: They go back for more while their audience warns, Don't! The scariest thing in the not-scary-enough The Ring Two is the notion that even smart, attractive adults yikes, even mothers just never learn, either. They may mean well. But in trying to have it all career, personal life, toned abs, home-cooked dinner with the brood women inevitably fall down on the job. And therein lies hell for the children, aggravated by the harmful effects of that mechanical mommy: the TV screen.
At least I think that's what The Ring Two is saying, when stripped of its baroque, now less-than-novel visual tics. And for a horror flick founded upon such an arresting concept as contagion via technological consumerism, that's a pretty dumb follow-up. Having survived the curse of the world's scariest videotape a few years back in The Ring, and subsequently skedaddled from Seattle to the vaunted safety of a smaller Oregon fishing town (as if isolated burgs on the water's edge ever bring anything but terror, rain, and the creepy cawing of gulls), you'd think that investigative reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts again) would at least update her home entertainment equipment and monitor the viewing habits of her son, Aidan (David Dorfman again), more closely. But she doesn't. Apparently, she can't, so consumed is she by guilt about what happened in part 1, when she was a much more work-oriented and less kid-sensitive type. (Watts, who cemented her stardom with The Ring, has always exhibited a certain pared-down efficiency in her performances that can read as hardness, in contrast with her small, soft, vulnerable physical presence.)
Settling into her new job at a newspaper with a puny circulation and poking nervously around a local crime scene involving a dead teenager with a face frozen in a rictus of terror (uh-oh), spongy carpets, and, yes, a mysterious videotape, Rachel makes two gruesome discoveries. First, that DVD technology is slow to arrive in small fishing towns. Second, that the satanically vengeful girl-ghost Samara (Kelly Stables), who made her unhappiness so vividly known by the end of the first movie, is on a tear again and she knows where Rachel and Aidan live. (The new DVD edition of The Ring includes a nifty, crisply agitating teens-being-teens short called Rings that explains how the dead kid in Ring Two caught the Ring worm in the first place.) And now, in her clumsy attempt to find a place to call home and a mommy to claim as her own, Samara has set her blank-eyed sights on the spot occupied by Aidan.
Much is being made of the fact that this sequel is directed by Hideo Nakata, from whose original Japanese phenomenon, Ringu, director Gore Verbinski fashioned The Ring. Nakata specializes in the modern Japanese art of ''J-Horror,'' with its emphasis on pleasurably anxious anticipation rather than blatantly gory payoff. And in isolated moments of J-style stillness, some of Ring Two's voluptuous dread is pleasurable: There's a weirdly beautiful, disorienting sequence in which Rachel, driving Aidan in her single-mom car, is intercepted on a dark road by a convention of deer. And the production team has fun prowling around the banal details of contemporary home life.
But make no mistake, the script by Ehren Kruger (who wrote The Ring and, before that, Scream 3) is a trite American pop story of maternal neurosis. ''Listen to your baby,'' Rachel is told by someone who has learned her lesson the hard way. ''Be a good mother.'' And as if such a guilt trip weren't enough, the frazzled woman is also doubted by a psychiatrist (Elizabeth Perkins) brought in for the sole purpose of humiliating Rachel's parenting skills: The shrink takes one look at the labile Aidan, temporarily pale as death with a body temperature to match, and determines that the boy's distress is the mother's fault. Is it any wonder that in her cornball cameo, Sissy Spacek plays a mad mama just this side of Sylvia Plath? Men barely exist in such a tangled ovarian jungle of guilt, a bottomless well of murky wetness out of which no woman emerges unpunished.