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Uzumaki (Spiral)

Elite Entertainment
2000 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 min. / Spiral, Vortex / Street Date July 6, 2004 / 19.98
Starring Eriko Hatsune, Fhi Fan, Hinako Saeki, Eun-Kyung Shin, Keiko Takahashi, Ren Osugi, Masami Horiuchi
Cinematography Gen Kobayashi
Production Designer Hiroshi Hayashida
Special Visual Effects Tomoo Haraguchi, Kenichi Kobayashi, Issei Oda
Original Music Tetsuro Kashibuchi, Keiichi Suzuki
Written by Kengo Kaji, Takao Nitta, Chika Yasuo from a Manga by Junji Ito
Produced by Mitsuru Kurosawa, Sumiji Miyake, Dai Miyazaki, Toyoyuki Yokohama
Directed by Higuchinsky

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Just when American horror movies were all but lost to parodies and repetitive serial killer films, Japan has been recharging the genre with intelligent chillers that seek creative new sources of dread. Following in the imposing wake of the influential Ringu, Uzumaki attempts an even more subtle kind of horror, with interesting results.


Small-town schoolgirl Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) first notices family friend Toshio Saito (Ren Osugi) videotaping a snail's spiral. Other disturbing events center on people obsessed with anything with a spiral pattern. A school gymnast commits suicide on a circular stairway. Kirie's father begins making spiral-themed pottery. An unpopular pupil seems to be undergoing a weird transformation.

Three decades of David Lynch and David Cronenberg movies have exhausted many offbeat filmic approaches, yet director Higuchinsky achieves some fairly original frights of the kind one expects to see only in experimental films.

Ringu succeeded on the basis of old-fashioned character identification: every threat in the picture seemed to be directed at us personally. Uzumaki has less compelling protagonists. The heroine is a fairly unimaginative teenager and her boyfriend is indecisive and quiet. Their generally passive response to all the uncanny happenings is frustrating, and it's difficult to tell whether Kirie's insipid behavior is bad acting or simply the result of a mismatched cultural perception. Naturalistic Japanese storytelling can be challenging for westerners, and the further stylization seen here has a distancing effect. Kirie has cute childhood memories of her boyfriend but her most dynamic scenes involve a lovesick classmate who stalks her with an intense enthusiasm. His spiral-like demise indicates a relationship between the pursuit of a romantic object of affection, and the deranged fixation on formal perfection suffered by the spiral-worshippers.

Just as Richard Dreyfuss went loony over the shape of the Devil's Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, individuals in Uzumaki become obsessed with spiral patterns. This time the fixations invariably end in macabre suicides. One man twists himself to death in a clothes dryer. A girl at school develops hair that snakes itself into gravity-defying spiral swirls. Breaking the pattern is the wife of a victim who goes insane with fear over the enigmatic patterns. She plunges herself into a paroxysm of spiro-phobia, going so far as to mutilate her fingers to remove her own fingerprints: they're spiral-shaped.

The phenomenon quickly drifts into the realm of the irrational. Victims twist themselves to death like pieces of taffy. People literally transform into snails, crawling up the sides of buildings on the television News. Although accomplished through digital effects, none of the visuals exhibit "runaway CGI" syndrome, the modern malady where effects are taken to extremes just because the technology allows it; the illusions here all stay rooted to the intimate terror of the situation. Director Higuchinsky scrupulously injects unexpected disturbing details that strike us almost at a subliminal level. When she stares at weird cloud patterns in the sky, Keiko Takahashi's frightened eyes swell in size just enough to make us wonder if the effect is literal or only psychological. We are also kept on edge to catch strange spiral aberrations that appear in the corners of normal scenes, encouraging the subtle idea that perhaps the film is having an effect on the viewer.

The film scrupulously leaves itself open for a potential sequel. A reporter (Masami Horiuchi) investigates what might be a conventional curse-related explanation for all the bizarre deaths, but that subplot is abruptly curtailed. Uzumaki comes to a curious end in a series of disturbing still frames of mangled victims. The static images may seem an easy out for a story with no ending, but they perfectly crystallize the paralysis of free will - the spiral terror has reduced the world to ten horrible images.

Little or nothing is out of place in this trip into abstract terror. There are some Ringu - like chapter cards and subliminal flash-frames, but most of the picture has an original approach. Only a diminished identification with the characters keeps us from feeling more personally threatened. Uzumaki works best as an expression of the collapse of the rational world, a metaphor for growing insanity.

Elite's DVD of Uzumaki is obviously from good original sources. The transfer is enhanced and the audio remixed in Dolby 5.1. The dark and greenish color scheme at first appears to be a flaw, but is consistent with clips in the production featurette included on the disc so is probably intentional and accurate. The dank colors are in keeping with the world-askew tone. This subjective horror movie reminds us that the new wave of Japanese horror is a major deviation from the objective visceral-trauma direction taken by the genre in the 1970s.

Also included are an original trailer and the raw camcorder footage shot by Uzumaki's first victim.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Uzumaki rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette, stills, interviews
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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