Left stone cold by the deadpan minimalism of Hideo Nakata's ghostly Ring? Baffled by the cold metaphysics of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure? Turned off by the tedious Tomie? Were you amongst the droves stampeding from the auditorium during the grisly resolution of Audition? Well, why don't you give Uzumaki a whirl, by far one of the most deliriously entertaining horrors to emerge from Japan over the past few years.
The debut feature of Ukrainian-born director Higuchinsky (who had previously helmed one of the episodes of the Eko Eko Azarak / Misa the Dark Angel TV series in 1997) deals with the helical horrors that occur when a small town is besieged by spirals. Not to be confused with Rasen / Spiral, which supported Nakata's Ring 2 during its initial theatrical run in Japan in 1998, Uzumaki - whose title translates as Vortex or Whirlpool - was originally paired on a double bill with Tomie: Replay, the first sequel to Ataru Oikawa's Tomie, and is based on a manga series by the same author behind that series of films, Junji Ito.
High school student Kirie's first glimpse that something is awry in Kurouzu comes when she discovers the father of her nerdy best friend Shuichi filming a snail, or more precisely, the corkscrew pattern of its shell. Shuichi's father is in the process of making a video scrapbook composed of images of vortexes and spiral-like phenomena. His bizarre obsession soon threatens to spin dangerously out of control, proclaiming that a vortex is the highest form of art and frantically creating whirlpools in his miso soup when he runs out of naruto roll. He eventually comes a cropper when he crawls in for a point of view shot from the inside of a spin drier.
It's not long before the whole town is beset by all manner of otherworldly whirly weirdery. Kirie's high school is populated by a host of grotesques - twitching teachers, preening pretty girls, and slimy student Katayama, who walks at a snails pace and only comes to school when it rains. Soon a number of her schoolmates are sprouting shells and crawling up the school walls. It's a game of spot the spiral as digital vortexes crawl across the floor and materialise in cloudy skies. Shuichi's mother, hospitalised after the death of her husband cuts off her fingertips to remove the whorl-like patterns on them and eventually succumbs to the power of the vortex after a millipede crawls into her ear and takes up residence in her cochlea. And just what is secret behind arch-bitch Sekino's unfeasibly curly hair?
Combining the Lynchian concern with the unseen horrors that lurk behind the superficial normality of small town existence with the same intense psychotropic visuals that glossed the surface of Darren Aronofsky's 1998 stunner Pi, this is not a case of style-over-substance. With Uzumaki, the style is the substance, as former pop promo director Higuchinsky pulls every trick out the video making book with the whole gamut of split-screens, subliminal vortex animations, playful shot transitions and razor sharp editing to deliciously skittish effect. The camera twists and spins, as bodies are twisted and characters are menaced by hallucinatory swirls.
Couple this with a parade of quirkily exaggerated performances and you have a particularly loony film, irrational, macabre, totally without cinematic precedent and wholly in keeping with its manga origins. A dazzling plunge into the abstract in which the threat is illusory, not physical. A spiral isn't a material thing, it's a state of mind, and Higuchinsky takes us there.