Some of the most stylish, least formulaic horror mellers in recent years have hailed from the Far East; the genre may soon hit an ongoing Western cult niche, a la Hong Kong actioners and Japanese anime. That cause gets an intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying, assist from “Uzumaki,” Nippon music vid director Higunchinsky’s debut feature, which is playing limited U.S. dates as “Whirlpool” (though a more literal title translation is “Spiral”). Horror fans will appreciate pic’s offbeat concept and diverse visual tactics, even if combo fails to add up to anything particularly coherent or frightening.
Based on a comic book by Junji Ito (whose prior “Tomie” was also adapted as a feature), pic duly places less emphasis on narrative than on the sort of surreal set pieces that might have worked better in the graphic-novel form. Young protag Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) is witness to strange behavior andincidents in her seemingly idyllic small town: The father (Ren Osugi) of her boyfriend, Shuichi (Fhi Fan), becomes obsessed with all things spiral-like, eventually “becoming” one by fatally stuffing himself into a washing machine; a teacher tumbles down the high school’s spiral staircase; a fellow student, infatuated with Kirie, seems to mutate into a human snail; a cheerleader’s hair develops bizarre curlicues. Eventually everyone falls prey to this strange epidemic, including Shuichi (whose body twists into a corkscrew of its own accord).
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Giant snail-people are glimpsed climbing public buildings. All this has something to do with a local pond’s history and a whirling storm cloud — but we never really get any explanation beyond repeated shouts that “This town is cursed by the spiral!”
Higunchinsky tries any number of visual tactics, from split-screen to negative and tinted images, as well as matte shots, near-subliminal cues and vertiginous camera perspectives. The most effective moments are often the simplest, as when an adult’s eyes grotesquely windmill in their sockets, or during a long, eerie pan presaging the discovery of Shuichi’s grisly (though not explicitly shown) fate. But despite all eccentric, supernatural goings-on, pic fails to sustain atmosphere or build a sense of dread between its variably successful set pieces. Intended mix of mordant humor, horror and the surreal never quite jells, rendering pic at once bizarre and ponderous.
Final “chapter,” “Transmigration,” (following “Premonition,” “Erosion” and “Visitation”), consists of a series of stills showing townspeople’s mutated end — an arty, mannered effect that douses rather than caps any climactic suspense.
Despite its frustrating, somewhat flat result, “Uzumaki” shows considerable enterprise within the horror-fantasy genre. Lensing captures a grimy, nocturnal atmosphere, while soundtrack deploys some dislocating effects as well. Perfs are OK, though for Western auds film is hobbled by its dependence on a typically bland, schoolgirlish heroine.