The Spiral (aka: Rasen) is the latest Japanese addition to the series, based on the second novel in Koji's trilogy. In the interview with the director that opens the review copy, Iida stresses that this novel is more "idealised science fiction" than horror, and states his intention to portray the demonic ghost Sadako more sympathetically. Consequently, in his worthy adaptation of The Spiral, lengthy scientific explanations for the lethal properties of the videotape are emphasised, at the expense of supernatural terror.
The film opens with recently bereaved pathologist Dr Ando (Koichi Sato) attending the autopsy of the tape's latest victim, Dr Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada). He discovers that Takayama died of 'myocardial infarction' (that's heart failure to you and me). But his professional composure is broken by a hallucination in which he is taunted by Takayama's dissected corpse, over his failure to save his young son from drowning.
Further investigations lead him to the girlfriend Takayama left behind, Mai (Miki Nakatini), and to her insistence that he was killed by a videotape. Then the heroine of the original movie and her son are found dead in a wrecked car that contains a videotape, though the boy was already dead of a heart attack from crash injuries. Cue a brief retelling of the original film, and before you can say 'stick to Blockbuster', Dr Ando is settling down to a night in with the home video from Hell, like all the fools in these movies.
I express it in this weary tone, because there is none of the suspense of the original movie - the sense of the viewers fighting the urge to watch the video and finally succumbing to its icy grip. There's none of the horror of the deaths from sheer terror either: Takayama looks like he's died of boredom, though it's stated he died of a heart attack, and another victim dies unconvincingly of what appears to be an asthma attack.
I understand this was Iida's intention, and his version of the video still packs a punch, showing the death of Sadako (Hinako Saeko), thrown down a well by a father who was scared of her paranormal powers. But unlike Ring, The Spiral won't make you wet your pants at the sight of a VCR - unless you're pissing yourself laughing, that is. Iida's idea of making Sadako a more sympathetic figure means turning her into a vampish succubus who licks Ando's face like a playful puppy. She seduces him into impregnating Mai with her genetic imprint (the spiral of the title), transmitted to his retina by the video. In return, he gets to impregnate the resulting Mai/Sadako creature with the DNA of his own son, preserved in the lock of hair he managed to retrieve from his failed rescue attempt.
This is a fascinating science fiction idea poorly realised, due to a muddled script, lacklustre direction and wooden acting. The plodding pace contributes to a dreary, depressing atmosphere that seems to be a feature of some recent Japanese films, such as Takeshi Kitano's Dolls (2002) and Ring director Nakata's own Dark Water (2002). Maybe this is a reflection of Japan's economic stagnation, but at least Dark Water had some decent chills and an intelligible plot going for it.
Iida said he didn't want The Spiral to be a horror movie, but this does not mean that he chills us with Jamesian restraint. At times it's more viscerally horrific than Ring ever was: take the startling and stomach-churning mortuary scene at the beginning. That this is one of the most effective sequences in the whole film, suggests that Iida ties his hands behind his back by trying to play down the horror of the story. Either that or he is not skilled enough as a director to sustain it. If his avoidance of horror is at the heart of the problem, he would have done well to remember Sadako's stated motive for reproducing herself: she wants everyone to feel the fear that she felt when she died. With its flat, pedestrian direction, The Spiral fails dismally either to show us that fear, or to edify us with its high-minded concerns about genetic manipulation.