This article contains a spoiler for the ending of the original The Ring.
In horror cinema there are few images that hold the scalp-freezing power of Sadako crawling out of a television screen in the original Japanese version of The Ring. The movie still holds up as a creepy ghost story with a thick atmosphere of dread, but that image – combined with the brief shot of Sadako’s staring eye – remains iconic to this day.
The movie was based on a series of novels by author Koji Suzuki, with the first book having already been adapted for an obscure Japanese TV movie in 1995. Since then The Ring has a somewhat tangled history as a franchise, which encompasses numerous sequels, prequels, TV spin-offs and even a couple of video games. There’s a third movie in the American version of the series called Rings coming in 2016, and the impending Japanese release Sadako Vs. Kayako (aka The Ring Vs. The Grudge) will be the twelfth film overall for both franchises; and yes, the latter movie is really a thing.
So the lank haired ghost girl has a had a long, robust career since hitting it big, but something casual fans may not realise is The Ring was actually shot side by side with an adaptation of Suzuki’s sequel novel Spiral (aka Rasen), which featured some returning cast members but a different director and crew. Both movies were released side by side in Japan; one would go on to become an enduring phenomenon that inspired a new wave in horror cinema, while the other… didn’t.
For those who might be confused at this stage, Spiral has nothing to do with Nakata’s own The Ring 2 from 1999, which was actually shot as a replacement sequel following the failure of Spiral in Japan. The decision to shoot both movies back to back makes sense since the books were hugely popular, but while The Ring flourished and became an international smash, Spiral quietly died upon release.
This might seem weird given the staggering success of its predecessor, but there were a few contributing factors. This includes the fact a lot of audiences simply didn’t realise it was meant to be a sequel, since the two movies don’t share a title and they look and feel completely different. The Ring is a ghost story while Spiral feels more like a sci-fi thriller, and while the original left a lot of questions unanswered for the sake of building atmosphere, its follow-up is almost single-minded in its quest to explain away every single mystery surrounding it.
In that sense it’s fascinating to watch them back to back, and it’s also easy to see why Spiral was given the cold shoulder. The story picks up shortly after the ending of The Ring and follows new protagonist Ando, who has suicidal feelings following the drowning death of his young son a couple of years before.
Ando is a pathologist who is soon tasked with performing an autopsy on Ryuji Takayama, who was an old friend/rival of Ando’s and one of the lead characters of The Ring; he was the poor dude on the receiving end of the infamous TV sequence. With this autopsy sequence Spiral immediately establishes a sterile tone that it commits to for the runtime, and while The Ring was hardly warm, fuzzy viewing it didn’t feel quite as antiseptic as this.
Ando discovers the cause of death was a heart attack caused by a blocked artery, and finds a small note in Takayama’s stomach with some kind of code written on it. This scene also contains the best scare, when the cut open Takayama suddenly opens his eyes and taunts Ando for his inability to kill himself before it’s all revealed to be an hallucination.
From there the movie becomes something of a detective story, with Ando trying to unlock the mystery behind his friend’s death which inevitably leads him to the cursed videotape. He watches it and figures out how it kills people (something to do with smallpox) and then destroys the remaining copies, intending to make himself Sadako’s final victim. It turns out the vengeful spirit has something else in mind for the lonely doctor however…
First things first: as a sequel to The Ring, Spiral straight up doesn’t work. They look and feel nothing alike, and while it has lots of references to events from the original and some returning actors, they just don’t mesh together organically. The Ring’s lead character Reiko is unceremoniously killed off-screen in a car crash, and the cursed video which is so essential to the lore of the series is reduced to a relatively minor plot element.
Spiral was directed by George Lida (who in another confusing twist was the screenwriter behind the 1995 Ring TV movie) and it’s interesting to contrast the differing styles of his movie versus Nakata’s, and there clearly weren’t a lot of notes passing between them while they worked on their separate projects. There are minor continuity issues between them like the placement of Takayama’s body in his apartment or Sadako’s original death, but the major split is in the portrayal of Sadako herself. She’s become the poster child for the dark haired J-horror ghost girl, but her appearance in Spiral is a total 180.
She’s no longer the mute, shuffling figure whose face we never see, but she’s now a chatty seductress in a white nightgown with an evil plan to be reborn into the world, and infect it with her hatred. She’s even involved in a sex scene, which should tell you how far removed this Sadako is from Nakata’s version. This disconnect might be one of the key reasons people didn’t link the movies together, because the instantly iconic imagery of the character is jettisoned here. Imagine a sequel to A Nightmare On Elm St where Freddy was a mute who wasn’t burnt, didn’t wear a stripy jumper or didn’t have finger blades; it would feel pretty weird, right?
Spiral is still hard to completely dismiss, and it plays as a curious alternate reality sequel that took the series in a radically different direction. The cold, clinical atmosphere is eerie in its own right, and Ando makes for a massively flawed hero. He’s suicidal but also afraid of death, and he’s initially determined to break Sadako’s curse until he realises a way he could use it for his own benefit. This leads to an ending that’s horrifying in a completely different way from The Ring, where he makes a moral compromise that’s equally understandable and abhorrent.
A major downfall of Spiral is that it really doesn’t function as a compelling horror movie, and the dryness of it can be hard to stomach. There are attempts at conventional scares and nightmare scenes, but they generally fall flat because they’re executed without flair. It also underlines how the best horror tales leave things unexplained. In the original Halloween, for example, there was no attempt to explain why Michael Myers was doing what he did, or what made him turn evil. Was he made any scarier in Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers, when it’s explained an evil Celtic cult made him that way?
In explaining how Sadako’s tape works or what her ultimate goal is removes the mystery, and makes her a far less terrifying threat. The legacy of Spiral is ultimately that of a unique failure, a sequel that followed in the wake of an unexpected trendsetter but lost out because it was too unique for its own good. The movie’s ambition can’t be faulted, and even if it isn’t entirely successful it at least it tried a different tack than Nakata’s The Ring 2, which was disappointing for entirely different reasons.
Spiral today has generally been forgotten about, and for the few who have seen it they don’t rate it particularly high. It finally got a little bit of acknowledgement with the release of Sadako 3D in 2012 in Japan, which revisited certain events but did little to bring the movie back into the light. Spiral is neither as poor as its reputation suggests or a long lost gem, but for those who loved the original and are curious about its alternate take on the story then it’s worth seeking out, so long as they realise the two movies are very different in tone.
Seek it out on DVD, or if you’re feeling brave, track down an old VHS copy.
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