Snake Woman's Curse (1968) – Film & DVD Review
This 1968 effort is the last in a series of kaidan eiga (ghost story movies) filmed by director Nobuo Nakagawa during a classic period that began in 1956 with THE VAMPIRE MOSTH (Kyuketsuki-ga). SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (Kaidan Hebi-Onna, literally, “Ghost Story of the Snake Woman”) is frankly not quite up to the standard of his earlier work, which includes the classics THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan – i.e., “The Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido,” 1959) and JIGOKU (“Hell,” 1960); however, the film does include many of the stylist elements that established Nakagawa as Japan’s premier director of horror films. Fans of Japanese cinema, particularly Japanese horror cinema, should find it interesting; others will be put off by the slow pacing and occasional cornball moments.
The story is set during a period when Japan was undergoing a period of “Westernization” – a process that does not extend to the small coastal village where the action takes place. After the death of a poor farmer (who vowed he would work all his life and “even eat dirt” to retain his land), an indifferent overlord repossesses the farm and puts the dead man’s family to work in his house as servants. The widow (who previously nursed a wounded pigeon back to health) objects to the killing of a snake, is kicked down by the lord, and dies from a crack on the head. The daughter is raped by the lord’s son, then commits suicide. The daughter’s lover seeks revenge but falls off a cliff when hounded by the lord’s men. The lord, his wife, and their son are haunted by visions of ghosts, which drive all of them to their deaths. Have achieved retribution, the ghosts of the dead peasants are seen walking across a foggy plain toward the sun, apparently heading toward the afterlife.
Nakagawa and co-writer Fumio Kaminami apparently want to make some kind of statement about the transition of Japan from traditional values to a western-inspired modernity. The village, a remnant of the past, is a place where the lord and his family can do as they please, regardless of whether it is just. The alleged mayor seems to be mostly ceremonial, definitely subservient to the lord’s feudal power. The only hint of a growing civil authority, based on the rule of law, occurs late in the film when the lord is summoned to a police station to answer some question; he objects, but the police inspector stands his ground. Still, there is no proof, only suspicions, so it remains for the ghosts to exact retribution for the wrongs they have suffered.
The emphasis on the social situation in which the story takes place is laudable, but it is not strong enough to justify the running time. Although spiked with occasional spooky moments (the first two ghosts appear to the lord almost instantly at the moment of death), the build-up to the climactic supernatural revenge goes on far too long, rehashing the same material over and over. There are some fairly pointless interludes that will try the patience of even the most faithful fan: the mayor sings a song and tells some stories; a wedding celebration goes on forever; the raped daughter considers suicide, decides against it, then reconsiders a few scenes later.
Fortunately, Nakagawa’s directorial skills have not abandoned him, and he does a fine job presenting the supernatural elements. The early intrusions of the ghosts are wonderfully startling moments, because we do not expect them to manifest that early in the story. This is especially true of the death of the farmer, which is instantly followed by a cut to a medium shot of the lord at home; the ghost appears by simply standing up into frame – an entrance as uncanny as any special effect.
Later scenes make use of Nakagawa’s patented approach to the supernatural: filming the spectres against completely black backgrounds that makes them appear to be in some kind of cinematic limbo. There are also some nice moments when the lord’s son thinks his new bride has morphed into a snake woman; although the makeup does not pass close scrutiny, it is a remarkable image, and the editing (which jumps from what the son thinks he is seeing to what is really happening) sells the scene. Fairly typical for a Japanese ghost story of the period, the ghosts manifest mostly in appearance only; they do not harm their human targets, who bring about their own demise while trying to defend themselves from the looming spectres.
The only moments when the horror falls flat occur when we see real snakes on screen, as a sort of foreshadowing of the snake woman’s eventual appearance. The brightly colored reptiles are rather obviously harmless species that display no sign of malevolence, but the soundtrack tries (somewhat laughably) to make them scary by adding an eerie theremin them underneath.
One should also mention that the script barely bothers to justify the title. The only connection between the ghosts and snakes is that the widow was fatally injured while objecting to the killing of a serpent. Neither she nor her daughter manifest as a snake women; the image occurs only when the lord’s son imagines that his wife is turning into a snake. Why the supernatural should manifest in this way is not clear. Apparently, the “Snake Woman” is a common figure in Japanese mythology, and it was assumed that a Japanese audience would accept the image without question.
With its widescreen shots of ocean waves crashing on craggy shores, its low-budget but effective approach to horror, and its colorful, almost surreal credits, Nakagawa’s film suggests a Japanese equivalent to the work of Roger Corman – a stylistic approach in which careful visual crafstmanship elevates what could have been just a popular pot-boiler. Although fairly representative of the classic period of Japanese ghost movies, SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE was made when the form was in decline; fortunately, it still contains enough supernatural imagery to be entertaining, despite the slow scenario.
The Synapse Films DVD features a good-looking widescreen transfer of the film with a clear mono Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles. The bonus features are limited but interesting:
- A trailer for the film
- A gallery of posters from Nakagawa’s other films
- An audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Jonathan M. Hall
Hall’s commentary is informative but sparse; in fact, he skips over so much of the film that a second voice helpfully intrudes, advising the viewer to chapter-skip ahead to resume the commentary. Hall informs us that, unlike Nakagawa’s earlier films, this project originated with the producer, who hired Fumio Kaminami to write the script; Kaminami agreed, on the condition that the aging Nakagawa, an old-hand at this kind of movie, was hired to direct. According to Hall, the screenplay is mostly Kaminami’s work, with Nakagawa’s contribution limited to polishing up the final draft. It was Nakagawa, apparently, who insisted on delaying the entrance of the snakes, preferring to build slowly to his supernatural effects.
Hall occasionally falls into the dull trap of reciting the credits for the actors who appear on screens, but he offers some useful insights about the film and makes a case for not dismissing it as a weak, later effort. Hall is especially impressed by the film’s portrait of its social milieu, which he believes captures a very important transitional period in Japan’s history.
NOTE: Nakagawa would return to the horror genre once final time, over a decade later, with 1982’S KAIDAN: IKITEIRU KOHEJI, a.k.a. “The Living Koheji.”
SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (Kaidan Hebi-Onna [“Ghost Story of the Snake Woman”], 1968). Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa. Written by Fumio Kaminami and Nobuo Nakagawa. Cast: Seizaburo Kawazu, Kunio Murai, Akemi Negishi, Ko Nishimura, Shingo Yamashiro, Chiaki Tsukioka, Yukie Kagawa, Taka Mariko.