Judge Joel Pearce found out what the snake woman's curse is: Boredom.
The bloodcurdling horror of economic disparity in 19th Century Japan!
While Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku is an undisputed horror classic, less people have had the chance to explore Snake Woman's Curse, which arrived a few years later. It blends horror with history and social criticism, and works best as a reminder that horror has changed rapidly in the past 40 years. Alas, Snake Woman's Curse hasn't aged quite as well as Nakagawa's perennial classic.
Facts of the Case
On a farming estate in 19th century Japan, a poor farmer dies after begging to keep his job. He has accumulated a large debt, but Chobei Onuma, the landlord, has no interest in letting him repay it. The man dies a few days later, leaving his wife and daughter saddled with the debt. His daughter, Sue, is forced to work at weaving, with long shifts and no pay. Eventually, the rest of the family dies as well, tortured by the terrible conditions. They return, though, to wreak havoc on the landlord and his family. The ghosts use snakes as their vehicle, a symbol of the curse that now lies on the Onuba household.
A lot has happened to the horror genre since 1968, a fact that's pretty hard to dispute after watching Snake Woman's Curse. I expect it would have been quite a shock to North American audiences when it was first released, but contemporary hardened horror veterans may not want to take this trip down memory lane. Nakagawa's real purpose for Snake Woman's Curse is to explore the politics and situation of the period, not to create a consistent level of suspense. As a result, there are long periods of boredom mixed in with the occasional horror sequence. It makes the 85-minute running time feel like a lot more, and it's saddled with several extra endings.
I also have to take issue with the acting. While horror has certainly never been the go-to genre for great performances, there's enough cheese in this movie to deflate the European economy. All of the characters are designed to be rough stereotypes, and we never get a sense of the characters as people. There's no real catharsis at the end, and the suffering Sue and her family go through are so extreme that it borders on comical. With no compelling storyline and no sympathetic characters, this is a horror film that you won't want to return to anytime soon.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All of that said, it would be unfair for me to skip over Snake Woman's Curse's considerable strengths. Nobuo Nakagawa certainly knew how to shoot a film, and it makes this a very attractive film to watch. He uses a number of creative and unique angles, which shows us the world through surprising perspectives. His cinematography has obviously influenced a generation of Japanese filmmakers, and that alone may give horror buffs a reason to check out the film. Few contemporary filmmakers have the ability to use filming to evoke symbolism and emotion this way, and it's genuinely impressive to see.
As well, the exploration of 19th Century Japanese culture does work, if not as a horror film. It's a period of intense change, in which the rich become much richer, and the poor suffer even more. The conflict in the film almost reminded me of Sansho the Bailiff, as the poor characters struggle continually to make do. Even though it reaches far past believability at times, it's hard not to feel pity for Sue and others who suffered under wealthy landlords. Nakagawa has a keen sense of justice, and Snake Woman's Curse really struggles to show sympathy for the poor workers of rural Japan. This is horror about delivering justice, and on that level it does work.
I also have no complaints about Synapse's stellar DVD. The image quality is stunning, and has been carefully remastered from a good print. The colors are vibrant and the black level shows an appropriate level of detail. The sound is always clear, and doesn't get too harsh or tinny. Fans of the film will be very happy with the way it has been presented here, and probably have never seen it looking as good. The special features are also impressive, beginning with the film's packaging. There's a reversible cover, and some valuable liner notes that give context on the film. A commentary with Japanese film professor Jonathan M. Hall gives even more insight into the film. The commentary is interesting and well-researched, offering up valuable insights for anyone who is interested in Japanese horror.
A horror movie for Japanese history enthusiasts? Bet you never thought you'd be hearing that. Unfortunately, Snake Woman's Curse works far better as historical commentary than as out-and-out horror, so most of the target audience for this one will be left out in the cold. Big fans of classic cult Japanese cinema and Nakagawa will want to check it out for the cinematography, the political statements, and a fine commentary track.
Snake Woman's Curse is, indeed, a nice-looking but poisonous serpent. It's not guilty—but only if you're a fan.
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