Snake Woman's Curse (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers vows to never kill a snake, a poor farmer, or a poor farmer's wife...
Chobei, the wealthy landlord of a rural village, incurs a ghostly wrath after his indifference towards his tenets causes the death of a poor farmer. After forcing the man’s wife and beautiful daughter to work as servants in his household, he kills a snake that the farmer’s wife had tried to protect, and later the farmer’s wife herself. He finds himself and his family going mad, plagued by images of rotting corpses and deathly spirits all around him.
Snake Woman's Curse is an old fashion Japanese thriller, filled with awkward melodrama and anachronistic characters. I'm no expert in the cinema of the era, just a novice fan, but this particular film would seem more at home during the more traditional 1940s and ‘50s, rather than the new-wave infused 1960s, especially the cycle ending late ‘60s. Despite the slightly wacky opening credits, there isn't much experimentation, just well crafted images from a filmmaker that had spent decades honing his craft.
After a steady (though not consistent) diet of Seijun Suzuki, Yasuzo Masumura—and in the wake of my eye-opening first viewing of Horrors of the Malformed Men, Teruo Ishii—Nabuo Nakagawa's film unfolds at an unnaturally slow pace for the period. The fact that I received copies of both Snake Woman's Curse and Malformed Men at the same time was probably a bit of a curse (if you'll excuse the usage) for the Snake Woman simply because Malformed Men was such an eye-opener.
The camera work is quite impressive, as is the stage direction. Though there are no particularly long takes, there is a Hitchcockian flair to the movement of the camera and actors. Considering the budgets and talent Hitchcock had at his disposal this is no small feat. Nakagawa's use of deep black shadows and high contrast is striking, and when the story finally gets around to the scary stuff the simple, in camera effects (often a light is simply dimmed to make a spirit ‘disappear’) are spooky and colourful.
Though stylistically stilted and rather two-dimensional, the performances are above the horror B-standards found in the films of the era. The heavy theme of punishment makes for staggeringly unsympathetic characters (even those sinned against are often too meek to root for), but the mix of melancholy and manic theatrics are consistently above average.
Even without the liner notes and expert commentary track at my disposal I could tell that the point of the film was beneath the surface. From an allegoric standpoint, many Japanese films, and art in general, are really about current politics and class struggles. Filmmakers often hid their politics in plain sight behind the time periods they chose to set their films, and Snake Woman’s Curse is a fine example. However the allegory is so blatant, I find it hard to believe anyone missed it. The landlord and his family are so irredeemably evil that mistaking Nakagawa's political P.O.V. proves impossible. This heavy-handed nature keeps the film from effectively delivering its message
But the heavy-handedness isn’t my problem with Snake Woman’s Curse, it’s the film’s glacial pace (it certainly feels more than a paltry eighty-five minutes), and the overly familiar nature of the plot. Telling the same classic story a thousand times over isn’t a specifically Japanese characteristic, but it does come easy to the region’s films (there were at least two more ‘snake woman’ movies and God knows how many evil landlord movies released in 1968 alone). I enjoyed the craft, but was rather bored by the subject matter and executed pace.
Synapse Films has done a fine job cleaning and mastering this film for its DVD debut, but only so much can be done with the source material. Nakagawa's deep blacks (which were apparently his trademark) look great, and are usually free of compression noise, and his colours, both natural and super natural, are bright and rich. The cleanliness of the transfer isn’t immaculate, and most every shot has a share of obvious blemishes and artefacts, but this is rarely distracting, and not unexpected. Snake Woman’s Curse isn’t as polished as Malformed Men, but Synapse is still on their A-game.
Synapse has no real good reason to remaster the original tracks into any sort of modern surround sound, so the original Japanese Mono does fine. The presentation is a bit flat and busy scenes a bit garbled, but overall clarity is impressive enough, and distortion is minimal. The soundtrack is an effective mix of more traditional era Japanese film score and what sounds like a Theremin, which is utilized during the film’s many ghostly sequences.
As I mentioned in my Malformed Men review, I’m painfully unaware of Japanese film predating the 1990s, so I’m happy to absorb any intellectual information on the subject. Japanese film scholar Jonathan M. Hall’s commentary track is a nice place for me to start. Hall’s efforts can’t compare to those of Bey Logan and Tom Mes (Hall actually quotes Mes), but he’s effective, if not a bit sparse. Synapse has thankfully included a narrator on the track who lets us know which chapters Hall will be speaking, ensuring we don’t waste our time waiting for him to speak up.
The disc also features the film’s original Japanese trailer and a Nobuo Nakagawa poster gallery and biography. The box features liner notes by Japanese film scholar Alexander Jacoby, who fills in a couple of the blanks left by Hall on the commentary track, and a reversible cover featuring the original Japanese poster artwork.
Again, the timing was all wrong because I watched Snake Woman’s Curse with images of Horrors of the Malformed Men still dancing in my head. The two films really only share their country of origin and time periods in common, but I still find myself comparing the two. Snake Woman’s Curse is beautifully filmed, but the story and pace are dull. I only recommend it to those building an encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese cinema, though it’s still an above average film.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 28th August 2007
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono Japanese
Extras: Commentary, Trailer, Bio, Liner Notes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Cast: Akemi Negishi, Ko Nishimura
Length: 85 minutes
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