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Snake Womans Curse

Michael Barrett

Filmed a year apart, Snake Woman's Curse and Horrors of Malformed Men contrast older traditions of Japanese horror with fresh modernism.


Snake Woman's Curse

Director: Nobuo Nakagawa
Cast: Seizaburo Kawazu, Yukie Kagawa, Sachiko Kuwahara
Distributor: Synapse
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Toei
First date: 1968
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-28

Horrors of Malformed Men

Director: Teruo Ishii
Cast: Teruo Yoshida, Tatsumi Hijikata, Minoru Ohki
Distributor: Synapse
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Toei
First date: 1969
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-27

Synapse Films has packaged these late '60s Japanese horrors into their Asian Cult Cinema Collection, and horror fans have good reason to be happy at the chance to feast their bloodshot eyes upon them. Filmed a year apart, they contrast older traditions of Japanese horror with fresh modernism.

Nobuo Nakagawa's Snake Woman's Curse is the stuffier, more old-fashioned film, as befits a late stab at the genre by the man who more or less invented postwar Japanese horror cinema. Previously obscure outside Japan, Nakagawa was introduced to US video this year when Criterion released his 1960 apotheosis Jigoku ("Hell"), his darkest, most nihilistic vision of doomed humanity.

In his liner notes to Snake Woman's Curs, Alexander Jacoby insists that Nakagawa isn't nihilistic generally. Rather, his films reflect a Buddhist concept of karma in which the wicked are punished and the good receive their reward, even if they're dead. This film is a perfect illustration, but many viewers will find its religious attitude, like its victims, annoyingly passive.

The first two-thirds of the film document the miseries of a peasant family of tenant farmers at the hands of greedy, cruel, exploitive landowner-capitalists. The groveling father is knocked down by the cart of the bowler-hatted landlord, the farmer's wife is targeted for hatred by Mrs. Landlord, and the daughter, our alleged heroine, is victimized by the landlord's son. In short, the good people live as disposable doormats.

As ghosts, they become passive-aggressive, at best. These ghosts don't indulge in the active hostilities of the Ringu films. Traditional Asian ghosts remain content to manifest themselves as glowering nuisances, freaking out the living without lifting a finger against them. Their hauntings are a series of "gotcha" moments in which the living blink and look again and doubt their sanity. These ghosts function more as manifestations of a guilty conscience, which is indeed a karmic idea but one that relegates ghosts to the essentially passive roles they'd had while alive.

While all this is being worked out slowly and inevitably and somewhat oppressively, the formula is saved from utter dullness by Nakagawa's visual sense. His compositions are telling, such as his use of the spinning wheels and other objects placed in front of people's faces, and his placement of the camera during a rape sequence that lends a god's eye view to the unfolding scene. Most of all, his camera is active, using many handheld shots to creep along behind his uneasy characters.

This visual style is really the most modern element in Nakagawa's film, which otherwise is classical in theme and approach. Oh, what a difference is there in Horrors of Malformed Men, from prolific genre specialist and "bad boy" Teruo Ishii.

His source material is the fiction of one of Japan's most popular and beloved writers, Edogawa Rampo. Rampo, who took his name from Edgar Allan Poe, is basically the father of modern Japanese horror and detective fiction. The primary story here is identified in the notes as The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (1926), which seems to be a variation on H.G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau. Ishii and co-scripter Masahiro Kakefuda threw in elements of several other stories, as well (whether it made sense or not, as Ishii says in a bonus feature).

The result is a story that, until very late into its running time, makes so little sense that it comes as close as possible to the avant-garde ideal of dreamlike or atmospheric story free of narrative logic. However, we must observe a crucial difference between how Japanese audiences see the film and how Western audiences read it.

If we can imagine a Poe movie in which there's a black cat, a tell-tale heart, a cask of amontillado and a pendulum, we should be sufficiently familiar with these elements to sort out what's happening and even guess the plot twists. Similarly, Rampo's stories are famous in Japan, and viewers who went to see this film, with Rampo's name prominent in the title, already knew the twists that were coming and recognized the various tropes.

They weren't nearly as "at sea" as the western viewer, to whom much of this would merely seem strange and confounding. To non-Japanese viewers, the charm of the film at least partly derives from this sense of amplified extra-cultural strangeness.

Even so, the film was strange in Japan. The editing and story structure are deliberately disorienting, beginning with episodes in an asylum that throw all kinds of almost tactile information at the screen while refusing to explain what's happening or why.

Our amnesiac hero (Teruo Yoshida) escapes to pursue paper-thin clues to a seaside town, where he casually assumes a dead man's identity. This beginning, told by a man who claims he's not insane, is enough to make viewers question the reality of the scenario, which resonates with The Cabinet of Caligari (1920) and the Japanese avant-garde film A Page of Madness (1926).

What really makes the film special is the participation of Tatsumi Hijikata, a famous Butoh dancer whose performances were controversially grotesque. He can also be seen in Ishii's delirious action-hybrid Blind Woman's Curse (1970), recently released from Discotek Media. Ishii enlisted Hijakata's troupe to play the "malformed men" (mostly women, actually), surgically created freaks who are presented in a pageant out of Martha Graham's gastric nightmares. They live on an island which is apparently equipped with a silvery discotheque.

This element links the movie with Freaks (1932). When this film took a bath at the box office, Toei decided it was an embarrassment and basically suppressed it from distribution for decades. It's never been released on video until now, making it a legendary film. This fate parallels Freaks, which was banned in Britain and largely suppressed in the US until the '60s.

The twin element in the plot will remind Japanese-horror connosseurs of Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini (1999), which is also based on Rampo. Tsukamoto and cult director Minoru Kawasaki are interviewed in an extra, where they reminisce about favorite Ishii films and make it clear that Japanese audiences are fully aware of the comic absurdity of certain elements, especially an ending that pushes its absurdity into realms of satirical pathos and somehow comes out the other end, becoming effective because of that absurdity rather than despite it. I can't say more without giving it away.

Both films come with audio commentary and a nifty reversible cover-insert, so that by turning it over, you can have the original Japanese poster on the front of the DVD.

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