Review: Snake Woman’s Curse (1968)

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Snake Woman’s Curse, Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1968 film, is a pretty basic ghost story.  It involves the torment of a peasant family by their landlord and his son and the revenge they take as vengeful spirits once they’ve become the dearly departed.  To say this is well-covered territory in the Japanese cinema of the 60s is an understatement, and yet, Nakagawa lends just enough of his own stylistic weirdness and beauty to the project to make it worth watching.

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We’re introduced to the family when we see the father chasing after the landlord’s horse-drawn cart.  He’s been told that he’s about to be kicked off his land and he’s begging to be allowed to continue to farm there.  The landlord has no mercy and the man is eventually thrown off the carriage and injured.  He dies not long afterward and his wife and daughter are taken into indentured servitude in order to pay back the old man’s debt.  The wife is given a lowly servant’s job at the landlord’s house while the daughter, Asa, is sent to the mill to weave fabric 17 hours a day for what they estimate will be the next ten years.  To add insult to injury, the young woman is repeatedly raped by the landlord’s son.

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This is bleak stuff and it’s delivered in such a way as to maximize the sympathy of the audience.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that Lars Von Trier had directed this!  My favorite part involved the mother saving a wounded pigeon and nursing it back to health despite the myriad troubles she’s facing herself.  It’s a simple ploy to show the woman’s generosity of spirit and it illustrates how life can thrive when given love and freedom.  Later in the film, the woman tries to save a snake from being killed in the landlord’s house.  This second act of kindness reinforces the cruelty of her master and foreshadows the ghostly acts of revenge that take place in the third act.

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I don’t always like Nakagawa’s work, but here his direction is top notch, delivering the perfect mixture of real world and fantastic imagery.  The images serve to clearly reinforce the admittedly rudimentary themes in the screenplay with great aplomb.  Cinematographer Yoshikazu Yamasawa brings even the stage-bound shots to life with innovative lighting and beautiful compositions.  I especially liked how the ghosts were lit differently than anyone else on screen, thereby rendering a convincing effect in camera that today’s filmmakers would have ruined with CGI.

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All of the performances are terrific, but I have to single out Chiaki Tsukioka as Asa’s mother.  She shows just enough emotional pain without pushing her character over the line into melodrama.  That’s a very fine line to walk in a production like this and she handles it beautifully.  I wasn’t familiar with her work before seeing this film but I’ll be sure to seek out some of the other 22 films she was in between 1947 and 1987.

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The only sour notes here come from Shunsuke Kikuchi’s score.  The bulk of the score is excellent, which is why one single, terrible choice is so noticeable.  In fact, this choice very nearly ruins the entire film.  What is it?  The theremin!  Every time anything remotely fantastic happens on screen, we get that whistling warbly monotone sound most often associated with bad American horror films.  It’s an awful choice for an otherwise classy film.  Not only that, it’s extremely annoying to listen to.

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I really liked Snake Woman’s Curse.  If there were some way to extract that terrible theremin noise from the soundtrack, I’d probably love it.  Recommended.

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