“Snake Woman’s Curse” – A.J. Hakari

You know the biggest problem about being an innovator? Spending the rest of your days living up to your greatest accomplishment. Take Nobuo Nakagawa. His name might not ring any bells, but in 1960, he became one of modern Asian horror’s founding fathers with his stomach-churning opus Jigoku. Its numerous ghastly sights left quite an impression upon viewers, though he made just a few films afterwards before his death. One of these was Snake Woman’s Curse, which deals with ideas not unlike those Jigoku pondered. But while Nakagawa goes about his duties with a sharp visual polish, his thematic overtones are set on autopilot, resulting in a ho-hum mortality play that seldom feels like more than an extended “Twilight Zone” episode.

For years, the Onuma family has reigned supreme in a tiny mountain village. Corrupt landlord Chobei (Seizaburo Kawazu) takes pleasure in working his tenant farmers to death (figuratively and often literally), while his son Takeo (Shingo Yamashiro) indulges in his every debaucherous whim. One day, a laborer in Chobei’s employ passes on, leaving his wife Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka) and daughter Asa (Sachiko Kuwahara) to work off his debt in the fiend’s sweat shop. Both women are subjected to an increasing number of hardships, from ungodly working hours to Takeo’s carnal advances. It’s not long before both Sue and Asa meet terrible fates, but the story is far from over. It’s high time the Onuma clan owns up to their misdeeds, with an ensemble of forlorn spirits ensuring they confront their many sins or go stark raving mad trying.

Snake Woman’s Curse was released in 1968, and even a passing glance will show you that Asian horror was in a much better state then than now. Its emphasis on atmosphere over tiring jump-out scares, this film is handled with a great deal more class than your Shutters and One Missed Calls are today. It’s not about ghosts dragging you off to certain doom but rather the actions their appearances inspire. Caked in gray make-up and bathed in an ominous blue light, the ghosts of Snake Woman’s Curse merely sit back and watch as those who wronged them bring about their own tragic ends. The film really resembles a dialed-down rendition of Jigoku, in how the first two acts comprise misfortunes aimed at the protagonists, while the bad guys get their just desserts in the third. It’s a classic turn of events that most will see coming, but that doesn’t stop the picture’s dramatic weight from giving it just the boost it needs where stirring up scares is concerned.

Still, Snake Woman’s Curse isn’t exactly the most riveting ghost story ever told. Watching it requires some patience on the viewer’s behalf, and even then, the rewards are barely worth it. The film’s thematic content provides something for the brain to chew on, but it hardly makes the proceedings anymore engaging. Repetition settles in quickly after the first few scenes, and Nakagawa almost does too good a job of getting us to sympathize with his leads. Asa and Sue endure so much at the hands of the Onumas, you’re almost underwhelmed when it comes time for payback. Chobei and his brood are pretty much just driven cuckoo-bananas, which makes sense but doesn’t really make for arresting cinema until the film’s final moments. Still, if there’s anything for Nakagawa to fall back on, it’s the pitch-perfect production design. He wastes no time in setting the perfect mood, and the visual trickery sprinkled throughout is novel, subtle, and extremely effective.

The less familiar you are with Nakagawa’s oeuvre, the better Snake Woman’s Curse will play out for you. Having been spoiled by Jigoku’s countless flayings and beheadings, this flick is pretty small potatoes, though its philosophy is no less thought-provoking. Snake Woman’s Curse may only be sporadically engaging, but a movie that’s smart some of the time is still better than one that’s stupid all of the time.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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