Tuesday 16 September 2014

Nippon Horrors:
Snake Girl & Silver Haired Witch
(Noriaki Yuasa,1968)

Whether by accident or design, 1968 seems to have been a bit of a banner year for Japanese horror films, with such weird delights as The Living Skeleton and Genocide appearing from Shochiku, ‘The Snake Woman’s Curse’ unleashed via Toei, and Kaneto Shindô’s arthouse kaidan classic ‘Kuroneko’ released by Toho. It was the struggling Daiei studios though who seemed to be leading the pack in this mini-boom, not only fighting The Great Yokai War, but also managing to squeeze a whole host of late period kaidan pictures into their ’68 release schedule, including Tokuzô Tanaka’s ‘The Snow Witch’ and Satsuo Yamamoto’s ‘Kaidan Botan Dourou’ (aka ‘Bride from Hades’), amongst others.

A somewhat more off-beat entry on Daiei’s ’68 scorecard however comes in the form of ‘Hebi Musume to Hakuhatsuma’ (literal translation: ‘Snake Girl and Silver-Haired Witch’), an interlinked adaptation of two stories by flamboyant horror manga pioneer Kazuo Umezu, brought to the screen by Noriaki Yuasa, a director best-known for his tireless work on the Gamera series.

Shooting in no frills, regularscope black & white (whether for budgetary or aesthetic reasons who knows, though either explanation is plausible), Yuasa here succeeds in pulling off that rarest of feats: a film that mixes full-on horror with childlike whimsy without betraying either side of that equation, meaning that Umezu’s child-orientated tale of what happens when your attic-dwelling big sister turns out to be a blood-thirsty snake monster emerges as a movie both spine-chilling and delightful in equal measure – a singular piece of fantastic cinema that could appeal equally to viewers of all ages, assuming they’re not too adverse to a good dose of horror-y business.

A pre-credits sequence depicting the murder of a maid in the basement home-lab of natural history specialist Dr. Nanjo sets the tone nicely, as the usual ultra-ominous Japanese horror music accompanies an opening shot of a hairy, clawed hand lifting a snake from its cage, swiftly followed by a graphic death-by-snake that proves extremely creepy, if none too convincing.

This leads us into a wonderfully pulpy credits sequence, the camera drifting across a panorama of dinosaur bones, oversized test tubes and other mad scientist ephemera as lightning flashes, rain hammers the windows and somebody on the soundtrack goes nuts on the theremin. Needless to say, the possibility of my not enjoying this film is already fading fast.

As the story proper gets underway, we are introduced to our heroine Sayuri (Yachie Matsui), daughter of the aforementioned Dr Nanjo, a plucky yet rather somber young girl who finds herself leaving the safety of the convent boarding school she has known for many years and returning to her family home, where, uh, things are not well, to say the least.

Sayuri’s mother, we are told, is very ill following a head injury received in a car accident, and as such, she seems a little distant and disconnected, descending the stairs in the manner of a gothic heroine and apparently regarding everything around her with a great deal of uncertainty. Dad meanwhile seems like a nice chap, irrespective of all the weird stuff he keeps in his basement, but unfortunately he announces shortly after Sayuri’s arrival that he must fly to Africa immediately to study a new species of poisonous snake that has been discovered there. Such is the life of a leading specialist in rare reptiles and creepy-crawlies I suppose.

This leaves the balance of power in the household largely resting with bossy housekeeper Shige, and it doesn’t take long for Sayuri to figure out something a little more tangibly strange is going on here. The mysterious stranger who stares at her through a hole in her bedroom ceiling provides the first clue, and when this unseen interloper progresses to dropping live snakes on her pillow, and her mother responds by ordering her to perform her devotions before a household shrine from which a ghostly, living face stares back…. well I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the “get the hell out of there straight away!” stage in record time.

During its first half hour, ‘Snake Girl & Silver Haired Witch’ sets out quite a smorgasbord of familiar horror tropes, from the weird doctor father, to the reclusive wife who’s gone a bit mad, the clawed monster killer and the ubiquitous ‘watcher in the attic’ mythos (presumably a direct reference to the famed Edogawa Rampo story of that name). Later on, things open up a little to take in elements of the inevitable “mutant / sub-normal family member secretly locked in the attic” sub-genre, throwing in the ever-present silver-haired witch of kaidan tradition for good measure, and even trying out a few riffs on the old “woman with disfigured face becomes monster” routine. Quite a line-up of thrills and chills there for us to get to grips with, and thankfully the script allows all of these ingredients to percolate for a good long while before we’re eventually given something like the full story.

Style-wise, Yuasa matches this surfeit of narrative elements with a wealth of gleefully executed horror imagery. From the threatening shadows and staring, lizard-like eyes of the snake-sister in the attic to the flashes of lightning throwing shadows on wall-partitions in classic kaidan style, the rich chiaroscuro lighting and gothic, western-style furnishings of the Nanjo house and the gratuitous close-ups of snakes and scorpions in Dad’s basement, the atmosphere here is laid on thick enough to slice up and serve for supper.

Whilst the make up and visual effects here are sometimes crude, they are never less than imaginative, and Yuasa proves a capable ring-master for the film’s numerous monstrous goings-on, deploying what we can assume was a fairly limited effects budget for maximum audience impact. In particular, the first full reveal of the snake girl, briefly glimpsed as Sayuri sees her sneaking through the dark of her bedroom at night, is absolutely fucking terrifying. A bit too slow and sinister to really count as a ‘jump scare’ maybe, but I’d still defy any viewer to not be thoroughly shaken up by it – a classic horror movie moment, perfectly executed.

Such shock moments serve to highlight just how resilient our young heroine is in the face of mind-bending horror, as Sayuri seems to retain her composure through a succession of sights and sounds that would send most adults screaming in terror. I mean, when was the last time you saw a horror movie in which a protagonist calmly accepts the notion that she will henceforth share a bed with the were-creature she has previously seen stalking around in the dead of night sporting glowing eyes and reptilian fangs? Nothing seems to phase Sayuri, and her quiet reticence, capable manner and determination to rebuilding a loving family life against all the odds certainly makes her one of the more likeable child protagonists in horror movie history.

Opting to use a child as the central character is of course one of the main things that leads ‘Snake Girl..’ toward its unconventional mixture of kid’s movie whimsy and grown up horror, and, if we’ve mainly been discussing the latter here so far, the former element really comes into its own during a series of absolutely spectacular, kaleidoscopic dream sequences, during which the filmmakers really go all out to try to replicate the oneiric / psychedelic drift and scratchy visual overload of Umezu’s groundbreaking manga artwork.

Accompanied by a delicious soundtrack of ‘Carnival of Souls’-esque wurlitzer unease, these dream sequences really come out of nowhere, stretching the movie’s sense of reality to breaking point. Once they get going, they really throw the kitchen sink at us too, as poor Sayuri’s sleeping spirit is subjected to a cavalcade of spinning hypno-wheels, floating kabuki masks, slo-mo dream flights through tunnels of pulsing light, leering white-haired hags with detachable floating werewolf hands, a doll-like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ dream avatar, further snake-related hullaballoo and even a somewhat unconvincing rubber spider attack - all employed by the movie’s malign forces in an attempt to freak out unflappable heroine yet further, treating us to some of the most delightfully unhinged in-camera special effects ever seen in Japanese cinema in the process. Really way-out stuff, these sequences will prove obvious highlights for any dedicated weird world movie fans in the audience, and you won’t be surprised to learn that most of the screen-grabs I’ve posted at the top of this review are harvested from them.

Running parallel to all this though, ‘Snake Girl..’ also functions to some extent as a decidedly grown up dysfunctional family drama, following the secret sister / snake girl’s introduction to the story in the solid, ostensibly non-supernatural shape of Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi).

Confined to the attic and kept out of sight of both her father and the world at large on the dubious logic that she’s a bit grumpy and “can’t learn a thing in school” (hey, don’t look at me, that’s the only explanation the fan-subbed dialogue gives us), Tamami’s in her non-snake incarnation is revealed to be a petulant, bullying older sister with heavy self-esteem issues, and the rather uncomfortable intimations of child abuse relating to her confinement are quickly swept aside as the film begins to focus instead on Sayuri’s valiant attempts to befriend her troubled sister, and upon the hidden power that the aggressive Tamami seems to wield over the more fragile adult women of the household.

And where, you might ask, does the noble Dr. Nanjo fit into all this? Well, curiously enough, Sayuri’s father is treated throughout as a compassionate, nigh on saint-like figure, with the film inviting us to believe that he is completely ignorant of all these malicious goings-on in his household, even as viewers familiar with the perhaps more cynical logic of Western horror films will no doubt be left screaming at such an eminently questionable loose end in the plotting. (I mean, reclusive scientist father with a basement full of caged snakes and over-sized chemistry equipment + daughter who seems to transform into a snake monster at night = you do the math!)

At a push, the combination of this saintly father figure and the equally estimable ‘big brother’ character (a happy-go-lucky young guy who works at the Convent school and turns up at irregular intervals to offer Sayuri nuggets of upbeat life advice) could seem to push ‘Snake Girl..’ (presumably accidentally) into that weirdly misogynistic realm of socially conservative melodrama that will sadly be all too familiar to viewers of vintage Asian and Indian films. (Y’know the kind of thing – where the men in a family remain lofty, noble figures, unaware of the conflicts and machinations of the weak and/or scheming women stirring up trouble beneath them, and so forth.)

After the movie takes this turn toward more domestic concerns in its second half, the responsibility for providing scariness increasingly shifts to the aforementioned silver-haired witch, whose appearance, cool though it is, eventually sets things up for a regrettably rushed and silly conclusion that very nearly destroys the not inconsiderable wealth of audience goodwill the film has built up by this point, with an inexplicable action showdown on a convenient building site scaffold (anyone else get sick of that particular trope?), and a fairly witless Scooby Doo-esque wrap up that seems to imply that all the preceding events were the work of purely human villainy, irrespective of the numerous instances of blatantly supernatural business we’ve already been shown. All a little suspicious if you ask me, especially with the good Doctor getting off scot-free on his convenient post-showdown return from Africa.

At the end of the day though, such flaws (presumably the fault of either rushed scripting or the difficulties of combining two separate manga stories into a single narrative) are eminently forgivable in the face of ‘Hebi Musume to Hakuhatsuma’s manifest strengths.

Whereas the same studio’s ‘The Great Yokai War’ seemed uneven and confused in its mixture of juvenile and adult impulses, Yuasa’s film skillfully blends them into a cohesive whole whilst also taking on board all of the visual ambition and imagination of the aforementioned film, resulting in a gloriously atmospheric dose of pulpy horror, delivered with a charm and conviction that – prior to its conclusion at least – easily wins it a space alongside such eerie, all-ages classics as Jaromil Jires’s ‘Valerie and her Week of Wonders’ and Richard Blackburn’s ‘Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural’. Splendid viewing in other words, and another great addition to Japan’s oft-neglected legacy of horror/fantasy cinema.

(The poster below advertises a triple feature, combining ‘Hebi Musume to Hakuhatsuma’ with ‘Gamera vs Gaos’ (1967) and ‘Warning From Space’ (1956). Respectfully borrowed from Tokyo Scum Brigade.)

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