Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Screenplay: Kimiyuki Hasegawa
Cast: Yuko Hamada (as Yuko Nanjo); Sachiko Meguro (as Shige Kito); Yachie Matsui (as Sayuri Nanjo); Mayumi Takahashi (as Tamami Nanjo); Sei Hiraizumi (as Tatsuya Hayashi); Yoshirô Kitahara (as Goro Nanjo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #22
With this film I get to enter the world of Kazuo Umezu for this blog. Unfortunately he's not as easily accessible as Junji Ito is in terms of his manga being available in English, much of it only published in the USA and now out of print, but he's a very important name in horror manga. As memorable for being Where's Wally's (Waldo's) cousin, obsessed with the colours of barber shop red and white stripes, as he is for his work Umezu has been penning ghoulish horror stories since the fifties. This isn't the first time I've personally seen an adaptation of his work - having to thank obsessive Western anime fans for making a VHS rip available on the net for The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (1990), a straight-to-video anime of sixty minutes based on two of his stories, with English subtitles - but this is the first one which has the added delight of being a live action Japanese genre film during the golden era of the sixties. From the multi colour nightmares of Jigoku (1960) to Nikkatsu's gangster films, the sixties were an exceptionally strong decade for Japanese cinema both for art and entertainment, the strangest of films having as high a technical quality as the artistic minded dramas.
With this in mind, appeal also found in the high aesthetic quality being also met with films with logic defying plots, Snake Girl and the Silver Haired Woman is a strange, frankly convoluted piece of delirium, combining two of Umezu's stories into an adolescent horror film with an edge. It feels like the kind of film targeted to a young female audience with its fairytale qualities - it follows a protagonist that's a sweet and likable young girl called Sayuri Nanjo (Matsui), adopted back to her real family but finding herself, when the father has to go on a business trip to Africa, with an older sister Tamimi (Takahashi), that's kept a secret from him. Things become more macabre when there's a possibility that she's a literal snake girl, already jealous of her presence but possibly with intentions of also eating Sayuri when she has the chance. The film is surprisingly gristly, a woman killed in the first few minutes from pure fear when a snake is thrown at her, and from there there's a peculiar blend of a murder mystery drama with horror tropes, enough snakes terrorising Sayuri in her sleep if it isn't spiders swarming on her bed to give a viewer the jitters, and enough sinister atmosphere to match it as the housemaid doesn't believe anything she says and Tamimi acts more and more hostile to her. Then there are details such as introducing disfigurement, a mother with severe amnesia, an acid bath with intentions for Sayuri to be dunked into it, and convoluted plot twists to make the film intoxicating over only eight minutes. That's not even explain when the silver haired witch comes into the plot to also terrorise Sayuri, suddenly appear and causing the film to get even more stranger.
The plot does get confusing but it's able to get away with this because a great deal of the film plays off as a psychodrama. A lot of its tension actually taps into a real human emotion that would appeal to a lot of viewers, how the older sister who is kept secret and locked away hates Sayuri's prescience, treating her with contempt and only wanting their mother's love for herself. Even if there wasn't the threat of her being part snake, her contempt including encouraging Sayuri to sleep in the attic is effecting by itself. The film's also extremely beautiful to look at, the monochrome adding a grace to it. It has a dream-like tone that literally leads to dream sequences for Sayuri, none of them explained in why she has such nightmarish images in her sleep, adding to their weirdness.
Filmed in a distorted reality, the first immediately raises the bar when the doll Sayuri is given, comes to life by way of an actress superimposed to be tiny next to a prone girl. Even when the effects are incredibly dated by today's standards - a snake girl stand-in that comes from the same school as the hag in William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1959) - they add to the weird effect of the dream sequences by them being dreams and the incredible style of the whole film in general in spite of said effects. The quality of Snake Girl and Snake Haired Witch is why it was so watchable, a gleefully odd horror movie which yet has a wonderful sense of aesthetic sadly missing in a lot of modern horror cinema. As someone who still desperately wants to read Kazuo Umezu's original manga, something like this nonetheless feels like a successful adaptation, even if it may have taken extreme liberties, because of its macabre tone and how it encourages me to want to read those original stories it took inspiration from.