Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: THE SNAKE GIRL AND THE SILVER-HAIRED WITCH (1968)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Yachie Matsui, Yûko Hamada, Sachiko Meguro

PLOTAn impressionable young girl is sent home from the orphanage to live with her parents, where she has to deal with a dazed mother, a hateful maid, a secret mutant sister, and a silver-haired witch intent on killing her.

COMMENTS: How would you feel if you were a child who had grown up an orphan, living a happy life in an idyllic children’s home, only to suddenly leave everything you’ve ever known to live with two strangers who happen to be your real parents? It would probably be difficult, right? Now imagine that on your first night home, your biologist father goes off to Africa, leaving you home alone with your disturbed mother, a stern housekeeper and… a secret older sister with a disfigured face who lives in the attic and happens to be half snake?

Yeah, most children would probably wish they had stayed at the orphanage. But wide-eyed young Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is too innocent to leave her new parents, despite the countless horrors that she suffers at the hands of her older sister, Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi). First, it’s just a snake in the bed, but the madness soon escalates with a horrific dream where Sayuri’s beloved doll turns into a miniature human and is mauled by Tamami, who transforms into a grotesque reptilian creature when she attacks her prey. 

Even after Sayuri has a toad torn in half and thrown in her face, wakes up to a swarm of spiders in her bed, and is threatened with a flesh-dissolving acid bath, she still remains resolute in her decision to stay with her oblivious mother, who overlooks all of these offenses as unavoidable concessions that must be made to the pitiable Tamami.

But wait… We haven’t even touched on the second part of the title yet! Sayuri is willing to put up with her snaky sister’s shenanigans, but she draws the line at the silver-haired witch who emerges from the shadows of her attic bedroom. She barely escapes the house with her life and returns to the orphanage to seek help, but her sister and the witch aren’t about to let her get away that easily.

Part of a recent slew of obscure Japanese horror films released on the Arrow label, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a hidden gem that offers more in the way of garish shocks and traditional horror imagery than more renowned art-house horror classics such as Kwaidan and Onibaba (long available from the Criterion Collection). Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, otherwise known primarily for the Gamera series of sub-Godzilla monster movies, there is nothing dull or formulaic about Snake Girl. It packs a lot of bizarre moments and unexpected plot developments into its brief 82 minute running time, while creating an original mythology of its own, which never relies on the usual horror tropes.

Another secret to this film’s success is the use of a child’s perspective. Horror films seen through the eyes of children are almost always more successful than those where adults are the main characters, although the latter variety is more common. And even though the special effects here are thoroughly low-budget and ridiculous (the titular “snake girl” is represented in dream sequences by a slit-mouthed puppet straight out of Sesame Street), the fact that everything is seen through the eyes of the unsuspecting Sayuri makes it forgivable.

Despite the apparent lack of budget, Yuasa creates a creepy mood that will be irresistible to any horror movie fan. When a film begins with slurping sounds, theremin, and a snake strangulation which is swiftly diagnosed as a “heart attack,” you know you’re in for some good schlock. The visuals are full of swirls and scaly imagery that drives home the idea that Sayuri is living in a house of snakes. There’s always something weird happening to sustain the mood, with none of the romantic side plots or dramatic filler often present in horror films of the era. It might not be high art, but if you’re looking for some classic Japanese horror that delivers the goods without taking itself too seriously, Snake Girl will give you all you’re looking for, and then some.

The Arrow Video release features a stunning new HD restoration that is worth the money. The Blu-ray also features a commentary by film historian David Kalat and an interview which gives some background info on the film and the work of Kazuo Umezu, who wrote the manga on which the film was based (and also has a brief cameo as a taxi driver in the film). Arrow is certainly doing the good work in rescuing these Japanese classics from obscurity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness… A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child…” – Hayley Scanlon, Windows on Worlds

CAPSULE: ONIBABA (1964)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Kaneto Shindo

FEATURINGNobuko Otawa, Jitsuko Yoshimura,

PLOTTwo women make a living luring passing samurai to their death in a large pit and selling their belongings, until the return of a lusty neighbor leads them headfirst into a deadly conflict of sexual passion and supernatural punishment.

COMMENTS: Anyone familiar with Japanese films from the 1950s and ‘60s knows that the samurai film was very popular in those days. But if your image of Japanese horror is The Ring and The Grudge, you might be surprised to know that Japanese horror films of earlier eras also skewed towards the samurai genre (when not of the Godzilla variety, that is). This isn’t the samurai film of and Toshiro Mifune, though. Onibaba takes place in an even more distant era of Japanese history, some time around the 14th century, during the Warring States era, which found samurai generals leading groups of conscripted farmers waging endless wars on behalf of various emperors and warlords.

The story goes like this: an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the middle of a vast susuki grass field, awaiting the return of her son and unable to farm because of bad weather and the lack of men in the area. To make ends meet, they ambush passing soldiers stranded in the tall grass and kill them for their belongings, disposing of the bodies in a deep dark hole. One day, a neighbor (Kei Sato) returns from the war, bearing news of the son’s death. Before long, he makes advances towards the dead man’s wife, infuriating her mother-in-law as well as a ghostly spirit who rises from the tall grass at night.

Except for that last part, this might not sound much like horror. To be fair though, Onibaba is not so much a fright film as it is an erotic drama with supernatural undertones. The sexual passion arising between the young man and woman is elemental, like the tall grass that fills the Cinemascope frame and dwarfs the three main characters. While scenes involving the evil demon who appears to punish the two lovers can be hair-raising, ultimately it’s the grass that makes Onibaba such a strange and compelling experience. Depending on the moment, it can look like ripples in a shallow pond, flowing hair, a raging fire, a cage, or a bird’s wings.  You experience the isolation of the characters in a way that is tactile and sensual. Feelings of sexual desire and fear take on a primitive intensity, as Japanese taiko drums thunder in the background with threatening urgency.

Adding to the film’s mystique, the cast and crew lived in makeshift huts in a remote field while making this film, with contracts that required them to stay on location for the duration of the shoot or forfeit their pay. The finished film reflects the isolation and frustration resulting from these conditions, with the actors expressing their characters’ desires with a physicality atypical for Japanese cinema: rolling around in the grass like dogs in heat, grinding their bodies against wooden poles, and attacking their samurai prey like wild animals. This makes for an unusually intense film about sexual desire and spiritual beliefs in a more primitive era of humanity, with a ghostly and unsettling atmosphere that perfectly evokes the fears you might experience if you lived your entire existence in an all-encompassing sea of grass.

Onibaba has recently received an upgrade to its previous Criterion Collection release from 2004, a new Blu-ray edition which retains most of the special features from the original DVD (including an interview with director Kaneta Shindo and on-set footage from the shoot), along with a new HD restoration and a 2001 commentary featuring Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura. If you’ve never seen this Japanese horror classic, there’s never been a better time to remedy that situation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The director’s brooding tale is abetted by Hiyomi Kuroda’s cloudy, low-key photography and Hikaru Kuroda’s properly weird background musical score. But despite Mr. Shindo’s obvious striving for elemental, timeless drama, it is simply sex that is the most impressive of the hungers depicted here.”–A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

VIDEO CAPSULE: LEGACY OF SATAN (1974)

A rare (our first, in fact) video review. If these prove popular we’ll make more! For hilariously campy viewing at your next Halloween party, please ask for Legacy of Satan (1974), a low-budget devil cult movie adapted by Deep Throat‘s from a script originally intended for a hardcore porn production. Review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, narrated by Giles Edwards.

CAPSULE: DEMENTIA: PART II (2018)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Matt Mercer, Mike Testin

FEATURING: Matt Mercer, Suzanne Voss

PLOT: Ex-felon Wendell, now a handyman, has increasingly unpleasant encounters with a seemingly nice old woman.

COMMENTS: It may be saying something that your female lead’s start in movies was Howard the Duck. It may be saying something; I bring up this factoid for two reasons. First, there is the “Why did they make this?” question that flitted through my mind throughout the viewing. Second, this review is in desperate need of fleshing out, and bringing up Suzanne Voss’ cinematic history provided a couple dozen words for the introduction. Now, I am done with the introduction.

Hello, again! Here is the plot for you: over the course of an hour, we come to know Wendell (Matt Mercer). From some paperwork the camera lingers over during our first encounter with our reluctant hero while passed out on a couch, we learn that he’s out on parole. That circumstance is reinforced by telephone messages left for him, one of which is from his parole officer, the dirt-bag Reggie (performed, with quite a full-bag-of-dirt delivery, by the commendable low-budget horror mainstay, Graham Skipper). Wendell is a handyman, hired by Suzanne Goldblum (played by the aforementioned Suzanne Voss, who has now provided me a dozen or so further words for the count). She suffers memory issues, and something else.

Welcome to the third paragraph, and thank you kindly for traveling with me. I have not seen the first film in this series, but the dearth of that memory may not have hurt. With Dementia: Part II, Mercer and Testin prove two things. First, that they have the technical nous to make a movie. Good. Filmmakers are (typically) better for having that skill. Shots are nicely aligned, the black-and-white is a good choice (allowing for what I am certain was the classic use of chocolate-syrup-as-blood during the gory bits), and the hour-long runtime is nicely paced. Second, they should perhaps put in a little more effort the next time around. I grew to like Wendell, but his fate was as head-scratching (in an unpleasing way) as it was abrupt. It was as if the final sheaves of the script had been nicked on the final day of shooting.

I have no idea how this movie came to our attention. (Speaking of which, thank you for your attention as I wrap this up.) Some odd touches were there—I quite liked the rabid horned-squirrel, stuffed and on display. But if plot is to be tertiary, everything else better step up to fill the void. And oh yes: I think it may be time to generally retire the “prep for monster encounter montage”; we’ve just about run out of ways to do that compellingly. That said, there was enough Wendell charm to keep me from feeling cheated out of my three bucks and sixty-seven minutes.

Dementia: Part II was made in 2018 on a dare: to produce a movie, from conception to post-production, in a month to close the Chattanooga Film Festival. It debuted on video-on-demand and DVD this year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“DEMENTIA PART II has received quite a bit of notice for being conceived, scripted, shot and premiere-screened in only a month… yet it’s notable for more than the circumstances behind its production… the [black and white] approach was born of expedience (saving time that would have been spent on color correction), the monochromatic look adds a weird TWILIGHT ZONE-esque mood to the proceedings, and allow Testin and Mercer to get homagistic in places…”–Michael Gingold, Rue Morgue (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: LAMB (2021)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Valdimar Jóhannsson

FEATURING: , Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson

PLOT: A childless couple living on a remote farm in Iceland become attached to a newborn lamb.

Still from Lamb (2021)

COMMENTS: Debuting director Valdimar Jóhannsson has been adamant in interviews that Lamb is not a horror movie. While that may not be strictly accurate—Lamb abuts the supernatural, relies on ominous music cues and a bit of shocking violence, and nurtures a sense of unease throughout—the lack of intent to horrify is an important consideration to get your expectations in order.

Anyone going in expecting a stately A24 horror outing a la St. Maud (2021), The Lighthouse (2019), or Hereditary (2018) will likely grow impatient in the first forty-five minutes as the movie languorously spends its time following the slow rhythms of farm life. Maria and Ingvar, all alone except for a dog, a cat, and their livestock, spend long days grazing their sheep, preparing and eating meals (including lamb chops), and servicing their temperamental tractor. The only event that breaks up the idyllic monotony is the unexpected birth of a new lamb. After pulling the babe out of its mother, Maria gets that motherly look in her eyes. The couple take the lamb inside their home and care for the newborn like a favored pet, lavishing as much affection and attention on it as they would on an infant. The cute-as-a-button critter is usually lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and it’s only when we get a brief glimpse of its lower extremities that anything resembling horror starts to take root.

Things perk up a bit after the overly-long introduction, helped by the arrival of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother, who crashes at the farm and, like the audience, looks askance at the couple’s unnatural attachment to the animal. Things still proceed relatively slowly, but the viewer’s interest is held by dreamy visuals of the verdant Icelandic valley and the strangely expressive lamb (formed from a variety of techniques, including CGI composting and puppetry, into an aberration that’s simultaneously ridiculous and uncanny). The narrative is thin, but the metaphorical implications are broad; the story is driven by a likable couple’s need for something to love. (Coincidentally, displaced and delusional parental love is also a key feature of the recent Titane). It falls just short of earning a general “” tag, but for those who enjoy slow but offbeat art-house movies that focus as much on gorgeous scenery as horrific visions, Lamb may serve to fill an empty space inside of you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a kind of WTF object of fascination… Even the (excellent) trailer from boutique studio A24 can’t find a way to entirely hide the movie’s hyper-bizarre premise.”–Taylor Antrim, Vogue (contemporaneous)