Director Noriaki Yuasa isn’t exactly well known for his work on projects with a great deal of atmosphere. This is thanks to his involvement with the original Gamera series, a franchise that became increasingly absurd as it went on. These were often nonsensical low budget stories aimed squarely at children after all. The same could be said of Daiei Film in some cases, although their output does include the original Yokai Monsters and the Daimajin movies. But while this story of rival sisters and spooky attics does feature a child star, it certainly packs in several sequences that will make most giant turtle fans do a double-take. There are still plenty of enjoyably absurd moments along the way, but the tone is much more sinister overall.
In an eerie basement during a storm, a woman is murdered by someone using a venomous snake. The sound effects are hokey and the lighting is overly dramatic. The hands of the killer have reptilian claws, and the death itself is frankly ridiculous. But there’s something about this brief pre-credits scene that certain viewers will find appealing. The sounds of thunder, and the shadows being cast by animal cages, lend it all a particular style. It’s hardly in line with the outrageous moments in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, but that’s probably a good point of reference here. There will be chilling moments to come, but there will be scenes in which the movie artifice is openly shown instead of being disguised. It’s spooky rather than directly scary in most cases, but there’s atmosphere to spare.
Orphaned girl Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is soon due a visit to this same basement. After spending time in a home thanks to some kind of hospital paperwork mix-up she’s reunited with her parents. Things seem to be relatively normal until it’s revealed that her mother Yuko (Yûko Hamada) is suffering from amnesia. She gets confused and calls Sayuri by another name, which nobody openly explains. Meanwhile the house itself starts to become more unsettling. Someone, or something, is using peep-holes in the ceiling to spy on Sayuri. There’s also something odd going on late at night when Yuko leaves food in a hidden room. The snakes in the laboratory can at least be explained, as Sayuri’s father is a medical researcher. But when he’s called back to the field she’s left with her mother and a housekeeper.
There’s a lot of naive charm to the proceedings thanks to some overtly phony sound effects. There’s also an interesting mixture of East and West, both in the style of decor and the plot. There are sliding doors and family altars to Buddha. But the test tube filled basement and the suits of armour in the hallway lend this the feeling of a European murder mystery. Like Michio Yamamoto’s Lake of Dracula it could be considered a Japanese take on a Hammer horror story. In this case it’s obviously leaning into The Reptile. But there’s also a Sherlock Holmes Speckled Band vibe to the first act with all the snakes and suspicious behaviour. These might sound like disparate elements but as things progress it evolves in a way that brings everything together.
One of the more eerie inclusions is Sayuri’s sister Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi) who shows up when their father has left for his trip. Apparently her presence is a big secret but it’s not clear why. Maybe it’s just because she’s such a cold hearted sadist. There are a lot of fantasy moments utilised after Tamami arrives, including several nightmare sequences. Is she genuinely part snake or is this all in the imagination of a child? There are a lot of stories in which young protagonists get carried away. Is this more in the vein of Invaders from Mars or The Nanny? That’s for you to find out. In any case the black and white photography allows for several wonderfully hypnotic moments, including those in which snakes turn into swords and dolls come to life.
There’s also the eponymous witch to consider, although that’s a relatively late addition to the narrative. Things take a strange turn when Tamami’s jealousy forces Sayuri into an attic full of antique masks. But it’s all in service of a grounded sibling rivalry plot, one that could be about normal vanity or more serious disorders. The twists and turns in the plot aren’t totally unpredictable, but there’s enough mystery along the way. It helps that you can never tell what will happen next, as the film veers between fake spiders and real deaths. There are still some cute miniatures and models involved after so many Gamera movies. But the resolution pushes this all towards darker conclusion than you might expect. Sharp knives and jars of acid help to negate the pitfalls of the usual ‘child in peril’ clichés.
Many of these facets are familiar, but the results are pretty distinctive. Perhaps it’s the result of this being a comic adaptation in a time when split personalities starting to arrive on the big screen. The use of internal monologues to narrate a number of sequences feel child-like, while the psychological horror moments still pack a punch. Tamami’s personality is a similar archetype, but her random acts of cruelty keep things from ever becoming stale. Her strange skin condition is also a constant source of intrigue. Is it a literal mask or a figurative one? There are some fun sudden shocks and some really brutal moments. The eventual reveals don’t all make sense, particularly in light of what Sayuri has seen earlier on. But the script uses a blend of youthful optimism and jaded adult ambition to make it all engaging.
The results are certainly a weird, and occasionally ethereal, thriller experience. It’s a film in which toads, snakes and creaking doors never sound realistic. Full moons and monster arms have a hand-made quality. And yet the bizarre nature of certain set pieces never detract from the impact of the story. It’s fun and creative while being chilling when necessary. It’s a big shame that the director didn’t make anything else like this. It’s also bizarre that this was such a rarely seen film outside of Japan until now. But you’re missing out if you don’t take a look at this new edition from Arrow Video. It won’t be for everyone, but if the kind of film being described here is for you, then be sure to check it out.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
- High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
- Original uncompressed mono audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Brand new commentary by film historian David Kalat
- This Charming Woman, a newly filmed interview with manga and folklore scholar Zack Davisson
- Theatrical trailer
- Image gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring new and original artwork by Mike Lee-Graham
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Raffael Coronelli