Director: Noriaki Yuasa
Notable Cast: Yachie Matsui, Mayumi Takahashi, Sei Hiraizumi, Yuko Hamada, Yoshiro Kitahara
With most of his career dedicated to shepherding the Gamera franchise throughout its original run in the 1960s, 70s, and (unfortunately) 80s, it was a pleasant surprise that Arrow Video grabbed one of the few ‘other’ films that Noriaki Yuasa directed. Released the same year as Gamera Vs Viras (see my review for that film HERE), The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is one of his best efforts.
For a film that regularly feeds off of the same child-focused themes that he embedded throughout the Gamera franchise, he utilizes a fantastical horror story to sell thematic morals and he does so with an admirably odd and offbeat manner. There’s a child-like whimsy to much of its approach, but the balance of its silliness, creepiness, and heartfelt moments make it a refreshing watch that feels far more impassioned than his later Gamera entries.
When a young orphan, Sayuri, is suddenly discovered by her long-lost parents, life couldn’t be better. She has a family of smart and wealthy parents, she still gets support from her older “brother” and the nuns at the orphanage, and a surprise new sister is a welcome surprise. Unfortunately, her father must leave quickly in traveling to research a new snake and her relationship with her sister deteriorates. Vivid dreams of her sister attacking her with snakes and strange occurrences around the house only seem to exacerbate the situation and soon Sayuri finds that her life might be in danger.
Like so many of Yuasa’s other films, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch rides this strange line between adult and kid film. It’s not unusual for certain eras to blend the two, the 1980s in the US was full of dark and semi-adult kid’s films, but even compared to some of his other material, this flick feels a bit darker and more intense than expected. Quite frankly, the balance between the two is impeccably accomplished here. It uses its young protagonist well, although some of her performance feels a bit wooden, and it tosses her into a semi-fantastical horror story that piles on some nightmare-inspired imagery.
There are heavy Scooby-Doo vibes at times in the mystery around her sister and the silvery-haired witch that doesn’t show up until the third act, but it’s essentially done through the lens of a giallo film. Within two minutes of the start, there’s already a kill sequence. Ya gotta love the efficiency of Japanese films from this era. However, as The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch plays out, the film substitutes its initial slasher whodunnit set up with a ton of surrealistic imagery, thanks to the repeated use of dream sequences, and a roller coaster third act that ends in a strangely heartfelt and nihilistic manner.
Yachie Matsui plays Sayuri as a strong audience surrogate throughout the film. Her voice-over narrative that runs throughout, representing her internal thoughts, is ultimately an unnecessary choice though and it undermines some of her performance. Yet, it’s Mayumi Takahashi as the "evil" sister that ends up stealing so much of the film. She is mostly forced to act through a face mask that creates a sense of unease and it bleeds into the narrative and plot with a fantastic reveal in the latter half. The supporting cast is mostly tossed to the side by the film, albeit for a few key moments like the heroic selfless acts of Sayuri’s big brother from the orphanage, but the mystery and the dynamic between the two sisters handily carries the film. A secondary plot about the mother’s amnesia seems like an offbeat choice to fill in potential plot holes, but it never detracts from the overall experience.
Due to its budgetary constraints, some of the bigger special effects do come across as cheesy, particularly in the dream sequences. Yet, due to the surrealistic nature of it all, it works fairly well. The reveal of the witch in the finale - which could have used a bit of build-up beyond her being named in the title of the film - is creepy as all hell and the final act takes enough fun spins that it left me pondering if they would be able to pull off some of the odd choices they had sold throughout. The film is left with one of the strangest final 10 minutes I’ve seen in a film in a while and that’s quite the statement.
With its sharply shot black and white visuals and some fun horror elements, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a highly entertaining cinematic gem. Its balance between adult themes and childlike whimsy sparks a lot of great visual moments and thematic cues, but the oddball structure to the film and the mystery behind the titular antagonists may not grab a lot of more discerning cinephiles. Still, Yuasa’s foray into horror is a fascinating one and it’s worth watching just for some of the strange choices it makes. I’ve never seen a little girl threaten another one by putting a snake into an open tank of acid in a zoological house lab before, but it does make sense here...and that’s the charm.