It's easy to look at The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968) with an eye for it being an overlooked classic. It's not. It has some great moments and some superb build-up... oh and it is also the only film by director Noriaki Yuasa that is not a Gamera film.
Having grown up in an orphanage, Sayuri is surprised to be introduced to her father. Taking Sayuri home to meet her mother, an amnesiac, he suddenly has to leave for Africa, having found a rare snake that will complete his research. Looking on from above, there is a sister, Tamami, confined to the attic in secret...
It’s hard not to watch The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch without being slightly bemused because it manages to have moments that suggest Yuasa could have been a far more interesting film maker than evident in his Gamera films, and then the film will become lost in some ropey special effects that a wiser director would have gamely hidden away. It also struggles with its influences because it manages to smash together more traditional imagery with the gothic with plot elements lifted lock stock and barrel from one of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, the ending rips off a certain gothic Hitchcock movie, so it’s hard to know what the film thinks it wants to be. But my does it have some really, really good moments.
At a mere 82 minutes this is a pacey picture and the film starts well, with young Sayuri being introduced to her mother and is confused for a then unknown Tamami. The black and white cinematography and first introduction to Tamami: a eyeball staring through a hole in the ceiling echo elements of another Hitchcock film Psycho and even more strongly of the 60s gothic films (the family home is often designed in a far more western style) and there's more than a hint of Jack Clayton's The Innocents knocking about, even if the film also delves into more traditional imagery that would not be out of place in Shindo’s Kuroneko or Onibaba, where Tamami’s face is nightmarishly embellished. And all this build up is lavish in menace; you know as soon as the father is called away this is not going to end well.
The opening works because the story of a child left with an amnesiac mother, what we soon learn is a very troubled sister and don’t-cry-wolf housekeeper of course means one thing: young child on her own, and in trouble. It’s a classic set-up but it’s also lovingly filmed, the black and white images are crisp and we are introduced to some gorgeous dream sequences that are really very, very good indeed. One where Sayuri’s doll comes to life is truly standout by any standard. Then as we start to learn just how mad Tamami is, and as Sayuri is banished to questionable quarters of the house, in what is perhaps some of the most gothic elements of the film, what you take away is a young girl of resilience and the question: where is this film going?
And there’s the problem, towards the mid-point the film starts to run out of steam and introduces some of the more questionable effects that are laughably terrible whereas the earlier dream sequences are truly excellent. Yes, as expected Sayuri finds herself in terrible peril – though thankfully she has her ‘older brother’ from the orphanage is on hand to help her. That said the menace piled on Sayuri, especially by Tamami is murderous in intent and bordering on the sadistic. But even the film is problematic because Tamami of the cobwebbed attic only appears because the father leaves and he is mean to not know she is living in the house. This seems ludicrous, if not downright impossible. If you consider the classic mad woman in the attic story: Jane Eyre, though a secret it is an open one and one shared; the idea that Tamami lives in the house, especially with a mother who though amnesiac is more nutty than anything and incapable of subtlety just renders this at best improbable. The ending too, all the whys as to what is happening are sadly rather trite. So the film falls to pay off its thrilling opening. It's like the film has run out of both ideas and the visual flourishes it opens with. It’s noticeable that the titular witch when introduced feels like an addendum.
That said I found myself with a soft spot for the film as I like failed experiments. And that is to me what the film was. It’s not always subtle and it has moments of almost brilliance, especially in the dream sequences or those which are familiar but manage to feel fresh, such as the eyes behind the family shrine, which hint at Wes Craven’s later People Under The Stairs. But the way the film just loses its legs in the second half and the story bellyflops into unoriginality work against it. Still, I have to say considering it appears this is the first release of the film outside Japan, it’s a welcome one because for all that some elements are overly familiar those moments that really standout really standout and it’s worth seeking out for those if nothing else. Like the recent re-release of David Lynch’s Dune, that bizarre mix of brilliance and dross, the worst of it makes you admire the best of it all the more. Yuasa though is no David Lynch.