Nobuo Nakagawa came late in his career to the Japanese ghost-story genre known as kaidan, but he took to the form like an adept, making supernatural thrillers that combined shock, gore, and Buddhist philosophy. Snake Woman's Curse isn't one of his best, but because it's only the second of his films to be made available on DVD in America—following Criterion's sublime edition of Jigoku—it's definitely worth watching. Set in the late 19th century, when the last vestiges of feudalism still survived, Snake Woman's Curse explores the repercussions when a wealthy land owner kills one of his poor servants, then finds various members of his household suffering fatal accidents sparked by fear and worry. The film is reasonably stylish and visceral, with some effective point-of-view shots and urgent handheld camera. But it's more effective thematically. The first two-thirds of the movie is all about rich men chasing women and having their way; then the government gets involved, and the situation takes a surreal turn.
But not as surreal as Teruo Ishii's Horrors Of Malformed Men. Made in 1969, a year after Snake Woman's Curse, and banned in Japan for nearly four decades for being insensitive to the handicapped, Horrors Of Malformed Men is part of the wave of late-'60s Japanese exploitation films known as ero guro (or "erotic-grotesque"). It's adapted from several stories by one of the genre's originators, mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. An amnesiac wakes up in an asylum full of knife-wielding topless women, and while figuring out how he got there, he takes on the identity of his recently deceased doppelgänger, and travels to a remote island, where he meets a scraggly-haired mad scientist who's been surgically building an army of the afflicted. Horrors Of Malformed Men shares some of the same body-horror preoccupations of Italian giallo, grimy American drive-in fare like Spider Baby, and even the pop head-trips of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but it's also a signpost on the path to lacerating Japanese directors like Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. While Snake Woman's Curse has pale-faced spirits emerging from the shadows, Horrors Of Malformed Men has enslaved women eating writhing live crabs off a rotting corpse. It's like the difference between a campfire tale and a black mass.
Key features: A set of insightful interviews and a lively, informed commentary track on Malformed Men; a sparse, dryly scholarly commentary on Curse.