The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Hajime Sato, 1965)

The old, dark house fetches up in Japan in Hajime Sato’s slice of weird, gothic horror The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Kaidan Semushi Otoko, AKA House of Terrors). Long in circulation only in an Italian dub, Sato’s B-movie romp owes an obvious debt to Mario Bava but also to similarly themed gothic chillers such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting somewhat repurposing the central nexus of the cursed mansion as a black hole of morality sucking into its orbit the sinners of the post-war society each it seems both victims and embodiments of their times. 

Opening in true gothic fashion with lightning and a full moon, Sato zooms in to a strangely creepy yet ordinary Western-style villa where the soon-to-be widowed Yoshie (Yuko Kusunoki) is woken from a dream in which she had a premonition that her husband, who we learn has been in a vegetative state for some time, had something he desperately wanted to tell her. Shinichi has indeed passed away while apparently imprisoned under the care of his father, Munekata (Kazuo Kitamura), a psychiatrist who seems less than moved by his son’s death describing it as the least he could do to repay the debt he owed to his parents. It seems that Shinichi had been in the hospital following an “incident” some time previously and though Munekata insists that his brain had been “destroyed”, younger doctor Yamashita (Shinjiro Ebara) echoes Yoshie’s dream in informing her that immediately before he died it seemed that Shinichi, who had long been mute, was desperately trying to tell him something. Meanwhile, Yoshie begins hearing strange noises emanating from the coffin and opens it to find a chrysanthemum clenched between her husband’s teeth. 

After the funeral, she’s visited by a lawyer claiming that Shinichi entrusted a key to him to be given to his wife in the event of his death along with the deed for a mountain villa where “the incident” took place. Later, everyone comes to the conclusion that what Shinichi wanted to tell them was not to go to the mansion, but of course what else was Yoshie supposed to do other than investigate. A classic gothic estate swathed in fog and hidden behind ornate iron gates, the remote country house also turns out to have a hunchback custodian (Ko Nishimura) as well as a weird, demonic statue standing inconveniently in the hallway. Soon after arriving Yoshie is attacked by a crow, told of “the incident” by the hunchback, and begins to hear strange noises including disembodied laughter before she is eventually joined by Munekata, Yamashita, and her niece Kazuko (Yoko Hayama).

Yamashita tries to rationalise that the noises are just the normal kinds of creaking born of “deformation” as a building naturally ages, literally becoming warped with time, while the stress of living in such an environment, he claims, can eventually drive one mad. He’s come along to investigate believing that Shinichi’s illness is connected to the mansion. Yet the old, dark house in this case is somewhat divorced from its gothic roots in being transported to Japan where it is in a sense “new” and “foreign” rather than an ancient relic weighing heavily on the shoulders of declining aristocracy. Even so we do indeed have something of that in the later revelations of previous owner Baron Tominaga and his particular grudges which, in this case, are if only partially rooted in wartime trauma, the mansion apparently also once home to an anti-aircraft depot the remains of which can be seen in the grounds. 

The war may not be the corrupting force in play but it’s certainly a factor, especially the surprising accusation thrown at Dr. Munekata that he participated in wartime atrocity in being party to vivisection, a claim he does not dispute but defends in insisting his actions were justified in the name of science. The house has not so much called them, but each of the “guests” is in their own way morally compromised, Munekata not only a war criminal but a venal, lecherous old man hoping to get his hands on the house to open a sanatorium by fulfilling his quasi-incestuous desire for Yoshie. Yamashita, meanwhile, is not exactly pure hearted either, using what he knows about Munekata to blackmail him into standing down so he can become the director in his place and marry his wealthy girlfriend, Akiko (Keiko Yumi), who has also turned up to join in the haunted house fun. As far as sin goes, Yoshie is largely without it but perhaps pays for daring to own her sexuality, rejecting Munekata’s advances but apparently having made a habit of getting into bed with her comatose husband despite knowing of his many affairs which may be the reason for his punishment by the house. Only Kazuko remains pure and innocent save her one-sided attraction to Yamashita, the only one of the gang to show any kind of compassion towards the admittedly strange hunchback. 

In keeping with the house, Tominaga and the hunchback are later revealed to be Christians, though in a gothic inversion they are also the source of the “evil” that infects the creepy old mansion once again positioning Christianity as a foreign corruption but also in this case punishing post-war moral failure. Sato conjures an atmosphere of pure gothic chill complete with oversize cobwebs, doors which open and close on their own, a crow infestation, and even a passing shinto priestess (Mitsue Suzuki) who just had to drop in because of the powerful emanations of evil echoing from the mansion but leaves his collection of extremely flawed humans very much at the mercy of their own demons as they desperately try to escape from the House of Terrors. 


Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

The landed gentry find themselves haunted by the feudal legacy in Nobuo Nakagawa’s Meiji-era ghost story, Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Kaidan Hebi-onna). Though the figure of the vengeful ghost is rightly feared, they are rarely directly dangerous pushing their targets to damn themselves as they rail against the manifestation of their deeply buried guilt, yet the guilt here is perhaps buried deeper still as those who once had power find themselves floundering in the death throws of feudalism. 

As the opening voice over explains, the screen oppressively letterboxed to an extreme degree, the tale takes place in Onuma, a small village yet to be Westernised where the ruling family brutally exploit the tenant farmers still regarded as part of their fief. Old Yasuke (Ko Nishimura) chases after the local lord Onuma (Seizaburo Kawazu) and begs him not to kick him off his land, vowing that even if he has to eat dirt he will repay his debts. Onuma pays him no attention and Yasuke is soon thrown by the wayside after trying to catch hold of his cart. Concussed, all he can do is repeat his pleas not to lose the farm, and though he seems to recover passes away some days later leaving his wife Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka) and daughter Asa (Yukiko Kuwahara) alone. Heartless, Onuma evicts the women and knocks the house down to plant mulberry trees in its place while offering them “jobs” in his household for which they will not be paid for at least 10 years while they work off Yasuke’s debts. 

In addition to terrorising the peasants on the land, we discover that the Onumas are also running a sweatshop, a sign on the wall of Asa’s new place of employment reading that she must rise at 4am and be at work by 5 where she must stay until 9pm. There is to be no talking between the women in the workplace. Sue meanwhile is enlisted as a maid, but Onuma’s wife Masae (Akemi Negishi) immediately takes against her while she is continually sexually harassed by Onuma. Like father like son, the young master Takeo (Shingo Yamashiro) has also taken a fancy to Asa, though he is soon to be married to the daughter of the local mayor (Yukie Kagawa), a match all seem to regard as auspicious. 

Immediately after his soul vacates his body, Yasuke fetches up to haunt Onuma who is perhaps more affected by his guilt than his feudal upbringing would allow him to admit. Questioned later, he likens the peasants on his land to worms in the earth claiming that the deaths of one or two are no real matter and in any case nothing at all to do with him. “You people can survive drinking water and eating anything” he cruelly snaps back seconds after exclaiming he will fire the entire weaving staff as if that would put an end to the curse, paying little consideration to the fact he’s likely just condemned them to starvation. An exploitative landlord, he cares nothing for his feudal responsibility and all for his privileges. He and his son reserve the right to do as they please, regarding peasant women as theirs to be taken and having no real right to refuse. They do not believe there are any consequences for their actions because they are in a sense above the law of the land. 

Yet modernity is coming. We see our first uniformed policemen descend on the village after Sutematsu (Kunio Murai), Asa’s intended before her virtual enslavement through debt bondage, creates a scene at Takeo’s wedding in protest of the family’s treatment of Asa. Onuma’s attempts to reject the authority of the police in refusing their summons, describing it as “rude”, roundly fail, as do his attempts to leverage his feudal privilege in threatening to have the police chief fired in order to avoid answering his questions. His grip on authority is weakening as power necessarily reverts to the mechanisms of the state rendering him in some senses equal with those who till the soil. 

Even so, it’s spiritual rather than Earthly justice which will eventually do for him. The ghosts, such as they are, are mere echoes of time repeating the essential messages of the moments in which they died. Yasuke pleads for his land, he does not harm Onuma directly but causes Onuma to harm himself as he thrashes around trying in vain to vanquish a ghost with his gentleman’s cane. The family is, essentially, crushed under the weight of their feudal injustices as their noble house collapses all around them with modernity knocking on the door. Shooting in unusually lush colour, Nakagawa makes the most of his famously effective ghostly apparitions, finally drenching the screen itself in blood, but closes with an image of serenity in which justice of a kind at least has been served leaving the wronged to walk peacefully towards salvation while their tormentors will perhaps be travelling in another direction condemned not only for their own heartless venality but for that of the system that allowed them so ruthlessly to exploit those they ought to have protected. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)