January 25, 2021

Frozen Too: The Snow Woman

Poster - The Snow Woman (1968)
Now Playing:
 The Snow Woman (
Kaidan yukijorô,1968)

Pros: Beautiful, haunting cinematography and production design; Enhancements to the original folk tale add to the drama and tension.
Cons: Some scenes depicting village life are repetitive and run a little too long.

I love a good ghost story. Back when I used to prowl around used bookstores (it seems like a lifetime ago), I was always on the lookout for classic collections and true paranormal accounts.

In contrast to the cathartic jolt of straight horror, the classic ghost story evokes a sense of disquiet, dread and the uncanny. The short hairs at the back of the neck stand up, shadows threaten to turn into apparitions, and routine nighttime creakings are suddenly alive with ominous possibilities.

Ghosts are really in their element in the winter, when the long, cold nights remind us of our mortality, and that only a thin veneer of civilization separates us from things that live in the shadows.

Even in the era of the electric light, ghost stories are traditionally told by a roaring fire, which for millennia has warded off the night and all its threats. It’s a comfortable way to take a short, safe journey to the unknown, all the while whistling past the graveyard and reassuring ourselves that we’re among the living in a bright, warm reality.

The traditional ghost story also has a built-in safety valve. Ghosts are incorporeal -- shades, shadows, remnants -- which are confined to specific locations. They can’t really hurt you, unless you let them get into your head.

Or so it is with Western tradition. The supernatural folklore of East Asia is a whole other matter. There are a dizzying variety of ghosts from all walks of (former) life pursuing all kinds of missions in the afterlife. And many are far more than mere place-bound revenants, with the ability to roam the countryside and torment the living with powers that would make a Western ghost transparent with envy.

Public domain image of Yuki-onna courtesy of Wikipedia.org
Yuki-onna (the snow woman) from 
the Hyakki-Zukan

For the average Westerner, a ghost is a ghost (with the exception of the poltergeist, which is unseen but makes its presence known by throwing physical objects around like a spoiled child). In Japan alone, the spirits of the dead -- the Yūrei -- line up into categories as if they were filling out some census longform in purgatory.

Onryō are hell-bent on revenge for wrongs done to them in their lifetime; Goryō are vengeful too, but come from the upper classes (so much for the idea of the afterlife erasing class distinctions); Ubume are mothers who died in childbirth; Funayūrei are poor souls who died at sea; Zashiki-warashi are the ghosts of children, and the Fuyūrei are condemned to float aimlessly around in the air. There are place-bound Japanese ghosts -- Jibakurei -- but unlike Western tradition, they are rare.

As if that weren’t enough, there are the Yōkai, spirits (and sometimes monsters) that originate from nature and the earth itself, rather than representing the souls of the dead. They can take on almost any aspect, from human to animal to inanimate objects, and some can shapeshift if they get too bored. Like the Yūrei, they can range from benevolent to deadly malevolent and everything in between. 

The spirit-protagonist of The Snow Woman (1968) belongs to this second category. All by herself, the Snow Woman seems to have as many folkloric variations as the Inuit people have names for snow. As Zack Davisson in his article “Yuki Onna - The Snow Woman” poetically describes her,

“The Yuki Onna is one of Japan’s most well-known and yet unknown yokai. There is no single story of the Yuki Onna. From dread snow vampire of the mountains to a loving bride and mother, she has played many roles over the centuries; worn many costumes. She is ephemeral as a windblown mist of snow, and as impossible to hold.” [Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai website, https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/12/18/yuki-onna-the-snow-woman/ ; 12/18/2013]

The 1968 movie is an expanded version of the Snow Woman tale popularized by writer Lafcadio Hearn in his 1904 collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.

Hearn, born in Greece to a Greek mother and Irish father, emigrated to the United States while still a teenager and soon took up work as a newspaper reporter. He eventually ended up in Japan, where he would spend the rest of his life under a new name, Koizumi Yakumo. He married a Japanese woman from a prominent family and had four children.

Davisson notes in his article that Hearn’s story, “Yuki-Onna,” became so well known and popular that it largely supplanted other variants of the Snow Woman in the Japanese public mind. Yuki-Onna makes a memorable appearance in “The Woman in the Snow,” one of four Hearn stories included in the award-winning Japanese film Kwaidan (1964).

SPOILERS AHEAD (but knowing how it ends shouldn't affect your enjoyment)

The story as told in Kwaidan is a simple one. Two wood cutters, an old man and his young assistant Minokichi, are forced to take shelter in a hut during a blinding snowstorm. Enter the Yuki-Onna, who kills the old man by freezing him with her icy breath. She is about to do the same to Minokichi, but instead takes pity on him as he is so young. She warns Minokichi that if he ever tells anyone of the encounter, even his mother, she will kill him.

Still from Story from the Snow Woman, Kwaidan, 1964
Kwaidan's spooky, icy realm of the Snow Woman.

Some time later, as Minokichi is returning to the village after a hard day of work, he meets Yuki, a young woman without a family who is traveling to the capital in the hopes of finding work as a servant. Before you know it, the two are married with three beautiful children. The women of the village are in awe of Yuki, as she doesn’t seem to age, despite her lowly circumstances.

Minokichi is a very lucky man and knows it. One evening, he and Yuki are preparing clothes and new sandals for the family to wear at an upcoming festival. At a certain angle in the lantern light, Yuki reminds Minokichi of the Snow Woman, and he makes the mistake of telling his wife about the encounter. She reveals herself as the Yuki-Onna, accusing the cowering man of breaking his oath, but once again spares his life for the sake of the children. Yuki disappears out into the snowy night. Heartbroken, Minokichi places her sandals outside as a sort of offering; the snow covers them, and they too disappear.

Screenwriter Fuji Yahiro expands the 1968 Snow Woman tale by making the young man, Yosaku in this version, an apprentice to a master wood carver. When the pair encountered the Snow Woman, they had been out scouting for the perfect tree to use to carve a statue for the local shrine.

Sworn to secrecy upon pain of death, Yosaku (Akira Ishihama) tells his master’s wife that the wood carver died of exposure. Orphaned at an early age, Yosaku had been taken in by the couple and raised like a son, apprenticed in order to learn the intricate art of wood carving.

Shiho Fujimura as The Snow Woman (1968)
The Snow Woman's stare will freeze you in your tracks.

Yosaku spots the ethereally beautiful Yuki (Shiho Fujimura) seeking shelter nearby from a heavy rain, and invites her in. As in the original story, she is an orphan who is traveling to the big city to seek better opportunities. When the mistress of the house takes ill, Yuki demonstrates her extensive knowledge of the healing arts, and the old woman is soon back on her feet.

Yosaku and the mistress are both taken with Yuki, and persuade her to stay. Their idyllic life is soon broken by the cruel and arrogant Bailiff of the province, who brutally beats the mistress when she intervenes to protect some village children who have accidentally rolled logs into the path of the Bailiff’s horse.

As she is dying, the mistress makes Yuki promise to marry Yosaku. Five years later, Yosaku and Yuki are happily married with a healthy and playful young son. But the encounter in the woods with the Snow Woman still hangs over their heads like a Sword of Damocles.

Even though the master wood carver died, the “perfect” tree that the pair had found was cut down and transported to the village. The head priest of the local shrine decides that Yosaku has learned his craft well under his master, and chooses him to carve a very important goddess statue that will be a centerpiece for worship.

Shiho Fujimara and Ikiri Ishihama in The Snow Woman (1968)
Yuki and Yosaku enjoy a brief moment of peace and quiet.

Rather than an honor, Yosaku’s appointment turns out to be a curse. The young man’s feelings of unworthiness are exacerbated by the heavy responsibility. Worse yet, Yosaku’s renown has attracted the attention of the Bailiff, who wants the beautiful Yuki all to himself.

The Bailiff hatches a plan to charge Yosaku with trespassing in the prefecture’s woods and stealing the tree, despite the master and apprentice having gotten permission. If the couple don’t come up with a fortune in gold coins in five days, Yosaku will be imprisoned and Yuki taken away to “serve” the Bailiff. She will have to draw upon her long-dormant powers as Yuki-Onna in order to save the day.

The Snow Woman is a very worthy addition to the folk tale popularized in Kwaidan. In Snow Woman, Yosaku and Yuki (in her human incarnation) are both orphans, which makes their attraction to one another all the more understandable and poignant.

Making Yosaku not just a simple woodcutter, but an apprentice to a master wood carver and an artist in his own right is a clever enhancement. There is dramatic tension between Yosaku’s idyllic life with a beautiful wife and handsome son, and the burden of being tasked with carving a major religious statue. It’s not a task for the faint-hearted -- Yosaku spends several years waiting for the wood to cure to a perfect state, all the while trying to envision the perfect representation of the goddess.

The Bailiff is up to no good. Some people are never satisfied with what they have.

The addition of a human antagonist in the form of the Bailiff heightens the drama as well. Yuki travels to the capital to plead for clemency, and as folklore luck would have it, the Lord she wishes to see has a young son on the brink of death. In an especially beautiful and ironic scene, she summons up her spirit powers and uses the snow and cold for good, to tamp down the boy’s fever, rather than to kill. Her reward for saving the boy’s life is enough to buy her and Yosaku’s freedom.

But Yuki is not quite done saving the day, if only accidentally. Even with his freedom secured, Yosaku is struggling to finish the statue. The only thing left to complete is a face worthy of a goddess, but the artist is not sure he’s up to the task. It doesn’t help that the Bailiff has convinced the head priest to enlist another master craftsman to carve a statue in competition with Yosaku. In another ironic twist, it will take Yosaku breaking his oath to the Snow Woman, and Yuki-Onna’s last act of mercy and compassion, to provide the inspiration to complete the statue.

Like Kwaidan, Snow Woman is the sort of film where it feels as if you could stop it arbitrarily at any point, print the frame, and have a beautiful work of art for your troubles. With the extended runtime, The Snow Woman makes several memorable appearances, and is even more impressive and terrifying than in the earlier film.

The deathly stare of The Snow Woman (1968)
"Don't look her in the eyes! Oops, too late!"

Chikashi Makiura’s cinematography is hauntingly beautiful, especially in the snowy nighttime sequences where the Snow Woman seems to float over the landscape. Her mere presence causes objects and people to freeze. Once you look into those unearthly eyes, you're a marked man.

In striking contrast to the Snow Woman’s frozen domain, there are a couple of scenes at the shrine, where an old shaman, standing in front of a huge cauldron of boiling water and brandishing a stick with streamers attached to the end, is conducting a purification ceremony. As he flicks the stick to and fro with flames dancing around him, he looks like a particularly malevolent denizen of some obscure corner of Hell.

Yuki, who is attending the ceremony with her husband and son, is definitely not in her element. Even though Yuki is obscured by the crowd, the shaman recognizes her for what she is, and violently shakes drops of boiling, purified water at the ghost who is desecrating the ceremony. Yuki recoils and withdraws like a vampire from a cross. The scene is violent and loud, lit up in fiery oranges and reds, a notable counterpoint to the cold, snowy landscape that predominates in other parts of the film.

The shaman conducts a purification ceremony in The Snow Woman (1968)
You can't slip a ghost past this scary old shaman.

The Snow Woman tale was remade as recently as 2016. I haven’t seen that version, but it's hard to imagine one better than the 1968 film. I’m betting that folklore fans will be entranced, and lovers of contemporary Japanese horror will appreciate the visual style of this venerable cinematic ancestor.

Where to find it: Stream it here, or check out Sinister Cinema for a very crisp, good-looking DVD copy worthy of the beautiful cinematography. 

January 11, 2021

Mr. Toad’s Wild B-Movie Ride: Hell Comes to Frogtown

Poster - Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
Now Playing:
Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)

Pros: The gloriously looney script is peppered with tongue-in-cheek sight gags and one-liners; Roddy Piper strikes the right serio-comic note as a clueless, reluctant “hero”; Impressive mutant-frog creature effects.
Cons: The action lags for long stretches as the protagonists interact with Frogtown’s oddball inhabitants.

According to my impeccable source (yeah, Wikipedia), the modest frog is a miracle of adaptation. They’ve been around for millions of years, and in that time have developed into over 6000 species that inhabit almost every area of the world, from the tropics to subarctic regions.

They thrive on land and in water, and some have expanded their repertoire by living underground or in trees. They’re mostly carnivores, but in a pinch, select species have gone omnivorous or even vegetarian.

For all their adaptability, frogs are also the amphibian equivalent of the canary-in-a-coal-mine, their falling numbers pointing to accelerating climate and environmental disruption. In just a few decades, over a hundred species have become extinct, and a third of all species are threatened.

The humble, homely frog might not seem a likely candidate for inspiring awe and dread, but in the fractured minds of the people who brought us Hell Comes to Frogtown, they’re not only deliriously quirky, they’re the co-inheritors of a post-apocalyptic earth.

Commander Toty and his war wagon, Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
Frogs the world over are ready to go to war over the loss of their habitat.

The movie starts out with an expository bang, so to speak, as a female narrator intones against a backdrop of nuclear mushroom clouds rising into the atmosphere:

“In the latter days of the 20th century, there arose a difference of opinion. The leading experts of the time believed a nuclear war would only involve the exchange of a few bombs, and the suitably horrified combatants would sit down at the peace table. They were wrong. In just 10 days, 10 thousand years of human progress was virtually blown to dust. 10 years later, they tried again.”

(That sounds about right to me. I can easily imagine some demented real-life Dr. Strangeloves thinking, “we can win this thing with the judicious use of a few tactical nukes,” and then the whole balloon going up.)

As a result, much of the world’s male population has been decimated (presumably also by the war leading up to the nuclear exchange), and most of the rest of humanity has been rendered infertile by radiation. Enter war veteran Sam Hell (Roddy Piper), who has not only miraculously survived, but has kept his male potency, having left a number of pregnant women in his wake as he drifts through the barren wastelands.

However, Sam’s legendary exploits have gotten him into hot water, as the beginning of the movie finds him being harshly interrogated by Devlin (William Smith), a grizzled member of the provisional government. Devlin accuses Sam of multiple counts of sexual assault (including Devlin’s own daughter), and is about to de-man the drifter with a broken bottle when two members of the government’s MedTech unit step in.

MedTech is an all-female branch devoted to repopulating the country. The women, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, are clearly large and in charge, and very interested in taking Sam into custody.

As Devlin makes a move toward Sam with the bottle, MedTech officer Spangle (Sandahl Bergman) grabs him and executes a neat judo flip, leaving the man spluttering on the floor. Ushering Sam out the door, the senior officer looks over her shoulder and sneers at Devlin, “you’re still here?”

William Smith and Sandahl Bergman in Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988
"I pre-soak my uniforms in baking soda. Why do you ask?"

Sam’s relief at being rescued from forced sterilization via jagged glass turns to consternation when he finds out what MedTech plans to do with him. He’s outfitted with an electronic male chastity belt stamped “Gov’t Property” to prevent any unauthorized extracurricular activities.

MedTech has learned that a number of fertile women have been kidnapped by Commander Toty (Brian Frank), leader of the mutant frog people, and are being held in Frogtown, a settlement located deep within the mutant reservation. (The mutants, unfortunate byproducts of radiation, are derisively referred to as “greeners” by the humans, and have been rounded up and made to live on desolate reservations.)

The plan is for Spangle, MedTech soldier Centinella (Cec Verrell) and Sam to infiltrate Frogtown and rescue the women so that Sam can do his patriotic duty and start making new citizens.

At a rest stop on their journey to Frogtown, Sam excuses himself to urinate in the woods, and not being the sharpest pencil in the box, takes off running. His government issue jockstrap starts beeping, and he quickly discovers that if he strays too far from the homing device in Spangle’s earring, he gets a shock to his privates. Worse yet, if he’s so bold as to try to remove it, an explosive charge will go off (which doesn’t make much sense given the value of the cargo, but we’ll let that go for now).

Ironically, in order to infiltrate Frogtown, Sam, who is on a short electronic leash, poses as a slave trader leading pretend slave girl Spangle around on a chain. As they conduct their mission, the pair encounter a diverse cast of characters, including Arabella (Kristi Somers), a mutant exotic dancer and their undercover contact; Looney Tunes (Rory Calhoun), a human prospector and long-lost friend of Sam’s who has discovered uranium underneath the town; Leroy (Cliff Bemis), the fez-wearing proprietor of Frogtown’s saloon; Bull (Nicholas Worth), Commander Toty’s brutish enforcer; and the Commander himself, who has a fetish for human slave girls (and who delights in having his captives perform the Dance of the Three Snakes for his private amusement… don’t ask!)

Saloon scene from Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988
"Saloon keeper, pond water for all my friends!"

Sam and Spangle spend a lot of screen time interacting with this oddball cast of characters, trying to figure out how to free the captive women. Along the way they discover a dastardly plot to smuggle guns into Frogtown in exchange for uranium, which leads to a scaled down Mad Max-type war-wagon chase in the desert and a showdown with not one but two arch-villains.

When I first watched Hell Comes to Frogtown years ago, I was somewhat put off by the dialogue-driven scenes that considerably slowed the action down for lengthy stretches. With subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate how clever and subversively tongue-in-cheek it is.

The whole film, especially the interludes between action sequences, is rich with bits of business, background details and sight gags that create as believable a world as any B-movie featuring post-apocalyptic matriarchs squaring off against mutant humanoid frogs could hope to achieve.

At first glance, the MedTechers in their starched white uniforms would seem to be the unambiguous good guys/gals, having saved Sam from a fate worse than death. But as he’s being tested and fitted for his electronic jockstrap at MedTech HQ, we’re treated to close-ups of the “inspirational” posters that decorate the offices and labs; one quotes Genesis: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.”

It soon becomes clear that the MedTech repopulation mission is for the express purpose of raising armies to wage new wars. The MedTechers are not self-sacrificing Florence Nightingales -- they’re remorseless bureaucrats and self-styled patriots dedicated to getting the country back on its feet so it can go another round or two.

The rugged van that Spangle, Sam and Centinella drive into mutant territory is emblematic of MedTech’s yin-yang of hardcore power dressed in feminine trappings. It’s bright pink, but it sports a lethal machine gun on its roof. Beware of MedTech: they may be “skirts” as Devlin contemptuously calls them, but they pack a mean punch.

Cec Verrell as Centrinella in Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988
MedTech advisory #124: Try to avoid eating lead.

On the flip side, the Frogtown mutants are more than just cardboard cutout villains -- they’re as varied and individualistic as the humans, perhaps more so. As the unfortunate byproducts of nuclear war, they’ve been dealt a very bad hand, herded onto barren reservations and denied guns and other means to defend themselves (sound familiar?).

In spite of the harsh treatment, some, like Arabella, are willing to work with the humans (even to the point of developing a crush on Sam), and some, like Commander Toty and his henchman Bull, hate the “flatlips” (as they call humans) with a passion. And then there’s Leroy the saloon keeper, who will deal with anybody, mutant or human, who can pay hard cash.

Effects artist Steve Yang’s frog mutants (which reportedly only cost $12,000) are truly inspired, detailed creations that serve to underscore the characters’ unique personalities and traits. They range from figures that could be mistaken for human from a distance (mostly guards and assorted minions), to half-human-half-frog hybrids like Arabella, to Bull, Leroy and Toty, who sport 100%-certified frog heads on humanoid bodies.

The movie is also full of background details and sight gags that bring Frogtown to life. For no discernable reason, Leroy wears an Egyptian fez as if he’s been transported from a Casablanca set in some alternate universe. One of his customers is seen briefly reading a copy of “The Frog Prince.” Slave auctions are conducted with the locals’ favorite currency, the “lilly”. And Arabella proudly sports a showgirl headdress, feather boa and fishnet stockings as if she were the most beautiful exotic dancer on earth.

Kristi Somers as Arabella, Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988
Arabella does her best Marlene Dietrich imitation.

The grizzled prospector Looney Tunes played by Rory Calhoun is perfectly comfortable mixing with the mutants, but he, like his friend Sam, is an outcast. The mutants’ tolerance for Looney is no doubt helped by the fact that he has discovered uranium right under their webbed feet, which has given them the means to procure guns and other luxuries like tricked-out war wagons.

Calhoun, who in real life was the manliest of men, having been a boxer, truck driver, lumberjack, and cowboy, was naturally cast in westerns and action pictures throughout his acting career (although occasionally he did make appearances in romantic comedies like How to Marry a Millionaire).

Frogtown was one of his last films, and he plays it to the hilt, emoting in his final scene surrounded by a bevy of beautiful actresses. For all of his 80+ movie and TV credits, he will always be remembered as Farmer Vincent (“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters”) from the horror-comedy cult classic Motel Hell (1980).

Rory Calhoun as Looney Tunes in Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988
"What?! You mean to tell me Farmer Vincent's jerky isn't USDA certified?"

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper started out his pro wrestling career as a “heel” in the old World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE). As his popularity soared in the 1980s, taking his wild man act and body slams to action movies must have seemed like a no-brainer.

With both Hell Comes to Frogtown and John Carpenter’s They Live coming out the same year, 1988 was a watershed for Piper’s acting career. Like Calhoun’s Motel Hell, They Live is the authentic cult hit for which Rowdy Roddy will always be remembered -- “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Although Frogtown is not nearly as well-known or cherished, it’s still a very worthy companion to They Live. Piper was not a polished actor, and his broad, outrageous wrestling persona bursts out more than once, but Sam’s boyish, clueless charm is a perfect complement to Spangle's steely resolve.

Bergman, trained as a dancer, parlayed her physicality and presence into the signature role of Valeria in Conan the Barbarian (1982). Naturally, for the next decade she was typecast in femme fatale action roles: She (1984), Red Sonja (1985), and Frogtown. As Spangle, she gets to show off her fighting prowess in a scene or two, but through most of the movie she is a serious, mission-driven bureaucrat and foil to the childlike and impulsive Sam. It’s fun to watch the two gradually warming to each other as they realize each has skills and attitudes that will help them survive.

Sandahl Bergman and Roddy Piper in Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988
"So tell me Roddy, what's Hulk Hogan really like?"

Fans of the Mad Max franchise may spot a major plot element that Fury Road shares with Frogtown -- the mission to free a group of nubile young women from the clutches of an evil post-apocalyptic warlord. Given the near-universal acclaim that Fury Road has received, the following is going to be controversial to say the least.

Although Fury Road is a great looking film and the production design is world class, I find Frogtown, made for a fraction of a fraction of Fury’s budget, to be far more enjoyable, with more heart and soul in its little webbed finger than Fury has in its whole bloated, mega-budget body.

Fury Road is packed with great, indelible images, but it takes off running from the first few seconds and hardly lets up through its way-too lengthy runtime. The visuals and action come so fast and furious that neither the audience or the characters have time to catch a breath.

On the other hand Frogtown takes its time -- some would say too much -- to ground its characters in more than just cool costumes and makeup, create a loopy, yet oddly believable world, and let its protagonists play off each other in a serio-comical way. In contrast, Fury is as grim and relentless as death.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out Frogtown here or here. And let me know in the comments if you think I’m insane or not for preferring it over the Academy Award-winning Fury Road.

Brian Frank as Commander Toty, Hell Comes to Frogtown, 1988
Commander Toty is awaiting your verdict.