Nobuo Nakagawa is generally considered the father of the modern Japanese horror movie (J-horror). As such, his status in Japan is analogous to Mario Bava's in Italy and Terence Fisher's in Britain. All three directors burst onto the scene in the late-1950s/early-1960s after having labored in relative obscurity for decades, and their individual visual styles were so powerful that they basically reinvented the horror-genre traditions in their respective countries. (Personally, I think they also stand head-and-shoulders above their imitators, thanks to an intelligence, tastefulness, and humanism that they all shared.)
"Snake Woman's Curse" provides a decent introduction to Nakagawa's work and to what makes it special. The supernatural elements are treated ambiguously. (Are the ghosts real or the products of psychological guilt?) Nakagawa makes striking use of color, lighting, and especially darkness. There are hints of transcendence through death and entry into the afterlife. And there is ample evidence of Nakagawa's ambition to transcend the perceived limitations of a genre picture, with provocative commentary on capitalism and the exploitation of women: The plot concerns a family of peasants who return from beyond the grave to exact revenge on the family of silk merchants who wronged them.
Unfortunately, "Snake Woman's Curse" was one of Nakagawa's last feature films, and it was made several years after his peak. (Most fans and critics regard his 1959 "Yotsuya Ghost Story" and his mind-bending 1960 "Jigoku" as his masterpieces. Criterion already released "Jigoku" and apparently owns the rights to "Yotsuya Ghost Story," which desperately needs a release.) The supernatural aspects of "Snake Woman's Curse" are fairly conventional, which is not what one watches Nakagawa for. And the movie's moral point of view lacks subtlety, which makes it seem sentimental and didactic.
Nevertheless, Synapse Films are to be commended for making this film available and giving us a more complete picture of Nakagawa's career. And of course, they deserve a lot of praise for treating the film with so much respect. The transfer is a beauty, with incredibly vivid and vibrant colors -- which are essential to any Nakagawa film. It really is one of the best DVDs of a color Japanese film of this vintage that I've encountered. (It's probably the most pleasant surprise I've had since I bought Animeigo's equally wonderful DVD of Shiro Toyoda's "Portrait of Hell," which itself would make for a fantastic double-feature with "Snake Woman's Curse.") As far as extras go, there's some nice info about the film and Nakagawa's career via liner notes, poster galleries, and text-only screens. The only disappointment for me was the commentary, which was recorded by a film scholar, who tries to make the case that "Snake Woman's Curse" is actually a more important film in Nakagawa's career than most critics/fans believe. But apart from making a few fairly obvious points about the film's social message, he doesn't really say much. In fact, the commentary doesn't take up more than half of the film, and you have to fast-forward past the gaps several times. I think a video essay, like Criterion sometimes does, would have been far more effective.
All in all, if you're new to Nakagawa, "Snake Woman's Curse" is a good place to start, though you need to seek out "Jigoku" as well. This DVD, however, is an essential purchase for those who love and admire the work of the great masters of horror, like Nakagawa, Bava, Fisher, and Roger Corman.