One of the newest genre heroes on the scene, director Addison Heath has developed a unique, genre-bending style through a series of acclaimed efforts that traded on past traditions in addition to offering a bleak, remorseful undercurrent. Bringing aboard regular cinematographer Jakupi to the directors’ chair with him, the two craft their most accomplished and stylistic effort to date.

The Viper’s Hex is screening at the 19th Japan Film Fest Hamburg

A broken and damaged woman, hooker Kiyo (Saya Minami, from “Mondo Yakuza”) finds herself pregnant after a misguided night of passion that angers her pimp Tetsuya (Yoji Yamada, from “Rokudenashi”) and orders an abortion. Considering this an event to further her own torturous existence, she finds no solace in anyone else other than her eternal spirit guardian she calls The Viper (Kaori Kawabuchi), which has always been around her life. Pushed to the breaking point by her past tragedies and the bleak outcome she faces in her normal life, she slowly finds the spirit pushing her into ever more violent means of hoping to rectify her life.

For the most part, this one works really nicely. The most glaring fact is the technical skills at the forefront of the film. Heath and Jakupi work in tandem to create a string of stirring and visually-impressive sequences, from the opening shots of her with her charge that sets the film in motion being shot through the neon lights alongside the revelling New Years partygoers, to her delirious trip through the city, looking to escape the spirit. As the interactions with her patients take place in darkened rooms with bright neon lights held inside the room, they are that much more visually impressive against the more traditional elements at play in the rest of the film. With the first half detailing the cold, oppressive cityscapes as her life is in an ever-more downward spiral, this correlates nicely to how her loneliness is captured. Once she’s oAddisut in the snow with her new beau, it turns into a much brighter and more engaging endeavour, as the tone lightens and she has a potential for happiness that is ruined by her bleak outcome that’s all the more obvious, considering Heath’s resume.

Most of this is aided by the remorseless atmosphere featuring her troubled condition. As Kiyo, Saya Minami delivers a gripping, powerhouse performance. Not only is her backstory really traumatic, but her present life is in no better shape, since everyone seems to be against her, from her oppressive pimp to charges that want nothing to do with her. These elements bring us to her side early and extremely effectively, forcing us to want to see her get her dues in order, to sort out her troubles before they corrupt her even more.

As her pimp Tetsuya, Yoji Yamada is truly vicious and despicable. Controlling, violent and unreasonable, how she got involved with this individual means that she becomes all the more heroic for trying to get away. Thankfully, this occurs rather early on and it all becomes resolved, but being the main resource behind her problems goes a long way towards explaining her behavior. Once it becomes obvious how her spirit guardian is influencing her, this one goes from bleak to dark really quickly as it one turns into a horror film rather nicely with her final revenge out in the woods.

If the film has any failings, it comes from its horror trappings. Frankly, for most genre fans, it doesn’t have enough to really satisfy as this doesn’t play as one, for the most part. As Heath and Jakupi are far more concerned with putting Kiyo through the drama of her lifestyle and her past traumas, the feeling one gets is more of a dark drama and that’s a bit of a problem. There’s a problem sustaining any kind of dreadful tone or atmosphere here with the spirit hardly getting involved until the end and making the pacing seem glacial at times. Although Kiyo’s plight is tragic, keeping the spirit off-screen for so long to deal with these issues doesn’t make it seem like a genre effort. It also doesn’t hurt that the titular spirit looks awful, leaving it’s few scenes as a positive. The look of a kabuki player with snake-eye lenses doesn’t inspire fear at all and the scenes featuring her are rife with laughter rather than terror. Rife with some ropy special effects work during the finale, the film really does fall short during it’s supposed genre setups.

Even though this one readily falters at it’s chosen genre, that’s not a bad thing, with the rest of the film proving to be quite a fun ride. “The Viper’s Hex” is a quite easy to recommend for those who enjoy this kind of work based on Heath’s other works, but genre fans looking for another effort in that style should heed caution.