Vampire Doll (1970)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Vampire Doll is unashamedly derivative. It has a similar vibe to the House of Hammer television series, which isn’t a bad thing. There are also echoes of Roger Corman’s classic Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (made for American International Pictures in the early 1960s), particularly Tomb of Ligeia (1964), which clearly shares some themes. The aesthetic influence of Jean Rollin also makes itself known, but with the conspicuous absence of any erotic elements.

It’s not actually a vampire film at all. Sure, they call the moribund maiden a ‘vampire’ and she’s obsessed with blood-letting by slashing throats. But this is explained as stemming from a childhood fascination with the ostentatious scar at her mother’s throat, apparently evidence of a failed suicide bid. I don’t wish to spoil the reveal too much here, but the plot reads more like a giallo, with a backstory involving the legacy of mass-murder and molestation, during which Yûko (Yukiko Kobayashi) is conceived. The seemingly supernatural elements are explained away as a form of highly effective mesmerism and appears to be a loose reworking of Poe’s short story The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case, first published in The American Review, 1845.

Coincidentally, the last Japanese horror film I reviewed at Frame Rated, Cure (1997), also featured mesmerism as a prominent plot point…

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Perhaps the most obvious visual quote is the young woman wearing white seen standing near a suit of armour in a gothed-up corridor—straight out of Mario Bava’s hugely influential Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966). Having said that, director Michio Yamamoto begins to assert his own style, which has an Eastern elegance and often makes good use of inventive framing and a few disconcerting jump cuts. Vampire Doll was just his second feature but displays the confidence of an already competent director, which isn’t surprising as he began his career as assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on Throne of Blood (1957) and worked with Kihachi Okamoto on several films before making his directorial debut with Yaju no Fukkatsu (1969), a Japanese version of crime drama The Brothers Rico (1957).

Vampire Doll opens with Kazuhiko (Atsuo Nakamura) visiting Yûko, his fiancé, after an absence of six months. On arrival, he’s assaulted by Genzô, a deaf mute ‘butler’ and is then coolly informed by Yûko’s mother (Yôko Minakaze) that his betrothed is dead. Understandably, he’s shocked and finds this hard to believe so, when he hears sobbing in the night, begins to suspect she’s being held against her will. When he later spies her from his bedroom window, wondering the night, he’s convinced foul play is afoot.

He finds her, at her graveside, where she begs him to kill her. We’re just 15-minutes in at this point when a rather disconcerting edit introduces Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) suddenly waking with a gasp, as if from the nightmare we’ve just witnessed. It turns out she’s Kazuhiko’s sister and is convinced something bad has happened. With the aid of her fiancé, she sets out to investigate…

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The interiors are deliberately westernised, but beautifully lit and photographed by Kazutami Hara. Kayo Matsuo is the best thing about the film and holds the whole thing together with her central performance as Keiko. I remember her as the deadly Supreme Ninja from Shogun Assassin (1980). The rest of the cast also do a good enough job, but I wasn’t convinced by Akira Nakao, as Keiko’s fiancé, because he seems more suited to comedy… and funny this ain’t. What lets Vampire Doll down is its unrelenting mournful morbidity. It lacks the grand drama and verve of Hammer’s better vampire movies, that it seems so desperate to emulate, and it never quite gels. Vampire Doll has a lot of good points but doesn’t end up being a good film.

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bloodthirsty trilogy - lake of dracula

Lake of Dracula (1971)

3 out of 5 stars

Vampire Doll may have carried the sombre tone of more traditional Japanese ghost stories, but with Lake of Dracula director Michio Yamamoto wholeheartedly embraced the 1970s vampire fever gripping western cinema. By now, Hammer had already made half a dozen of its legendary Dracula movies and established the rules of the genre.

The opening sequence with its unreal, matte-painted sunset sky is a dreamlike fairy-tale in which a little girl is lured away from her friends in pursuit of her runaway pooch, Leo. At an isolated gothic house, she finds an old man, a deathly white girl and a menacing stranger (Shin Kishida) who drools blood. Years later, Akiko (Midori Fujita) dismisses the memory as a childish nightmare and has all but forgotten the experience, though she still has a dog named Leo.

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The memories reawaken when a big Rococo-style coffin is delivered to the local boathouse. The keeper of the boathouse Kyûsaku, is played by Kaku Takashina—whom we met as Genzô in the first of this trilogy—and there are a few more familiar faces too. Just like Hammer films, Toho studios used a steadfast ensemble of actors. The kindly Kyûsaku begins to change and act strangely, becoming obsessed with the fancy casket which he hides, rather ineffectually, behind a screen of fishing rods and degenerates into the equivalent of Dracula’s henchman, Renfield.

These days we are used to seeing American re-makes of innovative J Horror films like Ringu (1998) and Ju-on (2002), but back in the early 1970s Japan was looking to the west and leeching its culture from Europe and the USA. The 1960s had seen some spectacular economic growth as Japan pulled itself out of its post-war problems and made concerted efforts to compete internationally. Perhaps inspired by the export success of Britain’s Hammer Films, big studios like Toho, whose success had been built on the Godzilla series, started making films with an eye on foreign distribution.

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Lake of Dracula traces the Hammer franchise template and shares its mythos. Here the vampire (Shin Kishida) has definitely been taking notes and fashion tips from Christopher Lee, and we learn that the same methods of dispatch apply: stake through heart, fire, decapitation, etc.

These lakeside vampires can also choose to make another vampire by draining all their prey’s blood, or simply snare a victim in their thrall as a servant—it’s that Japanese fascination with mesmerism once more. Shin Kishida has a strong screen presence and utilises the same economy of movement that Lee employed to imply the power of the vampire. I remember him as one of the three Masters of Death from Shogun Assassin (1980).

Again, the film relies heavily on its strong female leads: Midori Fujita and Sanae Emi, playing sisters. They’re both very good but have surprisingly scant filmographies. This time the male lead is taken by Chôei Takahashi who turns in a solid and engaging performance as Dr. Saeki, Akiko’s fiancé. He’s enjoyed a long film career and remains a familiar face on Japanese television.

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Lake of Dracula may be a blatant pastiche, but it’s a damned good one that can sit comfortably alongside its Hammer counterparts. It manages to reinvent the Dracula idea for a contemporary ’70s setting, something that Hammer emulates the following year with Dracula AD 1972. I particularly enjoyed the ’70s colour palette and fashions—a much more tasteful and subdued style in Japan than Europe. The whole film turns out to be a bit of a visual feast. Yamamoto has a good eye for strong compositions and is never let down by cinematographer Rokurô Nishigaki who clearly has a love for, and solid understanding, of his craft. They never miss an opportunity to make a shot more interesting, whether using high or low angles, pushing the depth of field, or shooting through flames from within a fireplace. Overall, this is a much more rewarding experience than Vampire Doll.

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Evil of Dracula (1974)

4 out of 5 stars

The upward trend continues with the final, and by far the most accomplished, instalment of the so-called ‘Bloodthirsty Trilogy’. Evil of Dracula takes all the plus points from the previous two films and throws some genuinely fresh ideas into the mix. Screenwriter Ei Ogawa (who had a hand in all three) again teams up with Masaru Takesue, who co-wrote Lake of Dracula. Just like Lee repeatedly resurrected Dracula, so Shin Kishida returns as the vampire, and again, you can have fun spotting some of the same ensemble cast popping up in different roles.

By 1974, Hammer’s Dracula franchise was losing its bite and, ironically, they were looking to the east for fresh blood, teaming up with the Chinese film company Shaw Brothers to make the kung fu vampire fusion Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Contrary to this, all three Bloodthirsty films are shot using locations that could pass as European when judged by architecture and furnishings and Evil of Dracula remains consciously western in its approach.

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Cinematographer Kazutami Hara returns, cleverly using naturalistic bounced lighting to create painterly tones even more luscious than those seen in Vampire Doll. He would later collaborate with Akira Kurosawa on the photography for the visually arresting Dreams (1990). Yamamoto’s direction here is even more measured, assured and less showy.

His style has developed into something distinctive and less derivative, looking to the west whilst harking back to aesthetics found in classical Japanese culture. The presence of diaphanous negligees and brief nudity could be attributed to an expression of the transgressive Ukiyo sensibilities of the Edo period, just as easily as the eroticism of 1970’s Hammer films. The traditional Japanese concept of triadic, asymmetrical, composition can be detected in many of the shots—indeed, there are noticeable examples in all three films. This is a way of achieving a sense of depth, without using vanishing-point perspective, by placing objects in the immediate foreground to emphasise the middle space between this and the more distant background.

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We join the narrative with the arrival of Professor Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) at an isolated Girls’ School where he’ll be the new psychology teacher. He’s immediately immersed in some macabre goings on when he learns that the Principal’s wife has just been killed in a car crash. Her corpse is laid to rest in the rather well-stocked wine cellar where, in keeping with local custom, it will remain for 7 days while prayers are offered for the body’s revival.

He obviously hasn’t seen the ‘prequel’, otherwise he would recognise the Principal (Shin Kishida), who tells him that he’ll be immediately promoted to Principal as his replacement. That night he has a nightmare reminiscent of Jonathan Harker’s experience of falling asleep in the library of Dracula’s castle. He’s attacked by a beautiful but bloodless woman in flowing white burial gowns, her alabaster complexion based on the simple white masks worn in traditional Japanese Noh theatre. His suspicion drives him to investigate the coffin in the cellar where he recognises the dead wife (Mika Katsuragi) as the vampire from his ‘dream’.

Then the young students begin to fall ill with a mysterious malady that leaves them pale and with inexplicable puncture marks on their breasts. Shiraki befriends the school physician, Dr. Shimomura (Kunie Tanaka), who lets on that the last teacher to fill the post is now residing in a local insane asylum. Well, without spoiling the surprises too much, he also fills us in on local folklore surrounding a strange oversized casket unearthed in a local cemetery. He tells of an ancient foreigner tortured for his Christianity when such beliefs were outlawed in Japan. The backstory is inventive and actually adds some new material to vampire mythology as well as ingeniously bridging the western and eastern traditions. This is the hauntological mainstay of gothic fiction, where echoes of the past continue to resound in the present.

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The entire cast are all more than competent and Shin Kishida has really settled into his vampire role, creating a character with depth, not just a monster. The stillness is there, but laced with a brooding feral energy that erupts into short bouts of snarling fury when roused into action. He presents a sinister presence throughout, but luckily for our protagonists, is not as effective as his manner and bearing might suggest. Finally, he even manages to evoke some genuine pathos, something that rarely occurs with his contemporary western counterparts.

When Shiraki visits the asylum to talk with the insane teacher, Shimazaki (Susugu Katayama) we see that he has a scar just like Yûko’s molested mother in Vampire Doll. I’m sure this was ‘back-engineered’ with hindsight, but the explanation for this odd little detail raises a nice conundrum. It suggests a new interpretation to what may have happened in the first of the trilogy, taking us full circle and almost pulling the three films together into an arc of some sort. But not quite. This doesn’t stop the trilogy being a very worthwhile triple-bill, with the final instalment being by far the strongest and the one that would bear several re-watchings—I’d recommend it to fans of Hammer and Corman films looking for something a bit different to add to their collection.

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bloodthirsty trilogy

Blu-ray Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements. The new Blu-ray 1080p HD presentation from Arrow Video is most welcome. It really brings out the subtleties of the beautifully balanced colour palettes in the Bloodthirsty Trilogy. The fine details and textures are as clear as they can be on all three films, which isn’t surprising as they’ve been carefully transferred from the original film elements. Some of the darker areas have resolved to flat black in some frames, but I think this may well have been a graphic decision during filming to allow some strong formal compositions, for the darkness to remain an impenetrable mystery…
  • Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio. This brings out the sound design, which is very effective for the most part, despite occasional blurts of some pretty kooky and incongruous ‘jazz’.
  • Newly translated English subtitles.
  • Kim Newman on The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, a new video appraisal by the critic and writer. Unfortunately, there are no audio commentaries. There is not a great deal of accessible information about these films, so it would’ve been great to have someone who knew a bit about them explain some of the subtleties and tell us more about some of the lesser known cast, and perhaps a few nuggets about the production. As partial compensation we do get a 16-minute talk from critic Kim Newman, who’s always erudite and enthusiastic. He gives us some of the background and context of the productions, but there are times when he’s almost an apologist for the trilogy’s appropriation of western vampire tropes and tells us their appeal may be limited to the Dracula ‘completist’… even though ‘our Dracula’ is present in name only!
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin.
  • First pressing only: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp.

Cast & Crew – ‘The Vampire Doll’

director: Michio Yamamoto.
writers: Ei Ogawa & Hiroshi Nagano
starring: Kayo Matsuo, Yukiko Kobayashi & Yoko Minazake.

Cast & Crew – ‘Lake of Dracula’

director: Michio Yamamoto.
writers: Ei Ogawa & Masura Takesue (based on characters created by Bram Stoker).
starring: Midori Fujita, Sanae Emi & Choei Takahashi.

Cast & Crew – ‘Evil of Dracula’

director: Michio Yamamoto.
writers: Ei Ogawa & Masura Takesue (based on characters created by Bram Stoker).
starring: Toshio Kurosawa, Mariko Mochizuki, Kunie Tanaka & Shin Kishida.