Thursday, 11 June 2020

The Vampire Doll

Thirst Blood

The Vampire Doll
aka Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu
aka Legacy Of Dracula

Japan 1970 Directed by Michio Yamamoto
TohoArrow Films Blu Ray Zone B

The Vampire Doll (aka Legacy Of Dracula) is the first of a loose trilogy of films in the same spirit, perhaps, that the Clint Eastwood Dollars trilogy actually share no common characters but go for a common atmosphere and deal with similar subjects. At least that’s my understanding of things as I’ve never, until this moment, seen any of these particular vampire movies before... Arrow’s Blu Ray set from a couple of years ago is definitely the way to go with these, though, if you want to see uncut versions with a decent transfer... unless you happen to live in Japan, of course. I would guess.

The other two films following on from this, in quick succession by the same director, which form what is now being marketed as The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, are called Lake Of Dracula and Evil Of Dracula but it’s quite apparent from watching this one and hearing Kim Newman describing the other two in a nice interview on the first disc of this trilogy set by Arrow, is that none of these films have anything to do with Dracula. I was surely being naive thinking I was buying Japanese Dracula movies but at least they are, kinda, Japanese vampire movies so I’ll settle for that. Even though the vampiric properties of the titular ‘vampire doll’ in this first film are only tentative in that respect.

Despite the collective name for the trilogy, it has to be said that this film barely scrapes by in the ‘bloodthirsty’ department apart from one scene of typically Japanese over-the-top arterial spray in the film’s final scene, as one of the characters gets their jugular sliced with a sharp knife. Instead, the film goes for a shot of good old, quite western style gothic atmosphere, the likes of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an old Roger Corman AIP movie or, indeed, a Hammer Horror film of the time. It certainly seems to share a more sedate pacing and softly, softly approach to the horror of the subject matter in its genetic make-up.

The film opens with a particularly atmospheric scene as the person who seems to be set up to be the main hero of the piece is driven in a taxi through a heavy thunderstorm at night, talking to the driver as it’s established he’s been away and is coming to visit his lover Yûko (played by Yukiko Kobayashi from Destroy All Monsters) at what is, it turns out, a sinister mansion she shares with her parents. Alas, after he arrives there and is attacked by the man-servant Genzô, the girl’s mother breaks it to him that Yûko died a couple of weeks earlier in a car crash. He stays the night but, during his nocturnal investigations around the grounds of the house, he meets the reanimated corpse of Yûko who pounces on him.

Cut to his sister, Keiko, waking from a nightmare of, presumably, something similar to what we have just seen play out. She is played here by Kayo Matsuo who was in a fair few of Seijun Suzuki’s movies, not to mention entries in the Sleepy Eyes Of Death and Lone Wolf And Cub films... and TV versions of Zatoichi and The Water Margin. She and her ‘suitor’ Hiroshi are set up as the main protagonists who are investigating the disappearance of Keiko’s brother and, by default, Yûko’s death. Akira Nakao plays Hiroshi who was, himself, in one of the Zatoichi TV episodes, not to mention numerous of the ‘post Showa era’ Godzilla films.

When they arrive at the same sinister building that we saw Keiko’s brother go to at the start of the picture, they also arrange, by a deceit, to stay the night... where various spooky things happen. The next day they investigate further in a local town before both returning independently to the house and getting themselves into more trouble. The vampire line which the film has been taking kind of strays back into Japanese ghost story territory at this point and, though the term vampire is used, it’s clear that the undead and vicious body of Yûko has merely been hypnotised to rise after her death and just wants to kill people, for the most part. Oh ,well, that’s alright then? The film’s links to the vampirism suggested by the title is very tenuous if you ask me.

However, what the film has going for it far outweighs the silliness of the plot line and so this one is well worth a watch for horror lovers...

For a start, it looks incredibly good. Not just in terms of the transfer by Arrow but in terms of the wonderful shot compositions by the director. He does tend to split shots up into sections and use his actors by having them placed inside those lines and plains. In the interior shots, this is fairly easy and the compositions are, for the most part, fairly centred and, quite often, split into thirds. However, he also has some great splits and patterns on exterior shots too.

For instance, there’s a shot of the head and shoulders of Keiko and Hiroshi facing camera and we see, in the distance, a small figure walking behind them. When he reaches the middle point of the screen in the area made by the split where their upper bodies create a natural gap, he stops and we see it is Genzô, perfectly framed in his own section between the two of them. Or sometimes, the director will split the exterior screen into a one third and two thirds shot... as he does with the vertical line of Yûko’s grave marker going from the bottom to top of the screen with Keiko framed in the left third and Hiroshi in the larger area to the right of shot. As I said... it’s a good looking film.

Another thing he does is occasionally use what I will describe as slightly angled, almost but not quite birds eye views of the characters in certain moments... to give you a full overview of the placement of a person within the environment.

There’s also an amazing visual moment in the early stages of the picture where a flashback occurs and it is seen with what I can only say film stock which has either been filtered or treated so it looks like a blue/grey graduated effect. Eerily done and I don’t remember quite seeing this particular treatment done on film before. It’s quite astonishing and I’ll have to see if he does it in either of the next two movies in this ‘trilogy’, over the next week or two.

Overall, then, the atmosphere of ‘something not quite right’ in the film is palpable and interesting and it’s re-enforced by a quite baroque, minimally spotted harpsichord style score by composer Riichirô Manabe, who composed the music for one of my favourite kaiju eigas, Godzilla VS Hedorah. The score for The Bloodthirsty Trilogy is (or at least was) available on a CD from Japan and I can thoroughly recommend this one.

So yeah, not much more I want to say about The Vampire Doll... nice acting, some gorgeous mise en scène, fantastic music, beautifully chill atmosphere to counter the ridiculous story development and a gory demise for one of the film’s human villains in the final scene. A scene which, incidentally, carries on in silence as the credits roll on a bleak shot of the film’s survivors in much the way a late 1960s/early 1970s Hammer movie would linger on a real downer of an ending. Not quite what I was expecting from the film but I’m certainly looking forward to watching the other two in this ‘unofficial sequence’ very soon.

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