Monday, October 24, 2011

Vampire Doll (Japan, 1970)

Vampire Doll -- for enemies of brevity also knows as Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll -- is the first of a trio of vampire films produced by Japan’s venerable Toho Company during the early 1970s, each of which was directed by Michio Yamamoto and co-written by Ei Ogawa. These films have come to be known as the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy”, although the links between them are more thematic and stylistic than arising from any connective story elements.

The story in this case begins with Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) arriving at the spooky, remotely located mansion of the Nonomura family with the intention of paying a visit upon his fiancé Yuko (Ukiko Kobayashi). Unfortunately, Yuko’s equally spooky and remote mom (Yoko Minakaze) informs him that, during his absence on business, Yuko has died in a car accident. However, during his night spent at the mansion, the grief stricken Sagawa has an unexpected encounter with Yuko, though she does seem to not quite be herself.

Skip forward a week, and Sagawa’s sister Keiko (Gate of Flesh’s Kayo Matsuo) arrives at the Nonomura home with her boyfriend Hiroshi (Akira Nakao), having not heard from her brother since his departure. Mrs. Nonomura tells Keiko and Hiroshi that Sagawa left after that first evening, but after finding evidence to the contrary, the two decide to fake car trouble and stick around to Scooby-Doo the situation out. In the process, they stumble upon all kinds of ghostly goings on, as well as the requisite dark family secrets, before finally coming face to face with the spectral, bloodthirsty Yuko herself.

Though Japanese folklore is not without its fair share of blood drinking critters (the Kappa, for example, is said to suck the blood of an animal out through its anus!), the idea of the vampire as an undead human with a taste for the red stuff appears to be one wholly imported from the West. Because of this, Vampire Doll to some extent comes across as a catalog of transplanted tropes from European and American gothic horror films, with those tropes given novelty by their placement within a Japanese milieu. These include everything from the Nonomura’s sinister deaf mute servant, to the ceaseless “dark and stormy night” ambience, to the Nonomura house itself with all of its cobweb covered tchotchkes (among which, in the most blood-curdling touch of all, appear to be a couple of Hummel figurines). This last strains credulity enough that the filmmakers felt duty bound to have it remarked upon in the film, with Hiroshi at one point mentioning that the mansion is “an authentic foreign-style residence”.

That said, Vampire Doll quite obviously does not hold itself to all of the rules of Western vampire films. For instance, going by those rules, it’s difficult to say exactly what Yuko is. She slashes the necks of her victims with a knife before drinking their blood, rather than biting them, and, if I understood the third act reveal correctly, she is meant to be under some type of state of hypnosis. Whatever the case, though, there’s no denying that Yuko -- with her blank, iridescent eyes and unearthly smile -- is creepy as fuck. Yamamoto most excels in creating a horrific atmosphere when she’s on screen, and never fails to highlight her presence in the most disturbing manner possible.

Undermining these legitimately unsettling elements within Vampire Doll are those others that fall decidedly within the realm of high camp, chief among them being the comically overwrought performance of Kayo Matsuo as Keiko. Cushing excepted, it’s generally true that the protagonists of horror films tend to be their least interesting characters, usually serving as exemplars of the fact that, while virtue perhaps makes one ideally equipped to battle the forces of evil, it also tends to render one something of a dullard. Unfortunately, so outmatched is Keiko that she can’t even face up to her evil battling duties, and instead leaves all the heavy lifting to Hiroshi while she engages in all manner of bug-eyed, “feets don’t fail me now” histrionics. On top of that, Riichiro Manabe’s harpsichord heavy score tends to oversell things by half, and as a result fairs poorly in the inevitable comparisons to James Bernard’s work in Hammer’s Dracula films, which are an obvious influence here.

In other aspects, though, Vampire Doll measures up to its Western inspirations quite nicely, thanks in no small part to the scrupulous production design of Yoshifumi Honda and the ornate Tohoscope compositions of cinematographer Kazutami Hara. Also working in its favor is a hysterical pace that sees all its spook show trappings crammed into a terse 70 minutes. Once you’re dumped out the other end of this frantic spook ride, the impression your left with is that of a balance of genuine scares and tongue-in-cheek “boo” moments of the type ideal for low-investment Halloween viewing, best savored between mouthfuls of candy and answering the call of the demons at the front door. All in all, a nice, mildly exotic alternative for those not up to the umpteenth viewing of House on Haunted Hill.

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