Friday, March 2, 2012

Evil of Dracula (Japan, 1974)

Evil of Dracula is the third and final film in Toho’s mid 70s trio of western style vampire movies now known as the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy". I think it can be said at this point that the second film in the series, 1971’s Lake of Dracula, is officially “lost” -- meaning that, when I went to watch it, I found that I had either misplaced my copy or had never owned one in the first place. Hopefully future generations -- or perhaps me, with either my wallet or a more diligent eye -- will someday rectify this unhappy situation. Until then, we’ll all just have to make do with only referring back to my review of the trilogy’s initial entry, Vampire Doll.

Like Vampire Doll, Evil of Dracula is a vampire film with a contemporary setting, though it perhaps exploits even more than that first film the collision between the modern and the gothic, the urban and the rustic. Thus when our hero Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa), with his fashionably generous sideburns, collar length hair and flared trousers, arrives in the eerily quiet northern burg where he is to start his new position as psychology professor at an exclusive girls school, he is accompanied by a swingy jazz theme courtesy of composer Riichiro Manabe. Manabe, whose music for Vampire Doll jangled in not all the right ways, actually scores high marks throughout Evil, thanks to a score that fittingly combines skittery psychedelic guitars with more traditionally “spooky” instrumentation like organs and bells.

Shiraki’s uneasiness in his new surroundings is far from alleviated upon his arrival at the gloomy manse of the school’s principal (Shin Kishida), who wastes no time in informing him that the corpse of his recently dead wife is still lying in state in the cellar. Shiraki is further surprised when the principal tells him that he has chosen him to be his successor, and then insists that he spend the night so that the two men can get to know each other a little better. Not surprisingly, things take little time to get markedly creepier from there. Shiraki “dreams” that he is attacked by a pair of ghostly women, one a girl with a bloody wound on her chest and the other an older woman whom he later identifies as the principal’s deceased wife. Later, upon meeting a trio of girls who are roommates at one of the school’s ancient dormitories, he learns of a friend of theirs who has recently gone missing, and recognizes her from a picture as the other woman in his dream.

Fortuitously, the school’s doctor, Shimimura (Kunie Tanaka), is also an amateur scholar of the occult, as well as an enthusiastic compiler of all of the town’s most macabre folklore (where would horror films -- and horror film exposition -- be without such hyphenates?) Now convinced that his was no dream, Shiraki teams with Shimimura to get to the bottom of things, and it is not long before all signs point to the principal -- as well as to a mysterious white European who happened to wash up on the shores of the town some two hundred years previous. And, while Evil of Dracula is here giving an obvious tip of its hat to its western literary source, it isn’t all as you might expect. This Dracula, you see, was a devout man driven to renounce his faith by 17th century Japan’s criminalization of Christianity, which thus set him on the path to becoming a mad, blood-drinking demon. That’s right, y’all; Japan is claiming responsibility for Dracula, which back in the 80s probably would have made a lot of white people really furious.

Unfortunately, knowledge, while perhaps being power, does not prevent Shiraki’s young female charges from one by one falling victim to the principal’s evil charms. One such victim is Kyoko (Keiko Aramaki), who takes to her bed with a mysterious illness after receiving some even more mysterious puncture wounds on her left breast. Kyoko’s two roommates insist upon staying in the dorm and looking after her while the rest of the students go on vacation break, and Shiraki and Shimimura commit to guarding over them while they do. Thus do we end up with a large, suitably gothic and largely deserted creepy old building for the film’s final confrontation with Dracula’s titular evil to take place, as well as a dubiously sustainable supply of nubile innocents to provide the snacks.

It being a Toho film, it should come as no surprise that Evil of Dracula is technically well executed, and director Michio Yamamoto and cinematographer Kazutami Hara each bring a sure hand to the task of making it rich in both atmosphere and appearance. In fact, in contrast to the contemporary western films that appear to have influenced the trilogy, Evil of Dracula comes off as downright stately. It has neither the grittiness of AIP’s Count Yorga films or the cheesecake-y sexploitation trappings that Hammer was indulging in at the time to put it over (nor, thankfully, does it stoop to the ill-advised attempts at pandering to the “hip” youth market seen in the latter’s Dracula A.D. 1972). Even its few brief moments of nudity and eroticism come off as more artful than prurient, and by comparison a genteel exercise in tasteful restraint.

All of the above gives Evil of Dracula an enjoyably old fashioned quality that overrides somewhat its timely aspirations. It straight-facedly favors melodrama over action, concealing any proclivities toward intentional camp that might or might not have lurked behind the camera. And, despite a couple of gory moments, it studiously avoids cheap shocks, perhaps out of fear of upsetting the mannered atmosphere that it has so fussily strived to create. In place of that, we get more than a few strikingly poetic -- and very Japanese -- visual moments: the blood red rose in the foreground of one scene to suggest the principal’s malevolent omnipresence, the conspicuously aestheticized arrangement of the body of a young woman who has plunged to her death from one of the dormitories’ upper landings, and more.

If this formalism sounds like it might prevent Evil of Dracula from being fun, then I am simply describing it wrong. The film is a joyously seamless piece of genre entertainment, largely free of the tonal hiccups that made Vampire Doll less so. Yamamoto -- along with Manabe and co-writer Ei Ogawa -- clearly learned from his experience as the series went on, and his resulting confidence and familiarity with the territory all ends up on the screen to our benefit. Of course, the same might possibly be said for Lake of Dracula, if I could only track the damn thing down.


Jay Shatzer said...

Great write up! I've been wanting to check out these series of films for a while and your screen shots of Evil of Dracula look damn good. I actually saw someone selling a copy of Lake of Dracula on iOffer and I've been debating on ordering it from them. They described it as being good quality, so you might want to go that route to check it out for yourself. Again, great review.

Todd said...

Thanks, Jay. I'm happy to report that I obtained a copy of Lake of Dracula just this past week, so you can expect a review of it from me in the not too distant future.