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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Vampire Doll (1970) review


Kayo Matsuo (Keiko), Akira Nakao (Hiroshi), Yoko Minakaze (Ms. Nonomura), Yukiko Kobayashi (Yuko Nonomura), Jun Usami (doctor)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto

The Short Version: The first in an unusual trilogy of "bloodsucking" movies from Toho Studios. All three are unique in that very little about them is inherently Japanese aside from their casts and technicians behind the camera. THE VAMPIRE DOLL is a quaint little tale of terror with a nicely compact plot that has several shocks and a Hitchcockian twist at the end among the highlights of this subtle spookathon recommended for fans of Gothic horror.

Kazuhiko Sagawa is on his way to Tadeshina, an out of the way country locale to meet with his future wife, Yuko Nonomura. Upon his arrival, he meets Yuko's mother and Genzo, the creepy, mute servant of the house. Sagawa is devastated to find out that his fiance was killed in her car during a landslide two weeks earlier. Spending the night, he is awakened by the wailing of a woman somewhere within the house. A week passes and Sagawa's sister, Keiko, becomes concerned that she hasn't heard from her brother in all that time. She and her boyfriend, Hiroshi, abandon their plans for the day and decide to head out to the isolated country estate in the hopes of discovering what has happened to her brother. During their stay, clues leading to Sagawa's fate and a terrible family curse are slowly revealed.

Between 1970 and 1974, Toho produced a "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" of vampire tales that bore little resemblance to typical Japanese traditions. These three films--THE VAMPIRE DOLL, LAKE OF DRACULA, THE EVIL OF DRACULA--drew inspiration from North American and European sources including the hit US TV series, DARK SHADOWS, AIP's COUNT YORGA pictures and Hammer Films productions. The results were nothing short of astounding and effectively creepy. As compact as these three films are, their inherent simplicity is the key to their success much in the way Roger Corman's series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations were profitable in lieu of their uniformity. Henry Saperstein's UPA (United Productions of America, which also distributed a few Toho Kaiju movies as well as handling co-producing duties on those) apparently held the rights to this trilogy for US release, but only the second and third films were ever released to video here dubbed in English.

The minimalist ingredients required to create an effective spook show are all on hand here in these three criminally obscure tales of terror. The narratives share much in common with one another, although this first film is the most distinguished of the set. All share the requisite creepy houses, isolated locales, crypts, vampires, ghosts and horrible secrets of a past indiscretion. What they don't have in abundance are characters of much substance. However, stylistically speaking, the visuals and overt eeriness have the power to envelope lovers of classical horror and it's this approach of putting the phantasmagorical at the forefront that drives these unique films. While there's no Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, or Christopher Lee as an anchor, the acting in this trilogy is enough to hold the viewers attention particularly that of the key performers, both those of this world and the next.

At barely 71 minutes, THE VAMPIRE DOLL feels ever so much like a modern day Gothic Roger Corman creeper told through the lens of Japanese artisans. The set up follows the template of PSYCHO and CITY OF THE DEAD (both 1960) wherein the audience is led to believe a particular character is going to be the one identified with, only to have that person disappear and a new set of individuals step in to learn of his, or her fate. While set in Japan, the location is distinctly of a foreign design. All three of Yamamoto's pictures bear this Anglo framework apparently paying tribute to the dozens of atmospheric horror films of old.

Even among the westernized ambiance, Japan has its own folklore revolving around the undead and creatures that crave blood. THE VAMPIRE DOLL appears to be the only one of these three movies that makes any attempt at instilling a modicum of Nipponese legend. The character of Yuko is referred to as a vampire, but she doesn't sprout fangs, nor is she seen biting into the jugular of her victims. She bears a pale complexion, but kills with a knife and the scenes of her grimacing before her prey with golden, yet blank eyes is an unsettling image that recalls similar imagery from SALEM'S LOT (1979) and also THE EVIL DEAD (1981).

Yamamoto was obviously enamored of both Hitchcock and oldeworld horror heritage. There are scenes here where a character sees the back of someones head sitting in a chair in a room. Upon entering they turn the chair around to reveal something horrible looking back at them. These moments instantly bring to mind the shocking reveal (one of them, anyway) at the end of PSYCHO (1960). There's also an added twist during VAMPIRE DOLL's conclusion once the cursed family's doom-laden back story is finally unveiled. As for the Gothic aura--the crackling thunder, pouring rain, rustling wind, bats, creaking floors and doors, ghostly wailing heard in the distance--it's all here and used to good effect.

The score by the seemingly eccentric composer, Riichiro Manabe is not the norm per what is generally deemed as recognizable tunes in Japanese cinema. His score is frequently nerve jangling, even dissonant at times. Other times certain cues have a mysteriously foreign quality about them that matches the decrepit features of the isolated home of the cursed Nonomura lineage. Minabe also scored the other two films in this unrelated trilogy and also did two beyond quirky soundtracks for the Godzilla series--GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971) and GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973).

THE VAMPIRE DOLL (1970) is an auspicious, if subtle showcase for Yamamoto's obvious passion for Western styled "things that go bump in the night" told from a Japanese point of view. The thought of an Eastern-Westernized attempt at an old fashioned spooker is enough to garner the curiosity of genre fans with affection for the horrors of Universal, Hammer and the Gothics from Italy, Spain and Mexico. Yamamoto's movie (as well as his other two in this trilogy) is a refreshing take on familiar territory mainly because it's so different from traditional Japanese horror noticeable by the absence of period settings, tall rustling reeds and Japanese religious symbolism.

These films were released separately and in a box set in Japan as well as in the UK several years ago. You can buy the subtitled DVD-R, using the Japanese disc as a source, HERE


Franco Macabro said...

Looks like I know what I'll be watching come Halloween Night! Or maybe a bit before..I love old school horror films and the films that pay tribute to them, from an Asian point of view, that should be interesting!

venoms5 said...

Hi, Fran! I should hopefully have reviews for the two unrelated sequels up this week as well.

dfordoom said...

Looks like a fun movie. Unfortunately I don't have a Paypal account otherwise I'd grab a copy.

Erich Kuersten said...

Looks awesome - any other titles from that source you can recommend?

Jack J said...

Great posts, Brian! I have the UK box with all three films and the picture quality is pretty good (altho I hear the Japanese discs are better).

Btw, FarEastFlix is a highly recommended grey market seller! I've quite often bought films from there. And the "one postage fee covers all" is great when you live in Euroland.

venoms5 said...

@ D: They take money orders, too. Possibly you may still be able to find the UK discs? The quality isn't as good, but if they're more easily accessible that way. They're worth tracking down, D.

@ Erich: Sorry for the late reply, I thought I had typed one up. Apparently it didn't publish. The other two in this series are recommended, but the first two are the best overall in terms of production. I'd also recommend ESPY (1974) a crazy globe trotting sci fi spy picture with some exploitation values and graphic violence. And LONE WOLF himself, Wakayama as the main villain. It's reviewed here, too. GOKE BODYSNATCHER FROM HELL is also a quirky, but nifty little horror number with quite a shocking ending.

@ Jack: Thanks for stopping by, Jack! By the way, that deal on shipping for overseas orders is probably going to change soon, so I'm told, so you may want to pick up some stuff to take advantage of it if there's something you were holding off on buying.

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