Friday, July 8, 2011

Lake of Dracula (1971) review


Midori Fujita (Akiko), Choei Takahashi (Saeki), Sanae Emi (Natsuko), Mori Kishida (vampire)

Directed by Michio Yamamoto

The Short Version: The second of Toho's "Bloodthirsty Trilogy" is a unique take on the more widely recognized European styled bloodsucker as told from an Eastern perspective. Most of the familiar accessories of the vampire film are on hand here with Yamamoto playing it safe by paying tribute to the blood drinking cinema of old and what was popular at that time. There's a surprising amount of scares and suspense as well. Mori Kishida goes for the jugular as the "Dracula" of the films title and his frightening, feral performance stands with other actors who've previously donned the Count's cape.

Akiko, a beautiful young artist, shares a boat house with her sister, Natsuko at Lake Fujimi. Preoccupied with completing a macabre painting, Akiko hopes to come to grips with a nightmarish occurrence from when she was a little girl by visualizing the frightening image of a pair of piercing, golden eyes on her canvas. Not long after, a large box arrives at the secluded lakeside locale containing a coffin. Soon, bodies of young girls begin turning up drained of blood. Akiko's boyfriend, Saeki, is a doctor and after surmising something diabolical is taking place, hypnotizes her to learn if there's a connection between her childhood dream and the inexplicable happenings near her lakeside home. The answer lies in Akiko's hometown of Nanto. Both she and Saeki head there to locate the isolated estate where Akiko's terrible childhood ordeal took place.

With Shin Toho out of business in the early 60s and Daiei going bankrupt in 1971, Toho stepped into the horror arena to carve their place in the genre. The company's THE VAMPIRE DOLL from the previous year was successful and lead to this, the first of two unrelated sequels. Toho, like Hammer after them, had a YORGAsm at the notion of a modern day bloodsucker when AIP's COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) made millions and showed that a sinister character prevalent in oldeworld trappings could be successfully transplanted to a modern setting (not that it hadn't been done before). For years Japan had chiseled their own identity within the horror genre with such period terror tales as the genre defining GHOST OF YOTSUYA (TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN [1959]) and the ominous B/W spooker KURONEKO (1968) among so many others. Like America, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and Mexico, Japan created their own unique vision of Gothic horror.

Dabbling in vampires both traditional and those of a more westernized look, Michio Yamamoto's trilogy--specifically the second and third entries--explored foreign supernatural realms, but within a Japanese framework. While LAKE OF DRACULA recalls the YORGA films, one could also draw comparisons with the modern day series, DARK SHADOWS, a supernatural soap opera from Dan Curtis that enjoyed its biggest success when it introduced Barnabus Collins--a vampire--into the mix in 1967 and garnered the first of two theatrical movies beginning in 1970. Fans of the blood drinking undead will ultimately draw comparisons with Hammer (there's at least one script idea that may have been inspired by a similar occurrence in BRIDES OF DRACULA), but the YORGA and DARK SHADOWS connection is undeniable. Viewers will also notice shades of Stoker's original novel, too. Regarding Hammer, the third film in the series, EVIL OF DRACULA (1974), has LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971) stamped all over it.

Probably the single most curious factor specifically about LAKE OF DRACULA is that Japan's history of the supernatural isn't known for classical interpretations of vampires, a creature more widely associated with European folklore. There had been a few Japanese horror films that featured westernized vampires in the 50s and 60s such as THE LADY VAMPIRE (ONNA KYUKETSUKI) from 1959. This was a modern day monochrome horror opus bearing off kilter elements that seemed to derive more sustenance from the Mexi-horrors than from the examples laid down by Universal and Hammer. It's safe to assume Japanese production company's were keen to experiment with a non traditional mythos in the hopes of scoring good revenue considering how popular their North American variants had been in the 1930s and onwards in addition to the British "cover versions" that began cropping up in the late 1950s.

Japanese legends have their own take on the undead bloodsuckers among dozens of fearsome Yokai (demons, or monsters), but they are vastly different from the more popular westernized effigy of the caped count Dracula and his bloody brethren. That none of these vampiric monsters in Japanese folklore resemble anything remotely similar to the Anglo mythology associated with these creatures of the night makes these peculiar entries all the more interesting. It would be the same if a North American film company produced hopping vampire movies, a wildly popular sub genre in Hong Kong cinema. Furthermore, there was at least one such Western movie with Eastern influences entitled THE JITTERS from 1989.

Yamamoto obviously knew his subject matter extremely well and expertly captures all the major components of classic vampire cinema. Of course, nothing would work if you had a less than intimidating performance for the lead antagonist and Yamamoto got great mileage out of Mori Kishida, whom Kaiju fans will remember as the Interpol spy from GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974). Kishida dominates this film as the vampire--the "Dracula" of the title. Actually, his character is a descendant of the Transylvanian Count, the unholy progeny of two generations that enjoyed a normal bloodline. It's revealed that Dracula had, at one time, taken a Japanese bride and this later distant relative carries on the famed devils nocturnal activities. His character is never given an actual name, though. Kishida brings a fierceness to the role that doesn't rely on a lot of dialog to be scary. What few passages the script gives him (he doesn't talk till near the end) clarify everything that has happened up to that point.

The topic of God and the Devil, often a relative subject in these movies, is flirted with, but left predominantly unexplored. Oddly enough, considering how "un-Japanese" the film is, religious symbolism and Christian imagery are noticeably absent from this picture as are some of the classical methods with which to dispatch the undead monsters. Crucifixes aren't discussed, but burning and a stake through the heart are stated as the only way to dispatch one of these foreign devils. Some of the spoken dialog during these moments of revelation allude to the notion that vampirism was strictly a foreign affliction before Dracula's penetration of Japan's population.

In addition to some of the cast and crew from the previous movie, Riichiro Manabe returns to deliver another off kilter soundtrack, but takes a more foreboding approach this time out lacking the forbidden and dark whimsy of the first picture. Dreams and the subconscious are major plot devices in the script. Manabe's score taps into that aspect with some primarily subtle, but encroachingly sinister tunes that bear a slight hint of their Japanese origin, sounding substantially distant from what is normally associated with Japan cinema from this time period. The performances are effective for what most of the cast are given to work with, yet the role of Akiko is given a good deal of depth and attention far more than any of the participants in the previous picture. Incidentally, it should be noted that the Japanese DVD contains a commentary track which would likely prove beneficial to the making of this film if it were ever translated.

LAKE OF DRACULA, like its predecessor, breaks no new ground, but delivers a nominally eerie 80 minutes that's frightfully well done. The director successfully captures several shock moments and dutifully builds a searing sense of suspense and impending dread. If you have a fondness for bloodsucking cinema, then LAKE OF DRACULA will be easy to sink your teeth into and it's doubtful loyal fans of vampire lore will come away disappointed. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but still a refreshing view from the perspective of a country more widely known for their samurai fables, period set ghost tales and giant monster pictures.

You can buy the subtitled DVD-R, using the Japanese DVD as the source, HERE. This movie, along with the other two in the series, were released separately and as part of a box set in Japan. They were also released to disc in the United Kingdom.
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