When it comes to genre film, Toho will forever be synonymous with Godzilla and his legion of fellow kaiju, a fact that tends to overshadow the studio other landmark contributions, including Onibaba, Kuroneko, Kwaidan, and Hausu. Tucked away in its illustrious history is also one of the more curious chapters in genre lore when Toho looked westward, spied a gaggle of popular vampire films, and decided they, too, wanted in on some bloodsucker action. Their answer arrived in the form of The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, a strange concoction of films helmed by Michio Yamamoto that have only further grown as curiosities, thanks in large part to their obscurity in the Western hemisphere. While the films did open in a handful of American markets in the 70s, they’ve been quite elusive ever since and have just now made their home video debut courtesy of Arrow Video, who continue to be a godsend for cult movie fanatics.
The Vampire Doll (1970)
That’s especially true in this case, as The Vampire Doll is an awesome piece of work, one that draws from Japanese folklore and garish, gothic sensibilities in forging an altogether singular experience. Familiar cues greet an audience accustomed to these sort of tales, as a lone traveler—in this case, a man named Kazuhiko (Atsuo Nakamura)—barrels down a desolate road, his taxi pummeled by a piercing rain. Thunder bellows and otherworldly lightning strikes, illuminating an ominous landscape with a mansion in the distance. This is Kazuhiko’s destination, and despite expectations (not to mention the film’s full title: Dracula’s Legacy: Vampire Doll), this decrepit abode isn’t home to Transylvania’s most nefarious resident. Rather, Kazuhiko is greeted by a woman (Yoko Minekaze) we learn is his fiancée’s mother, and she’s the bearer of awful news: it turns out that his beloved Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi) recently died in a car accident, leaving him distraught.
His distress soon leads do disbelief after spending a night in this eerie home, where a woman’s wailing keeps him awake and prompts him to roam about, only to encounter Yuko, now a ghastly shade of her former self—or is she? Yuko’s mother dismisses his story, chalking it up to the delusions of a despondent, fevered brain. Kazuhiko insists otherwise though, and vows to discover the truth by visiting his dead lover’s grave, an investigation that will soon come to ensnare his sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) and her fiancé Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) when he disappears without a trace.
Viewers know what these two amateur sleuths must uncover during their own visit to the Nonomura mansion: something is indeed very wrong with Yuko, if not the entire family, whose sordid past is the stuff of hushed legend in the nearby town. Yamamoto patiently allows this macabre tale unwind over the course of 71 minutes, relying on striking imagery and the increasingly lurid screenplay to sweep the audience up into this maelstrom of secrecy and violence. So much of the photography and production design—particularly the creepy, cavernous Nonomura mansion—feels ripped right out of a vintage Hammer effort, yet The Vampire Doll also retains that distinct, quiet eeriness that often marks classic Japanese horror, resulting in a transfixing aesthetic blend.
As Keiko and Hiroshi delve deeper into the mystery before them, the film leans into those hushed tenors with increasingly cryptic characters, all of whom feel like they’re harboring a secret that could upend everything. Yuko’s mother is obviously chief among them: sporting a mysterious scar and clearly hatching an unusual plan within her home, she’s an enigmatic matriarch driven by the pain of a traumatic past. Joining her is Genzo (Kaku Takashina), the obligatory hunchback brute required of any Old Dark House riff, his twisted, craggy features also hinting at the family’s awful history. At various points, Genzo is either a guardian angel or a devil to the mansion’s guests—there’s a childlike purity to his inner conflict, as he struggles between upholding the family’s secrets or helping the visitors avoid the grisly fate that seems to befall anyone who trespasses. And then there’s Dr. Yamaguchi (Jun Usami), a man who’s all too willing to reveal the details about the horrific incident that destroyed the Nonomura family decades ago, allowing both Keiko and the audience to realize the dreadful, shocking scope of it all. Yet he also seems to be holding something back himself, almost as if he holds the key to unlocking the secrets about Yuko’s resurrection.
Ultimately, it’s fitting that Dr. Yamaguchi and others overshadow Yuko, who floats through Vampire Doll like a mist, mostly revealed in fleeting glimpses and startling outbursts of violence that punctuate the unnerving stillness that otherwise dominates the film. Kobayashi is a striking presence despite her limited screen time, appearing more like a traditional Japanese horror ghoul than a Western vampire. With her pale face and lifeless eyes that glow with ethereal menace, Yuko is easily the most indelible image in a film teeming with them. Before you learn the ghastly truth about her condition, Yuko seems driven by her bloodlust, her face seemingly affixed with a wide, maniacal grin; however, upon some late-minute revelations, she’s transformed into a more tragic, overlooked figure who’s been twisted into this monstrous wraith by terrible forces beyond her control. It’s appropriate that she’s a spectral presence throughout the film given how everyone in her life repressed her before an untimely demise that left her in this purgatorial, walking twilight state.
The script’s morbid backstory dovetails into an arresting climax that finds Yuko taking revenge on those who wronged her, in the process warping The Vampire Doll into a haunting tale of retribution. Considering the setup, it certainly resists expectations in terms of lore: despite the title and the Hammer-esque trimmings, this isn’t a traditional vampire tale, but rather a strange cocktail involving a madman and a tragic ghoul whose worlds collide with a stunning, dreamlike fit of violence that leaves blood erupting from a severed jugular. It’s triumphant and haunting all at once, a fitting paradox to cap off one of the most bizarre, spellbinding films from this era.
Lake of Dracula (1971)
Equally mesmerizing is Lake of Dracula, Yamamoto’s follow-up of sorts. While narratively unconnected to its “predecessor” (this is a loose, in-name-only trilogy), it features a similar aesthetic blend and manages to live up to its title, at least in the sense that it delivers Toho’s take on the Dracula mythos. Opening with a feverish symphony of childhood fears, it’s somehow even more nightmarish and surreal than Vampire Doll: we watch as a young girl chases her runaway dog into the nearby woods and stumbles across a decrepit mansion hoarding a funhouse variety of nightmare fuel. First, a wild-eyed old man leaps from the bushes, prompting her to run inside the place, where a haunting piano melody is prelude to the shocking appearance of two vampiric ghouls, the second of which is so startling that it inspires a dizzying match cut to Akiko Kashiwagi (Midori Fujita), a young woman stirring from her sleep.
We’re left wondering if the opening prologue is a nightmare, a memory, or some combination of both. Certainly, it recurs like a nightmare throughout the film, as these unreal images haunt Akiko, accenting the strange events unfolding around her. Most oddly, her neighbor (Kaku Takashina) receives a giant shipping crate housing a coffin, an inciting incident that transforms the film into a loose retelling of Stoker’s Dracula, wherein Akiko, her fiancé, and (Choei Takahashi), her sister (Sanae Mini) encounter an undead fiend (Shin Kishida).
While its plot isn’t exactly shrouded in mystery and borrows certain touchstones from the Dracula mythos (most notably the count’s brides and a Renfield-style assistant), Lake of Dracula still unfolds like a hazy, half-remembered dream. Lurching along to a warbling, 50s B-movie score, it’s arguably an even more potent blend of Eastern and Western aesthetics, as it marries both the languid, dreamy pacing of the former with the gothic, candy-colored palette of the latter to incredible effect. Lake of Dracula is certainly a movie of striking moments congealed with the unending, foreboding sense of doom one has when confronting a nightmare. As the vampire terrorizes Akiko and those around her, the truth about her recollections—which have manifested in a striking piece of art centered on a golden eye—slowly comes into focus, prompting her to finally return to the eerie old mansion that haunts her dreams.
There’s something unnervingly eerie about it, something that taps into the collective unconscious of the recurring dreams and nightmares we have throughout our lives. Even though the film predictably reveals Akiko’s visions to be actual memories, the proceedings are no less hallucinatory, falling somewhere at the intersection of actual, repressed trauma and outsized, vivid recollections of a child’s overworked imagination. Just as you can carry the specific yet elusive feeling of a recurring dream, so too does Lake of Dracula linger in your unconsciousness, its brazen images filling Yamamoto’s canvas with blood-red sunsets, the vampire’s menacing, golden eyes, and the decaying mansion where Lake of Dracula reaches a stunning climax.
It’s here that Lake truly shines, as Yamamoto peels back the creepy, dusty layers of this mythos with gore-tinged revelations, including an all-timer riff on the gag where characters discover a grisly corpse. Kishida—who spends much of the film as a fleeting, almost ghostly suggestion—finally commands the screen with a presence that finds the halfway point between Lugosi’s suave bloodsucker and Lee’s animalistic monster. Hammer’s influence is at its most obvious here, especially when this devil’s flesh melts away with a gore showcase that echoes Horror of Dracula’s gruesome climax.
But for all its familiarity, Lake of Dracula proves to be quite indelible in its own right, mostly due to Yamamoto’s willingness to embrace its nightmarish tenor. At all times, there is the sensation of strolling into an unreal twilight zone, where the pages of Stoker’s lore have been torn out, reshuffled, and recollected as a bizarre fever dream. It’s certainly unlike any other Dracula film, including those that clearly inspired it and served as ingredients in this strange, bewitching brew.
Evil of Dracula (1974)
If the first two films in The Bloodthirsty Trilogy play like half-remembered dreams, then Evil of Dracula is made of something more lucid, perhaps like a daydream grown out of control. More straightforward and schlockier than its predecessors, this trilogy capper is largely swept up by the same impulses that drove Hammer’s late-era turn towards similarly minded sleaze. Its setup perhaps reveals just about all you need to know in this regards, as Yamamoto turns the audience into complicit peeping toms spying on a girls’ boarding school under siege by a dark, vampiric conspiracy. Our audience surrogate is Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa), a newly hired professor at this remote school. His—and by proxy, our—first impression of the gig is thrown for a loop when he learns his superior’s (Shin Kishida, whose recurring presence immediately sounds alarms) wife has recently died in a car accident, a revelation that’s dropped on his plate when he’s literally en route to the man’s house.
Things only grow more awkward when the principal greets him and answers his condolences with the disclosure that his wife’s body is currently resting in the cellar, per local custom. The principal drops a bigger bombshell when he informs Shiraki that he’s set to take over his post and will soon run the school, sending the newbie hurtling down a rabbit hole to uncover the grim inner-workings of the place. His curiosity is almost immediately rewarded when he lurks through the principal’s house later that evening, compelled by the sound of a woman’s singing. After encountering a girl in a negligee, he wakes up in his bed and shakes the entire, bizarre experience off as a dream—at least until he actually visits the school and discovers something evil is terrorizing its students.
Evil of Dracula mostly dispenses with the mystery approach; rather than have Shiraki slowly uncover the lore behind the bloodsucker’s presence, the screenplay has a knowledgeable co-worker describe a local, centuries old legend involving a shipwrecked European priest that was forced to renounce his god and wander a barren desert before developing a thirst for human blood. Shades of Jodorowsky color this tremendous flashback sequence with expansive, harshly-lit desert vistas and an odd, hallucinatory vibe that recaptures the dreamy sublimity of the previous films in the trilogy.
Unlike those films, Evil of Dracula otherwise feels of its time, particularly in the way it seeks to transplant the vampire mythos to contemporary times. Where Vampire Doll and Lake of Dracula feel like dispatches from a timeless nether-realm, Evil is swinging with 70s kink and swagger. Perhaps taking its cue from the likes of Dracula A.D. 1972, it carries itself with a jangly, jazzy energy and largely dispenses with any pretenses. It’s not exactly less artful since Yamamoto’s canvas is as vibrant and polished as ever; it is, perhaps, a bit less tactful, though, since he fills those frames with more violence and gratuitous nudity. Hardly surprising considering the film literally involves a cabal of vampires preying on young, often-scantily clad girls (and this is to say nothing of Shiraki and the other professors’ tendency to hit on the students), but it certainly puts Evil on a different, scummier sort of plane.
Not that this is a criticism, mind you: on the contrary, Evil of Dracula makes for a nice come-down from the more ethereal efforts preceding it. Even though it’s the longest of the three, it feels like the most brisk, as the screenplay bounds from once action-packed incident to the next. Even the expository downtime conjures up just enough intrigue surrounding the increasingly lurid conspiracy Shiraki uncovers. Colorful characters—like a professor that’s obsessed with French poetry and a former employee institutionalized in a nearby asylum—accompany multiple vampires, giving this one the most vivid assortment of the trio. Naturally, it also results in a fairly constant barrage of carnage, with each encounter proving to be more blood-soaked than the last. Once you arrive at the literally face-melting climactic gore display—in which the camera captures flesh decaying via time lapse photography—there’s little doubt that Evil of Dracula mostly panders to the grindhouse crowd, making it a raucous, rousing finale to an otherwise phantasmagoric set of films.
The Bloodthirsty Trilogy arrives with its three films spread out over two discs, with the latter two sharing space on the second Blu-ray. Each film is magnificently restored, allowing them to sparkle in all their vibrant, Tohoscope glory. Special features are understandably a bit sparse, what with these films being over 40 years old and obscure to boot: trailers for the films appear alongside Jasper Sharp’s liner notes and a 16-minute on-screen interview with Kim Newman, both of which do a fine job in contextualizing The Bloodthirsty Trilogy’s place among the rash of worldwide vampire movies in the 70s. Newman also offers some scattered thoughts on the films, at one point referring to them as nice little films, minor efforts if you will, a sentiment with which I must respectfully disagree. After waiting for over a decade to finally see them, I was astounded that each one delivered on its tremendous promise. It’s not every weekend that you’re able to take in three films that register as instant favorites, which puts Arrow’s edition squarely in the conversation of the year’s most crucial releases. The Bloodthirsty Trilogy will easily become staples, particularly around Halloween, when all three will be prime candidates for any horror-thon. Bestowing a higher praise may not be possible around these parts.
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