By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Kayo Matsuo and Akira Nakao; Midori Fujita and Chôei Takahashi; Toshio Kurosawa and Mariko Mochizuki
Directed by Michio Yamamoto
Written by Hiroshi Nagano and Ei Ogawa; Ei Ogawa and Masaru Takesue
Plasma drinkers rejoice! Arrow Video’s gorgeous new set of Toho Studios’ early 1970s Hammer-style vampire features, THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY has finally arrived! Featuring Michio Yamamoto’s singular takes on the Dracula mythos, movie buffs who relish every footnote and oddity in genre film history will gleefully gorge upon this lavish collection of hybrid curiosities.
Though the Japanese are justly famous for their unique and culturally-specific contributions to Horror cinema (from the limp-haired Yūrei of KWAIDAN and RINGU, to the cat-women of KURONEKO, to the towering Kaiju of the GODZILLA series, and the hellacious Buddhist underworld of JIGOKU), they’ve never been above exploiting the newest craze catching fire outside of their borders. Though vampire-like creatures cropped up from time to time in Japan’s cinema, it wasn’t until the UK’s Hammer Film Productions re-ignited the Gothic Horror genre starting in the late 1950s that the country’s filmmakers saw the potential in crafting their own true-blue contributions to the world’s gallery of cinematic bloodsuckers. Spearheaded by Toho Studios (home of the aforementioned Godzilla) and helmed by the markedly unprolific Michio Yamamoto, THE VAMPIRE DOLL (1970), LAKE OF DRACULA (1971), and EVIL OF DRACULA (1974) sought to capitalize on the Gothic Horror boom by borrowing heavily from Hammer’s signature style.
Contrary to popular belief, however, Yamamoto’s films weren’t simple cut-and-paste jobs grafting Western vampire tropes onto Japanese Horror like a conspicuous extra limb. Though they abundantly feature moldering manses, billowing negligees and well-timed lightning strikes, their style, their attitude—nay, their very DNA and lifeblood—is Japanese, making THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY an experience in cinematic cross-pollination that feels quite unlike any other.
THE VAMPIRE DOLL (aka LEGACY OF DRACULA) captures shades of Poe’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER in its tale of a young man who mysteriously disappears while visiting his betrothed’s country estate, and the attempts of his sister and her fiancée to uncover the mystery of his whereabouts. The depth and scope of the story are humble and the Hammer influence is limited to a creepy groundskeeper and a dusty mansion. The vampiric entity here is a grinning, golden-eyed female spirit (played by Yukiko Kobayashi) confusingly reanimated by hypnotism, a deal with the devil, or perhaps both. A languorous mystery with a blood-spattered finale, THE VAMPIRE DOLL, despite some breathtaking visual moments, is the least interesting feature in this collection.
Yamamoto’s follow up, LAKE OF DRACULA is a far more effective flick and my personal favorite in the set. After blocking out a traumatic childhood incident involving a pale-faced fiend and a bone-chilling piano glissando, Akiko (Midori Fujita, cute as a button) must confront her long-forgotten evil head-on when a mysterious coffin is shipped to her lakeside village. Unlike its predecessor, LAKE OF DRACULA trades fatuous plot machinations for human drama and internal conflict, using Akiko’s relationship with her sister and haunted past as a solid foundation upon which to build its ghoulish Gothic frights. As the vampire (never referred to as Dracula, as the title would suggest, and referred to only as the “Shadow-like man” in the Japanese credits) Mori Kishida gives just as good as Christopher Lee’s famously diabolical exsanguinist, sporting a bluish ivory pallor, gleaming eyes, and a white scarf of dramatic length.
The final film in the set, EVIL OF DRACULA, is the most purely Hammer-esque of the three, featuring a professor (Toshio Kurosawa) who takes a teaching position at an all girl’s school and quickly discovers that his pupils are in grave danger. With heaving bosoms aplenty and the returning Kishida (in a different role, sort of) as a far more aggressive creature of the night, Yamamoto’s final vampire outing (and final film) captures the jubilant excesses of the English studios’ most famous efforts, but sacrifices the previous film’s lyricism and mood.
Though, as critic Kim Newman states, these films are “at once sort of trivial and intricate”—in that they’re overloaded with twists and characters that fade like footprints in sand—as reactive pieces on the Westernization of Japan, they’re endlessly fascinating. Naturally, THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY features caskets–those iconic, mobile sleeping quarters of the undead–but they’re frequently looked upon with suspicion and fright as cremation is the traditional method of body disposal in Japan. In THE VAMPIRE DOLL, the central house is explicitly referred to as being of a Western-style built by an ambassador to the United States. Initially, LAKE OF DRACULA seems to mystifyingly color vampirism as an inherited, genetic condition, a notion that’s elaborated upon in EVIL OF DRACULA, which presents the audience with the tale of a white Christian missionary forced into apostasy who became, “a devil” (or oni)—ie, the country’s first vampire. Or, as Jasper Sharp refers to them in the set’s included essay, “a contagion of foreign origin manifesting itself in sexually alluring form.” In this way, Yamamoto’s films go beyond mere mimicry to gently enfold these stylistic tropes into a shared sense of national identity and culture: at once embracing Western influence and commenting on its virulence.
Arrow Video presents Toho’s restorations of the films in their standard chunky Blu-ray packaging (with reversible sleeve) and an almost silky matte slipcover. On the restoration side, all three films look equally great, with solid grain levels, very little age-related noise and plenty of detail despite the trilogy’s innate softness. All three films are presented with newly translated English subtitles. In terms of sound, the Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio tracks are great, especially in presentingRiichirô Manabe’s eerie and evocative scores. Though the unfortunate jazz flute that opensEVIL OF DRACULA will always sound terrible regardless of presentation, the rest of Manabe’s musical landscape (made up of harpsichords, theremins, and pipe organs) comes through loud and creepy.
Special features are few, but get the job done. In addition to stills galleries and original trailers, a quick and dirty “video appraisal” by the aforementioned Kim Newman helps shed some light on the small, yet enduring legacy of THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY and places it firmly within the context of the 1970s’ global vampire phenomenon. For those lucky enough to snag the first pressing, the included booklet features Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp’s essay Blood Lines: The Genealogy of Michio Yamamoto’s BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY, an exhaustive survey of the country’s bloodsucker cinema from the early 1900s to the present day that explores the myopia of Western critics and scholars in analyzing the three flicks as mere pastiche.
Arrow Video’s THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY presents Michio Yamamoto’s cross-cultural genre efforts in a two-disc set that’s a treat for any fan of world cinema. Though not quite classics, THE VAMPIRE DOLL, LAKE OF DRACULA, and EVIL OF DRACULA are strange and compelling fusions of Hammer Horror tropes and Japanese cultural mores. Boldly realized by Michio Yamamoto, these bloody confections may not appeal to every taste, but for those with a hankering for something way off Horror cinema’s well-beaten paths, THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY just begs to be sucked dry.