When I first read about Toho’s “Bloodthirsty” trilogy, I could feel my heart start to palpitate. 70s Japanese Gothic horror with bloodsucking antagonists and Hammer-esque leanings? Sign me up! This combination of all of cinema’s best things is obviously too impossibly fantastic to exist. Clearly I’m just having a really lame dream where I’m writing and proofreading a Mondo Exploito article for a nonexistent movie…
original title: 幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形
(Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu: Chi wo sû ningyô)
Japan, 1970, Michio Yamamoto
Ignoring the unprovoked assaults from Genzo (Kaku Takashina), Shidu’s mute servant, Kazuhiko stays the night at his deceased fiance’s very western and very Gothic abode. Unable to sleep and prompted by the sound of a weeping girl, he explores the house and is shocked to stumble across a pale-faced Yuko in a bedroom cupboard. He’s promptly knocked out by an unseen force.
Yuko’s mother tries to convince him he imagined it all. But the next night, he sees the supposedly dead Yuko running across the front lawn. He follows her to a cemetery and finds himself the film’s first victim of Yuko.
We are then introduced to the film’s protagonists — Kazuhiko’s sister, Keiko (Kayo Matsuo), and Keiko’s fiance, Hiroshi (Akira Nakao). Keiko is worried about her missing brother and heads out with her fiance to Yuko’s house to find out what’s happened to him.
Vampire Doll is nothing like what I expected it to be. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. Quite the opposite. I loved it. But it’s not nearly as derivative of western myth and legend as its concept and reputation would imply.
On a superficial level, it features some of the tropes of western vampire movies. Most obviously, the film’s primary location — a large Gothic house — is not something typical of Japanese cinema. The imposing sets and locations are reminiscent of a Hammer production, and its use of conventional horror cues like thunder and lighting suggests a classic approach.
But its vampire, if you could even call Yuko a vampire, is far more in tune with traditional Japanese folklore and ghost stories. The white-faced, giggling Yuko — who goes slightly cross-eyed before stabbing (yes, stabbing) her victims — is genuinely unnerving and unlike anything you’d come across in 1970s British or American horror. The way she quietly appears in the darkness, often in the background of scenes, is chillingly effective and still a method used in modern Japanese horror.
The bleak back story given to Yuko and her family is depressing enough to be taken straight out of a Mizoguchi film. Yuko is a tragic figure, and I mean really tragic. Without ruining any details of the plot, she’s an innocent shell being used as the vessel for another character’s hate and need for nihilistic vengeance.
Though Vampire Doll for the most part is brooding and understated, it has a few moments of unexpected violence. In its final moments, it delivers an explosion of gore, as if director Michio Yamamoto wanted to give the horror genre its own version of Kurosawa’s incredible ending of Sanjuro. Look, I highly encourage you not to watch the clip below and ruin a vital scene from the film, but I can’t not include it.
Vampire Doll is brilliant stuff, and it’s made all the more fascinating with the handful of cues it appropriates from western horror. But don’t expect a traditional, bloodsucking tale. This is a kind of gloomy and spooky cinema unique to Japan. I can’t wait to check out Yamamoto’s Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1972), which make up the rest of the unconnected trilogy.
Vampire Doll has a subtitled UK release under its title Legacy of Dracula. The same company has also released the other entries in the trilogy.