The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (Michio Yamamoto, 1970-1974)

JAPANESE HORROR IN A GOTHIC VEIN!

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddIn the spirit of Hammer and American International’s successful Gothic horror films comes Michio Yamamoto’s The Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula, and Evil of Dracula – the BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY!

In this trio of rarely seen horror classics, Toho Studios transports the Dracula legend to the Land of the Rising Sun.  Bloody fangs, vampiric brides, creepy mansions, and stormy nights abound while terrible secrets reach out from beyond the grave to threaten the living.  In The Vampire Doll, a missing man’s sister and her boyfriend track him to the ancestral home of his recently deceased fiancé and uncover a gruesome and dangerous family history.  A childhood nightmare of a golden-eyed vampire proves to be true in Lake of Dracula when years later a mysterious package is delivered to Lake Fujimi and local women begin suffering from blood loss and strange bite-marks.  Evil of Dracula pits a remote private school’s new teacher against the terrifying evils that threaten him and overwhelm his beautiful young students.  These one-of-a-kind films are highly atmospheric and genuinely creepy experiments in terror, sure to fascinate fans of Gothic horror and Japanese monster movies alike.

Special Features:

  • New High Definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
  • Newly translated English subtitles
  • Audio commentary by producer Fumio Tanaka
  • New interviews with stars Akira Nakao, Chôei Takahashi, Toshio Kurosawa, and Atsuo Nakamura
  • Theatrical trailers
  • Gallery of promotional portraits and original promotional materials
  • Reversible sleeve with original and commissioned artwork
  • Collector’s booklet by critic Steven Hampton and Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp of Midnight Eye, illustrated with new artwork

Over the last 10 to 20 years, J-horror has cemented its place in Western popular culture.  Japanese films from earlier periods, like Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964), Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964), Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968), and the various other bakeneko movies and Yotsuya Kaidan adaptations, had established a distinctive vocabulary of scares – vengeful spirits, female ghosts, frustrated love, haunted swamps, wind-blown rushes, and, of course, that long black hair.  By the ’90s, filmmakers like Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa thrust these tropes from their period settings into contemporary Japan to explore modernity’s ambivalences and anxieties, and Western audiences embraced the result.  Cult followings of these films developed, Hollywood churned out big-budget adapations, and the ghost of Sadako from Nakata’s Ring (1998) (as well as Samara from Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake) became an indelible figure in horror cinema’s pantheon of monsters.  However, the flow of influence on Japanese horror moves inward as well as outward, and no example describes that more clearly and quizzically than Michio Yamamoto’s “Bloodthirsty Trilogy,” a trio of films embracing the vampire mythos and explicitly emulating the Gothic horror films of Hammer Pictures, American International Pictures, and the American soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971).

Vampire Doll PosterVampire Doll (1970) is known by many names – Legacy of Dracula, Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll, Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu: Chi wo sû ningyô, and still other titles.  Whatever it might be called, reviewers appear agreed that it is the strongest of the Trilogy.  Kazuhiko Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) travels to the isolated home of his fiancé Yûko Nonomura (Yukiko Kobayashi) and is informed by her mother Shidu (Yôko Minakaze) that she has recently died in a car accident.  Kazuhiko, shocked at the terrible news, stays the night and discovers Yûko wandering the estate behaving strangely and dressed in just a diaphanous gown.  A week later, Kazuhiko’s sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) and her fiancé Hiroshi Takagi (Akira Nakao) travel to the Nonomura home in search of her brother. They are informed by Shidu that Kazuhiko left the same night, but Keiko and Hiroshi are suspicious and fake engine trouble to stay longer, investigate, and play the roles of meddlesome teenagers.  Their investigation uncovers a false grave and a gruesome, murderous history to the Nonomura family, bringing them into contact with a violently loyal, hunchbacked servant (Kaku Takashina), a misleading country doctor (Jun Usami), and a murderous young woman caught between life and death.

Lake of Dracula PosterLake of Dracula (1971) – also known by various titles including Bloodthirsty Eyes, Bloodsucking Eyes, Noroi no yakata: Chi o suu me, Lake of Death, Dracula’s Lust for Blood, Dracula’s Love for Blood, and lamentably Japula – opens with the memory/nightmare of a young Akiko Kashiwagi who discovers within a creepy, foreign-looking home a dead woman seated at a piano and a pallid, terrifying man with golden eyes and blood dripping from his mouth.  As an adult, the vision still haunts Akiko (Midori Fujita), who still lives near Lake Fujimi with her sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi), and her “childhood nightmare” remains in the past until an empty coffin is mysteriously delivered to the local handyman Kyûsaku (Kaku Takashina returning sans hunchback) and who is then attacked by an unseen figure.  Events then take a sharp turn toward the eerie – Akiko’s boyfriend, a medical doctor named Takashi Saeki (Chôei Takahashi), finds himself treating women (alive and dead) drained of blood and sporting to two small puncture wounds; Kyûsaku begins acting strangely (attacking Takashi and referring to his “master”); Natsuko becomes pale, deceitful, and threatening.  Akiko and Takashi’s exploration of these mysteries leads back to the forsaken mansion of Akiko’s childhood and the golden-eyed vampire (Shin Kishida) within, yet another family secret unable to be safely hidden away.

Evil of Dracula Poster Despite it following a mere 3 years after Lake of Dracula, Evil of Dracula (1974) has something of a different feel to it.  Japanese Gothic vampirism has now clearly entered the ’70s with shaggier hair, groovier clothes, and shakier camera work.  No doubt feeling the pressure of pinky violence, the Trilogy’s final film is a rougher and crueller film, adding a soupçon of nudity and brutality to the model set by its more chaste predecessors.  Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) arrives at the remote Seimei School for Girls ready to assume his post as psychology professor.  Met by the current principal (Shin Kishida), he is informed that the principal’s wife (Mika Katsuragi) has recently been killed in a car accident, that her body is being kept in the cellar according to local custom, and that Shiraki is to become the school’s new principal.  Shiraki is further thrown when he spends the night at the principal’s home and is confronted by a pale young woman wearing only a blue nightgown (Yasuko Agawa) and is attacked by another pallid female bearing menacing fangs (Mika Katsuragi).  Unsettled by the experience, Shiraki makes the rounds at the school and befriends three young female students, Yukiko (Mio Ôta), Kyoko (Keiko Aramaki), and Kumi (Mariko Mochizuki), as well as finding a colleague and supporter in the school doctor/local folklore expert Shimomura (Kunie Tanaka).  Shiraki eventually discovers that the fanged woman is the principal’s wife and the girl in the blue nightgown is Keiko, the missing friend of Yukiko, Kyoko, and Kumi.  And when Kyoko becomes ill over a school break (after being bitten on the breast by the vampiric principal) and Yukiko and Kumi decide to stay and care for her, Shiraki and Shimomura remain to protect the students from the bloodsucking threat they are convinced haunts the school.  From there, Evil of Dracula reveals its horrible conspiracy of vampire masters, mad servants, and entranced brides to include some ghastly butchery and gruesome identity theft.

It’s difficult to say what the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” is meant to be or how it should be read.  Obviously The Vampire Doll was enough of a success in Toho’s domestic market to merit making 2 more films, but what strikes the contemporary, non-Japanese viewer is how these films are so very un-Japanese despite their cast and production.  Gone are the period settings of earlier Japanese horror classics, but so is the ambivalent relationship with technology and modern society present in later films.  Sure, woven into these movies are those vengeful spirits embodied as young women, their dark hair framing their downward looking faces and malevolent smiles, but these are subordinated to the lordly Dracula figure, the vampire mythos, and the “authentic foreign-style” residences.  In his considerate review of The Vampire Doll and its place among “Japan’s occasional flirtations” with vampires, Keith at Teleport City discusses the monster as traditionally embodying the threat of foreignness, but ultimately asserts that by the time of the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” the creature had been relegated to “just a spooky monster.”  Generally speaking, we suspect that Keith is correct and the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” is likely little more than Toho taking a stab at importing the “blood and bosoms” model to their own market, but something nags at us as we watch these films.  Yamamoto’s vampires stand out for their gaze, particularly the blank eyes of Yûko in The Vampire Doll and the golden eyes of the vampire in Lake of Dracula, and they recall Christer Strömholm’s Blind girl (1963), a photograph of an anonymous young Japanese girl with blinded eyes and scars on her face resulting from the Hiroshima atomic blast.  Did Yamamoto intend to connect his vampires to Japan’s terrible history of atomic devastation?  Might Japanese audiences sense this connection, even subconsciously, and take added fright at the image?  We’ve never seen the connection be made in any discussions on the trilogy, and so can’t say with any certainty, but if an ancient and gigantic sea monster can stand in for the threat of nuclear disaster, we don’t know why blank-eyed vampires can’t draw on that legacy to underpin its own scares as well.

The “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” is little known outside of Japan, having only had a DVD release in the UK (which now seems to be out of print), and reviews of the films have been somewhat mixed.  Again, these movies resist being easily consumed as their content and style (Western Gothic horror) exists in opposition to their industrial and cultural context (Japan).  The Vampire Doll, Lake of Dracula, and Evil of Dracula are therefore best enjoyed for their dissonances.  It’s pointless to get hung up on the flatness of many characters, the plausibility of a stately European manor tucked away in some nondescript corner Japan, or the fact that there is actually no vampire in The Vampire Doll when one considers how truly unusual and singular is the existence of the films.  And Toho ensures these movies look and sound exactly the part, offering some excellent cinematography throughout and some highly effective/affective special effects – Yûko’s final murder in The Vampire Doll and the monster’s demise in Lake of Dracula are particularly memorable moments.  Even the often maligned scores by composer Riichirô Manabe are interestingly conspicuous as their incongruities verge on the experimental and, in their own way, seem in keeping with the strange convergence that is the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy.”  Manabe’s harpsichord noodlings on The Vampire Doll approaches European horror tropes, but never arrives, invoking the sound while sidestepping recognizable melodies.  The “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” achieves a strong horror atmosphere through high production values, unsettling music and sound cues, the occasional Hitchcockian shock, and a straightforward approach to the kinds of Old World horrors usually found at the top or bottom of a spooky staircase.

Bloodthirsty Trilogy Box ArtYamamoto’s vampire films are exactly the kind of unusual Japanese esoterica that filmic Japanophiles can’t resist, and by their own individual standard, they’re actually rather entertaining.  Arrow Video’s focus on Japanese films has been quite promising thus far, but the label has not yet delved into the more commercial and exploitation end of Japan’s horror cinema like they have for other Japanese genres (noir and chambara) and other national cinemas.  With so many great Japanese horror films (and sci-fi movies!) in need of Western release in high-definition version (or in standard definition for that matter), Arrow Video is hopefully looking at broadening its modest catalogue of Eastern titles.  The label typically commissions great cover art for their releases, but we thought we would promote these standout pieces by Masano Koga that were purportedly used for a Japanese home media release of the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy.”  Colourful, representative, and in keeping with Arrow’s style of artwork, Koga’s paintings would be an excellent, readily available pick-up for an Arrow Video release of The Vampire DollLake of Dracula, and Evil of Dracula.

Credits:  The audio commentary is reportedly included on the Japanese disc release of the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy,” but we must admit to being unable to find anything on this edition, so who knows if it actually exists and was put to market.  Akira Nakao, Chôei Takahashi, Toshio Kurosawa, and Atsuo Nakamura all continue to work in Japanese film and television, and so should be available to speak about their recollections of working on these films.  Positive and generally unqualified reviews of the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” are admittedly hard to come by, and so we chose film critic Steven Hampton to provide an essay based on his positive review of Lake of Dracula for VideoVista.net.  Jasper Sharp’s review of Lake of Dracula for Midnight Eye is less complimentary, but we felt Sharp’s expertise in Japanese cinema could offer some context for the films that would be needed in an accompanying booklet.  For those looking for fuller synopses of the films than offered here, we suggest Anthony Romero’s reviews at Toho Kingdom, Venoms5’s reviews at Cool Ass Cinema, and Todd’s reviews at Die, Danger, Die, Die, Kill.

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