The Vampire Doll (1970) The Vampire Doll / Bloodsucking Doll / Legacy of Dracula: The Bloodthirsty Doll / Night of the Vampire / Yurei Yashiki no Kyofu: Chi o Su Ningyo (1970/1971) ***

     It scarcely seems possible that I could have been writing for so long without addressing this point directly, but I truly don’t believe I ever have here: I draw a distinction, albeit only a loose and fuzzy one, between horror movies and monster movies. Plenty of films fall into both categories, of course. After all, monsters are powerful tools for evoking the kinds of primitive emotion— shock, terror, revulsion, the creeps— which are the horror genre’s stock in trade. But monsters can do a lot more than just to frighten, and they consequently figure in a lot of pictures that aren’t concerned with scaring the audience at all. A monster movie can also be fantasy or sci-fi or adventure— and most importantly for my present purposes, it can be something else all its own that isn’t quite any of those things, but might perhaps be understood as a fanciful strain of action film, in which the main attraction is the spectacle attendant upon efforts to repel, contain, or destroy the monster itself.

     I bring this up now, at long last, because I want to talk about the very different receptions that greeted Japanese horror and monster pictures outside their country of origin. Kaiju eiga— the monster movies— took the world by storm in the middle decades of the 20th century, with impacts that are still felt today. Japanese horror films, on the other hand, didn’t enjoy anything like the same degree of exposure abroad until the international “J-horror” boom twenty or so years ago. It isn’t hard to intuit why, either, if you’ve seen a few Japanese fright films from the Showa era (1926-1989, although it’s mainly the post-1950 period that concerns us at the moment). Most of those movies are rooted very deeply indeed in the culture and history of their homeland, leaning heavily on background information that most foreigners will have had little reason or opportunity to learn. Anyone can get up to speed pretty quickly on “somebody tested an atom bomb on the wrong Pacific island, and now there’s an indestructible, radioactive dinosaur on the loose,” but ghost cats, umbrella goblins, haunted crabs, and nine-tailed foxes take some explaining if you didn’t grow up with them.

     That’s why it feels so weird to me that the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy,” a trio of conceptually akin but narratively unconnected films directed for Toho by Michio Yamamoto throughout the early 1970’s, remain just as obscure in the West as The Tale of Ugetsu or The Black Cat. These movies were made as a direct response to the popularity in Japan of European and American fright films— especially the output of Hammer Film Productions, the Roger Corman Poe cycle, and Mario Bava’s early-60’s gothics— and they employ familiar Western horror tropes like vampires, grave-robbing, evil hypnotists, and reclusive families with sinister secrets. I can see no reason why they shouldn’t have gone over at least as well on this side of the Pacific as comparable contemporary pictures from Italy, Spain, or West Germany— stuff like Baron Blood, Orgy of the Vampires, or The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism.

     That isn’t at all what happened, though. None of the “Bloodthirsty” flicks got a regular American theatrical run, and they’ve all been difficult to see in this country until quite recently. The second and third films in the set, Accursed House: Bloodthirsty Eyes and Bloodthirsty Rose, did at least get picked up for sale to television by that recidivist importer of Japanese schlock, Henry G. Saperstein, and spent a few years in the early 80’s showing up very occasionally on the boob tube as Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula respectively. They also got low-volume VHS releases in 1994 from Paramount’s discount home video label, Gateway, but I only ever saw them at a single rental shop back in the day— and that place had a copy of The Pig Fucking Movie! The originator of the cycle, Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodthirsty Doll, didn’t fare even as well as its successors. Unless you caught it in 1971, when it garnered a few brief engagements at Japantown specialty theaters in Honolulu, Los Angeles, and New York under the titles, Night of the Vampire and Legacy of Dracula: The Bloodthirsty Doll, you were shit out of luck. I never even encountered a bootleg tape anywhere! But because we now live in the Age of Boutique Video Label Wonders, that sorry state of affairs has been corrected at last. This time, we have Arrow Video to thank for rescuing a formerly inaccessible movie from the trash heap of history. Maybe their double-disc release of the whole triptych will finally win Toho’s virtually forgotten Hammer impersonations a bit of the attention they deserve.

     Yamamoto and screenwriters Ei Ogawa and Hiroshi Nagano wear their influences on their sleeves right from the start. Up-and-coming young businessman Kazuhiko Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura, from Kwaidan and Legend of the Devil), when we meet him, may be riding in a modern taxi instead of a horse-drawn coach, but he’s on his way just the same to a remote village in the hills to visit the gloomy castle where his fiancée, Yuko Nonomura (Yukiko Kobayashi, of Destroy All Monsters and Yog: Monster from Space), grew up. There’s an ominous thunderstorm on, naturally, and the cab driver is beginning to fear that they’ve lost their way when the Chateau Nonomura comes into view in the next valley over through a gap in the trees. Sagawa has something more serious than the driving conditions weighing on his mind, however, for Yuko was supposed to meet him at the train station when he returned from his latest trip abroad. On the other hand, if she and her family live this far out in the depths of nowhere, maybe his telegram arranging the rendezvous just never reached her.

     That’s one way to put it. As Sagawa learns from Yuko’s mother, Shidu (A Man Called Tiger’s Yoko Minakaze), after she rescues him from the unprovoked violence of her deaf-mute manservant, Genzo (Kaku Takashina, who would return for Lake of Dracula the following year), Kazuhiko and his telegram alike arrived too late. Yuko was killed two weeks ago, on a night very much like this one, when her car was caught in a landslide. Understanding that the news comes as just as big a shock to Sagawa as it did to her the week before last, Mrs. Nonomura offers to put him up for the night, and to take him to visit his beloved’s grave in the morning. But no sooner has Kazuhiko set himself up in one of the many guest rooms than he begins seeing— or thinking he sees, at any rate— his supposedly deceased fiancée here and there about the house. It never happens under conditions in which it can’t be explained away as a combination of dreams, tricks of the light, and wishful thinking, but Sagawa doesn’t believe it’s any of those things at all. He thinks Yuko is still alive, and is being kept from him for some unfathomable reason by her mother. Then, in the middle of the night, Sagawa pursues an apparition of the missing girl to her very gravesite on the chateau grounds, and at last encounters Yuko face to face. Something about her isn’t right, however. Her eerie stillness and silence are bad enough, but nobody’s eyes should ever be that shade of gold. Nevertheless, Kazuhiko takes hold of Yuko, promising to take her away with him and do whatever is necessary to restore her—

     —and many miles away in Tokyo, his younger sister, Keiko (Kayo Matsuo, from Gate of Flesh and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx), comes suddenly awake from a terrible dream in which something unspeakable befell him. Keiko is not totally without reason for reading some portent or premonition into her nightmare, either, because Kazuhiko has always been extremely conscientious about keeping in touch with her on all of his travels. It’s been fully eight days now since she last heard from him, however— he never even called to announce his safe arrival at the Nonomura house in Tadeshina! It’s sufficiently out of character to worry Keiko even without any reinforcement from bad dreams. Truly wound up by the time her own lover, Hiroshi Takagi (Akira Nakao, of Death at an Old Mansion and Ninja Wars), calls on the telephone to discuss some excursion they had planned to make together that afternoon, Keiko instead enlists his help in making sure her brother is alright.

     Mrs. Nonomura confirms that Kazuhiko stopped by, but says he didn’t stay long after learning of Yuko’s tragic fate. However, something about the woman’s manner (and her manor, too, for that matter) convinces Keiko that she’s hiding something, and she and Hiroshi decide to remain in the area and dig deeper. First, a visit to Yuko’s grave turns up one of Kazuhiko’s cufflinks, ominously stained with what certainly looks like blood. Then a bit of faked-up car trouble wins the couple permission to stay the night at the chateau, during the course of which Hiroshi has his own violent encounter with Genzo, and Keiko her own Yuko sighting. A trip to the local government office building the following morning uncovers more information about Yuko’s accident, including the name of the doctor who examined her and pronounced her dead, together with a strange story about a lurid crime at the Nonomura place twenty-odd years ago. Evidently there was a massacre which only Shidu herself survived; the culprit was never caught, and the timing— nine months before Yuko’s birth— was such that the girl was almost certainly conceived by rape that night, although all concerned have been spared from thinking too much about that by the minor mercy of traumatic amnesia. And an interview with Dr. Yamaguchi (Jun Usami, of Black Lizard and Yagyu Chronicles 4: The One-Eyed Swordsman) reveals him to be unexpectedly open-minded on the subject of inexplicable returns from the dead, while calling attention to several small, strange inconsistencies among the several versions of the story of Yuko’s death which the investigators have heard thus far. Keiko and Hiroshi split up at that point to pursue different sets of leads. Hiroshi locates the workman (Tadao Futami, who’d come back not only for Lake of Dracula, but for Evil of Dracula as well) who buried Yuko two weeks back, and bribes him into helping out with a little D.I.Y. exhumation. Keiko, meanwhile, storms back to the chateau, where she gets herself into simply immense amounts of trouble, of just the types that we would expect from a gothic heroine.

     None of this movie’s several titles are entirely apt in plot-centric terms; there are no ghosts or vampires in the usual senses of the words (although the characters apply both to Yuko more or less indiscriminately), let alone Count Dracula, and the only dolls are a broken one which furnishes Keiko with an early clue, and the dummy that will turn out to have been substituted for Yuko’s body once Hiroshi and the laborer open up her grave. Nevertheless, Legacy of Dracula is a fitting handle from a thematic point of view, insofar as The Vampire Doll has Terrence Fisher’s and Anthony Hinds’s fingerprints all over it. Kazuhiko Sagawa’s fate, for example, makes him an obvious stand-in for Horror of Dracula’s Jonathan Harker, even if the unfortunate man’s motivation for visiting the Bad Place is a better match for Philip Winthrop in Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The Chateau Nonomura, meanwhile, is a dead ringer for all the Castles of Evil that Hammer’s Bray Studios complex impersonated throughout the 50’s and 60’s, and the unearthing of Yuko’s coffin follows the lead of every “grave violation for a good cause” sequence from The Brides of Dracula to The Vampire Lovers. (For the record, though, the one it matches most closely is in The Plague of the Zombies.) Note that Yamamoto, Ogawa, and Nagano had to go far out of their way to create in-story justifications for such overt borrowing. “Castle” typically has an altogether different set of architectural and decorative implications in Japan than it does in Europe, and the Japanese customarily cremate their dead. Thus we get a scene during Keiko and Hiroshi’s visit in which Mrs. Nonomura explains that her deceased husband had been a diplomat who developed a profound affection for the culture and manners of the Western countries where he conducted most of his business, while the mere fact of Yuko’s burial is treated as evidence that something has gone terribly wrong in the Nonomura household.

     But while the central touchstone may be Hammer horror, what makes The Vampire Doll so compelling is that it tries, with a fair amount of success, to synthesize the entire pre-1968 Western fright-film tradition into something relatable to contemporary Japanese audiences. I’ve already mentioned The Fall of the House of Usher, but Poe surfaces again when Yuko’s true nature is revealed to be a misuse of hypnosis straight out of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (which, you may recall, was adapted as the final segment in Tales of Terror). Dr. Yamaguchi’s third-act heel-turn has me wondering what kind of exposure Vampyr got in Japan. There are surprising echoes of 1960’s psychological horror sprinkled all over the place, particularly with regard to motives and back-stories— an artifact of conceptual disagreement between producer Fumio Tanaka, who sought to muscle in directly on Hammer’s racket, and Yamamoto, who would have preferred to make something more Hitchcockian. And the overall tone of the film is markedly Italianate, to the extent that the plot, never very substantial to begin with, starts to disintegrate in your memory before the closing credits have even finished, like an unsettling dream beneath the onslaught of the alarm clock. I gather that the results were only modestly successful at home, and we’ve already discussed how The Vampire Doll vanished into oblivion in this country. Nevertheless, I found it extremely appealing in its strange almost-ness: almost familiar, almost conventional, almost belonging to several different recognizable subgenres at once, and yet warping each of them until it isn’t quite any of those things at all anymore.



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