Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Vampire Doll (1970)

Original title: Yûrei yashiki no kyôfu: Chi wo sû ningyô

aka Legacy of Dracula

aka Fear of the Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll

Beware: I am going to spoil some plot elements of this four decades old movie!

After six months overseas, doctor Kazuhiko (Atsuo Nakamura) makes his way to the home of his fiancée Yuko Nomura (Yukiko Kobayashi). Once he’s arrived at her family mansion, and after the Nomura’s family servant Genzo (Kaku Takashina) has stopped trying to kill him (“he’s mute and hard of hearing” is his excuse), Yuko’s mother (Yoko Minakaze) gives him very bad news. Apparently, Yuko has died in a car accident about two weeks ago. Mum will show Kazuhiko her daughter’s grave the next day, and he can stay the night.

While Kazuhiko is lying in bed, still trying to come to grips with the news of Yuko’s sudden death, he hears the sounds of a woman crying. The noise leads him to Yuko’s former bedroom where he encounters what looks a lot like the girl herself, just very pale and with a strange look on her face, and hiding herself in a walk-in closet. Before Kazuhiko can act on this, he is knocked out. When he awakes, Yuko is gone, and her mother suggests he just must have had a very bad dream. But when he’s alone again, Kazuhiko looks out the window and sees someone who looks very much like Yuko running away from the house. He follows her to a graveyard. There, Yuko first begs him to kill her, but Kazuhiko instead moves in for hug. The traditional hug-cam shows a shot of Yuko’s face, her eyes turning into something halfway between cat and lizard, a terrible grin on her lips, and a knife in her hand just about to cut into Kazuhiko.

Which is when Kazuhiko’s sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) awakes in her home from a terrible nightmare about him. Keiko is very concerned, for she hasn’t heard anything from her brother at all ever since he went off to see Yuko at the family mansion; usually, he would have phoned, but…nothing. Keiko convinces her friend – supposedly her fiancée but they don’t really act that way – Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) to drive to Yuko’s mansion with her. There, Mrs Nonomura tells them the same story she told Kazuhiko about Yuko, adding that Kazuhiko left right on the day he came. Keiko has a bad feeling about all of this, and it’s little wonder. Not only doesn’t this story fit Kazuhiko (nor the things the audience has seen) but Mrs Nonomura is pretty damn creepy, and her house comes directly out of a western gothic horror novel. When Keiko and Hiroshi find one of Kazuhiko’s cufflinks in the graveyard covered in blood, they decide to investigate.

Usually, The Vampire Doll is seen as the first of Toho’s loose trilogy of western vampire inspired horror films directed by Michio Yamamoto. It’s a vampire movie in the loosest sense of the term, though, with a concept of vampirism that is an interesting cross of yurei lore, weird science, and a certain M. Valdemar. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, for the film’s own little vampire mythology is really rather more interesting than your usual bloodsucking count, opening the doors for a bit of psychological depth, as well as some lurid gothic family drama. To someone who has seen a lot of vampire movies, it’s always a pleasant surprise when a film’s version of vampirism offers some surprises.

Not that these surprise are all Yamamoto’s film has going for it. There’s some lovely set design at play in the western-style mansion the Nonomura family (or what’s left of it) is living in, the place sharing a clear kinship to comparable edifices in Italian gothic horror of the 60s, perhaps with a smidgen of Hammer added to the mix; the western Gothic once again viewed through Japanese eyes. The mansion is pleasantly creepy, Yamamoto using the strangeness of the place for all it is worth, interpreting it as the logical expression of the dubious history of the family whose last members (of course another obvious gothic trope) now dwell in it.

Obviously, there’s a very clear consciousness of the where and what-for of the tropes of gothic horror visible in The Vampire Doll. The film may update the dark family secret to something a little more contemporary to the Japanese experience and interests of the time, yet it still hits basically every note of the film version of the genre (with an added heavy debt to Poe himself - more than to Poe by the way of Corman, interestingly enough), effectively turning the Japanese countryside into the playground of otherwise difficult to express anxieties about the influence of the past (which, as it was in Germany at the same time, too, was not something people liked to talk about, for obvious reasons) on the younger generation, the older generation exclusively consisting of people who harbour dark secrets instead of helpful advice.

Apart from this, The Vampire Doll is also a film rather fetching to look at. Yamamoto makes particularly interesting use of blotches of deep black that isolate characters as well as emphasise them, but he’s also adept at the art of the slightly disquieting camera angle, and knows how to use coloured lighting (though not to an excessive degree). Yuko is rather effectively creepy in her habits: she tends to appear in the corner of a room (and therefore the corner of the eye), head down, pale-skinned, and stiffly limbed like a doll or a corpse. Add to that the jerky jump-cut movements she uses in a few scenes, prefiguring J-horror and the US consequences, and the whole idea of a dead woman kept artificially alive while losing everything that actually made her the woman she was, and you have a very effective, and sympathetic, monster.

On a plot level, The Vampire Doll is told like a weird mystery (a favourite genre in Japanese art), with Keiko and Hiroshi attempting to understand what’s going on around them through very traditional means of investigation yet always stumbling back into the realm of the gothic again; even a visit with the local doctor produces a ghost story. Clearly, trying to understand the world like a detective only works when that world is actually built on a basis a detective could understand.

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