Arrow Video: The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (1970-1974) - Reviewed

When we think of Japanese or otherwise Asian horror from the 1950s onward, typically traditional period pieces such as the anthological jidaigeki Kwaidan, the Kabuki play The Ghost of Yotsuya, the macabre phantasmagorical Jigoku and more recently the emergence of the Ringu and Ju-On film series.  Stemming from indigenous fears and superstitions of the supernatural, Japanese horror is distinctive for being intrinsically linked to the culture with visceral horrors whose primary influences come from within. 

Up to the late 1960s, the closest the Japanese film industry came towards depicting the frankly extraterrestrial European concept of vampirism came from Shochiku’s brief foray into horror with The Living Skeleton as well as the bizarre and psychedelic space vampire hybrid Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell.  Otherwise anything resembling Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee from the Universal or Hammer depictions of Bram Stoker’s infamous Count Dracula remained outside the Japanese film industry’s vocabulary.

That is, until Japanese filmmaker Michio Yamamoto made his brief splash onto the silver screen via Toho with a trilogy of films that couldn’t be more directly or heavily influenced by the aforementioned Hammer Horror films of the undying bloodsucking count if they tried.  Initially conceived as standalone pictures before being loosely linked together as The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, Yamamoto’s rarely seen, dismissed and initially forgotten Westernized Japanese vampire films represent an outlier in J-horror. 

While finding their own footing with many hallmarks germane to Japanese culture, it is undeniable Yamamoto’s film series is a loose riff on Horror of Dracula as well as much of the British Dracula horror films that followed.  Filled with dark cobweb filled mansions, creepy bats and rats, thunderstorms and of course the pale faced bloody fanged children of the night themselves, Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy is a curious footnote in the J-horror genre for being neither fully Japanese nor European, meeting somewhere in the middle.  With this, let us take a look at Arrow Video’s recently released collection of the trilogy

The Vampire Doll (1970)

The first in Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy is the one least associative with the fanged bloodsuckers seen in the Hammer Horror series and arguably the most traditionally Japanese of the three despite being steeped in Western gothic horror.  Following Kazuhiko Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) to an isolated mansion in an effort to connect with his fiancĂ© Yuko Nonomura (Yukiko Kobayashi) residing there, only to vanish without a trace and prompt his sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) and her fiancĂ© Hiroshi Takagi (Akira Nakao) to investigate.  What they find unravels a sordid and violent familial past including but not limited to hypnotism, a mute butler ala Boris Karloff from The Old Dark House, a creepy dungeon, and a doctor who may not more about Yuko and Kazuhiko’s whereabouts than he’s telling.

The least compelling and least overtly vampire oriented yet most methodically paced of the trilogy, The Vampire Doll bears familiar Japanese iconography such as Yuko’s mother Shidu (Yoko Minakaze) donning the only kimono seen in the film but largely places it’s characters in traditionally western garb.  Much like the first entry of the teen slasher Friday the 13th series, we don’t really get to see the blood dripping fangs here but are provided with plenty of backstory amid relatively gory slashing of its own devising, functioning as a loose lead in to what would follow after in the next picture.  Moreover, it’s more aligned with the anthological Kwaidan for being slower paced and harkening back to horror tales of vengeful spirits fixing to take out their grudges on those who wronged them. 

Visually this widescreen effort lensed by Kazutami Hara, who would reunite with Yamamoto on the eventual third offering Evil of Dracula, is steeped in deep shadows, dusky blues of night and wide shots of elongated mansion hallways with blowing curtains and creaky doors.  Outside of the cast members, from a distance you wouldn’t know this was a Japanese horror film purely from the visual look of the film which more closely resembles the European gothic horror tales which inspired it.  The sound design of howling winds and soundtrack by Riichiro Manabe with frequent use of the harpsicord as well as the electronic theremin also elicit a traditionally western soundtrack both contemporary and ancient, sounding less and less like Kwaidan or Jigoku with each passing cue.

In the end, however, The Vampire Doll, while establishing an atmosphere that’s generally creepy and unnerving, other than tampering with the undead it never officially declares itself as a vampire motion picture, making the title and impetus behind it somewhat misleading.  Seen today it could be characterized as a gothic slow burn in the eyes of modern moviegoers.  That said, it’s a fascinating lead in to what would or would not become The Bloodthirsty Trilogy and moreover whether or not the Japanese film industry was ready to make the jump into tackling the now world famous pale faced eternal bloodsucker tropes the Universal and Hammer Horror films made so instantly recognizable.

Lake of Dracula (1971)

Following in the footsteps of The Vampire Doll while making the connection to Bram Stoker’s creature of the night more visible, Lake of Dracula opens on what appears to be a terrifying nightmare about little girl Akiko Kashiwagi who follows her escaped dog into an old mansion to confront a golden eyed vampire…or is it?  Eighteen years pass Akiko (Midori Fujita) into adulthood with the same recurring nightmare until one day a mysterious package containing a coffin appears at the lakeside by Akiko’s home.  Soon her sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi) and the local motorboat operator begin behaving strangely and the body count rises as Akiko and her boyfriend Dr. Takashi Saeki (Choei Takahashi) try to unravel the mystery and connection to her recurring nightmares before it is too late.

More briskly paced this time around with the vampirism promised in the first film finally making his presence known thanks to the pale skinned and fanged Shin Kishida’s frank imitation of Christopher Lee, Lake of Dracula takes on the form of an energetic suspense thriller with elements of horror as well as far more blood and gore than the previous entry.  Though it switches cinematographers this time around to Rokuro Nishigaki, the visual schema of dark nighttime blues and deep shadows from the first film is ever present.  Where it differs greatly is the editing thanks to Hisashi Kondo, both formal in approach for the narrative and experimental in psychedelic flashbacks cut together in a series of rapid fire subliminal edits. 

Unlike The Vampire Doll which moved slowly and seemed to depict one mysterious creature of the night, Lake of Dracula runs fast and presents many of the undead with once former allies of Akiko slowly falling prey to the vampire’s demonic spell.  As aforementioned, Lake of Dracula is significantly more gruesome than the previous film, including a grisly death clearly channeling the infamous vampiric demise closing Horror of Dracula.  It also has its footing grounded in the past, going back and forth between it and the present as the missing pieces in the long unresolved mystery plaguing Akiko’s dreams gradually come together. 

Two films into The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, one gets the sense the series is moving even closer towards becoming an imitation of the Hammer Horror Dracula film series with many of the European tropes overlapping Japanese horror traditions.  While an effective and frequently haunting action thriller entry, it was only a matter of time before the loose connective tissue linking Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy to the British horror films which inspired it became far more overt with the final entry in the series, Evil of Dracula.

Evil of Dracula (1974)

Saving the best for last and not holding back on wearing influences proudly on its sleeve, Evil of Dracula being the third and final entry into Yamamoto’s loose Bloodthirsty Trilogy goes for broke as the most naked imitation of the Hammer Horror films, notably Lust for a Vampire.  Upon the arrival of young Professor Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) in a remote all-girls school, our hero senses something strange almost immediately upon meeting the pale faced Principal (Shin Kishida from Lake of Dracula) before bumping into more than one of his mercurial wives.  As he unveils his coursework to the students, more and more of them either begin fainting or become sickly as bite marks appear on their breasts.  It doesn’t take long for the strange phenomenon to erupt into a full blown epidemic with the Professor in a race against time to locate the source before its too late.

Evil of Dracula bears the distinction of being the most Hammer Horror influenced while also managing to conjure up tropes of Japanese horror both modern and steeped in the past.  In a way it brings the connective tissue linking the East to the West full circle, with Riichiro Manabe’s soundtrack ranging freely from contemporary somber Jazz to jidaigeki instrumentation for the first time in the trilogy.  The film also bears the trademark of being the one and only entry to feature an English speaking actor.  Seen briefly in a flashback as a priest washed ashore who is tortured into apostasy while bringing along with him a far more dastardly disease, serving a meta-commentary on where the foreign vampire myth originated.  Significantly more carnal and graphically violent this time around, including nudity, exposed breasts with bite marks, facial transplantation and rapid physical decrepitude, Evil of Dracula is easily the most adult oriented entry of the series yet.

If Lake of Dracula tried to let more than one bloodsucker loose on the unsuspecting populous, Evil of Dracula unleashes an army as fellow colleagues and students of the Professor fall prey to the bloodsucker’s spell before coming him seemingly from all sides.  Wherein the first two films bore an easy distinction between who was human and who was of the undead, you’re not really sure how far the infectious vampire disease has spread here which gives the picture and the events in it a sense of vastness.  Moreover, Evil of Dracula in addition to being a horror film manages to sneak in social commentary regarding the ease with which a schoolmaster in a position of power can seduce and/or sexually abuse his student body. 

Bringing the Bloodthirsty Trilogy to a close, Evil of Dracula despite being criticized at the time as a mere ripoff of Lust for a Vampire stands out as the loudest, most energetic and finally the most Japanese entry of the trilogy.  Coming full circle and managing to deliver distinctly East Asian chills not heard since Toho’s own release of Kwaidan in the years prior, Evil of Dracula represents the pinnacle of the series for taking the influences of Hammer Horror all the way with relish before bringing it back to Japan.  In that sense Evil of Dracula is the most artistically successful film of the trilogy, functioning as a Western influenced horror film while also being a commentary on how such influences shaped the face of Japanese horror.

- Andrew Kotwicki