Every now and again I stumble across a film whose premise is so fascinatingly odd that I just have to see it. Japan’s Toho studio reacting to the success of British Hammer horror in the 1960s and putting out a loosely connected trilogy of Dracula-inspired vampire films? Sign me up. Like many of the more oddball Japanese titles I watch this came via Arrow Films, who put out a Blu-Ray collecting all three of the so-called ‘Bloodthirsty Trilogy’. I picked it up when I saw it in the January sales and then promptly forgot about it until indecisively browsing for something to watch on a chilly February night. This long-winded preamble to me sitting down to watch The Vampire Doll (1970) is, sadly, probably more entertaining than the film itself.
Back in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s when it was still de rigeur for genre fans to complain about Stephanie Meyer’s vampires in the Twilight series of books and films, it was common to hear people say that they weren’t really vampires. Vampires don’t sparkle when they’re hit by sunlight, they die or burn or turn to dust! But at least Meyer’s vampires drink blood. The most baffling thing about The Vampire Doll is that it’s entirely unclear in what sense it is a vampire film.
Filmed and apparently set in 1970, The Vampire Doll opens with a man (Atsuo Nakamura) visiting his amour (Yukiko Kobayashi) somewhere deep in the Japanese countryside. Because this is riffing on Western Gothic horror, her home is an enormous European-style mansion. In quick succession he is introduced to her distant mother, odd manservant, and the fact that she is, apparently, dead. When he disappears without a trace, the story picks up with his sister and her fiancé trying to track him down. They also wind up in the same creepy mansion with its strange occupants and try to piece together how the brother went missing and what really happened to the recently deceased Yuko.
I think The Vampire Doll basically has two problems. The first is that it isn’t particularly interesting. The characters are all very thinly drawn, the scares don’t really exist, and the plot is both barely there and nonsensical at the same time. The second is that it’s not really a vampire film. If anything, it plays out more like a zombie film – not the George Romero, Night of the Living Dead kind of zombie, but the older, Haitian-influenced perception of what a zombie was. Yuko, injured in a traffic accident, is saved from death by being hypnotised, but becomes a violent monster. It’s not particular clear if she drinks blood, but it is explicitly explained that she attacks the neck in reference to a scar her mother has, not because of any traditional vampire lore. Given that the full title, The Legacy of Dracula, specifically references the European tradition of vampires going back to Bram Stoker’s work and up through ‘60s Hammer horror, it seems incredibly weird that pretty much nothing about the film actually resembles that. If the film had been strong enough to stand alone despite being wildly divergent from the expected vampire lore, that would have been a different matter, and it could have made it all the more fascinating – instead, it’s just baffling.
For a more in-depth look at the film, with a similar conclusion, check out this review of The Bloodthirsty Trilogy over on Frame Rated. It looks like writer Remy Dean had the same reaction to The Vampire Doll as I did (and was similarly critical of it not being a vampire story at all), but at least they rated the other two films in the collection more positively, so I’ve got something to – fingers crossed – look forward to.
There’s some limited joy in the suitably creepy European-style mansion, the juddery, frame-skipping movements of the “vampire”, and just the general weirdness of importing a very Western, Victorian horror idea into 1970s Japan. Mostly, though, it’s a weirdly abridged film that neither bears any particular resemblance to typical vampire stories nor creates something unique and interesting.
The Vampire Doll / 幽霊屋敷の恐怖 血を吸う人形
Director: Michio Yamamoto
Japanese Release Date: 4th June 1970
Version Watched: 71 min