A while ago – my reviews this year have been scattershot at best – I wrote a quick piece on The Vampire Doll, an odd Japanese horror film from 1970 that was the first of three loosely related, vampire-themed films Toho made in the early ‘70s. I didn’t particularly care for The Vampire Doll, and it took me a while to get around to watching the remaining two films: Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1974). Like The Vampire Doll, they’re both directed by Michio Yamamoto, and all three feature a writing credit for Ei Ogawa. Unlike The Vampire Doll, these two films are actually about vampires!
Let’s begin with Lake of Dracula, as it’s both the second film in the trilogy – and far more forgettable. It’s interesting to note, very briefly, that the English language titles barely reflect the original Japanese titles. The Vampire Doll came closest to a literal translation (血を吸う人形, lit. “Blood-Sucking Doll”), but Lake of Dracula is quirkily accurate even though it’s not remotely literal: it’s the only film in the trilogy to explicitly connect to and reference Bram Stoker’s Dracula as the origin for the film’s vampire. For what it’s worth, it’s also set at a lake. The film follows a young woman named Akiko (Midori Fujita), who as a child dreamt of seeing a terrible, vampire-like being, and now remembers and paints his haunting eyes. The painting of the terrible eye is actually one of the best images in the film, and is reflected in the Japanese title (血を吸う眼, lit. “Blood-Sucking Eye”). Her life is interrupted when a huge package, literally labelled as being sent by Dracula, arrives and turns out to be the coffin of a vampire – the very vampire she saw as a child.
In some ways, it’s a better film than The Vampire Doll, and would represent a marked improvement if it didn’t just feel so lifeless and, frankly, dull. Despite the short running time, I ended up watching it in two sittings, as the film just couldn’t hold my interest (watching the last forty minutes or so of a janky ‘70s vampire film is a peculiar accompaniment to breakfast). The vampire himself, played by Shin Kishida (who would return as a different vampire in the third film, Evil of Dracula) is kind of goofy, and my initial assumption that he was actually meant to be the legendary Dracula turns out to be wrong, with the film’s plot being unnecessarily complicated and weird: he is a vampire, and the son of a descendent of Dracula, and I really don’t care. I think there’s actually a problem with most takes on Dracula – unless it’s a straight up adaptation of the original novel, any attempt to work Dracula into another story feels quite silly (cf. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where it is at least intended to be silly). Vampires, fine, but not the original Dracula.
Still, despite the wavering quality, fans of gory horror effects may want to stick around to the end as there are a couple of shots that come out of nowhere in an otherwise staid film, with skin tearing off the bone and a melting vampire to boot.
Moving on to Evil of Dracula (1974) and we find the film that has the most solid footing. Given the previous two films, maybe that’s not saying much, but it’s still the most interesting and enjoyable of the three. I’d credit that mostly to my appreciation of Kunie Tanaka – a character actor frequently seen through the ‘70s, perhaps best known for his role in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity films – but more on him in a moment. Evil of Dracula follows Professor Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) as he arrives at an all-girls boarding school out in the sticks. Things start off suitably creepy – the standoffish train station staff, the lack of people on the streets, the recent car crash he passes on his way to the school to meet the principal (Shin Kishida, whose casting rather gives the game away). The mysteries start to deepen as Shiraki hears of girls going missing and has vision of one who should have died in the car wreck.
Where Kunie Tanaka comes in is as one of Shiraki’s fellow teachers, the somewhat eccentric Shimomura. He’s a medical doctor, but obsessed with local folklore, including a tale – quite intriguing shot and acted in the form of a flashback – of a white westerner who was shipwrecked and persecuted for being a Christian. It’s one of the rare bits of backstory across the three films that actually works. The chunk of Evil of Dracula where Shiraki and Shimomura team up to investigate what’s going on and try to stop the vampires abducting more of the school’s girls is likewise the strongest section of the trilogy. I love a good investigation in a horror movie, with this one reminding me a little of Ringu, particularly with the vague similarities between Shimomura here and Ryuji in Ringu as the ones interested in the unusual or paranormal.
It’s a shame, then, that the last act goes quite aggressively off the rails, with complications from the police, additional vampires, some good old-fashioned face-stealing, and more heaped upon the story. Curiously, one complication that is never actually explored is the rose: the film’s Japanese title is actually 血を吸う薔薇 (lit. The Blood-sucking Rose) and sure enough, there is a rose that changes from white to red as the vampires drink blood. Beyond that, though, the rose never features in the plot or attaches to the vampires backstory. The confrontations with Kishida’s vampire are if anything even sillier than in Lake of Dracula, robbing the end of any real threat or weight, and the effects are just as gross this time around, but less shock by repetition.
In the end, Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy is an extremely unusual beast. I don’t think any of the films hold up particularly well, with Evil of Dracula being the best of a bad bunch. Not quite camp enough to be fun for a solo watch, they might fare better as a communal viewing experience – at the very least, Kishida’s vampire is likely to draw a few laughs, and there are a handful of gonzo moments of dialogue or storytelling that might elicit a response. I’ve struggled to find accounts of contemporary Japanese reception; while presumably the series was successful enough to merit three films in total, looking at the careers of most of those involved suggests it launched few of them to greater heights. Yamamoto would only direct a handful of other films – his most illustrious credit is probably as assistant director a decade earlier, on Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood – while Kishida’s career was cut short by his early death at just 43. Most of the female stars are barely credited in any other features. It creates the impression of a kind of evolutionary dead end in Japanese film; the attempt to inject some European gothic horror failed. In the end, I don’t regret having watched them – if nothing else, I get a kick out of ‘70s Japan, with the cars and the fashion and the sense of place – but I do wish there was more here to recommend.
Lake of Dracula / 呪いの館 血を吸う眼
Evil of Dracula / 呪いの館 血を吸う薔薇
Director: Michio Yamamoto
Japanese Release Dates: 16th June 1971 & 20th July 1974
Version Watched: Arrow Video “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” Release