The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (Cert 18)
2 Discs Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 235 minutes approx.
Vampire films are not usually associated with Japanese cinema, since they have their own take on the supernatural for their horror films. Despite the odd entry appearing over the past decade or so, vampires haven’t troubled J-Horror films that much, something Toho studios decided to rectify after seeing the success of the British Hammer Horrors in Japan in the late 60’s.
Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Lady Vampire from 1959 was the first Japanese film to feature vampires but it wasn’t until 1970 that Toho assigned director Michio Yamamoto to offer filmgoers something other than their Godzilla franchise. This eventually evolved into the loosely connected trio of films entitled The Bloodthristy Trilogy, which have been given an HD makeover by the good folk at Arrow Video!
Up first is The Vampire Doll (aka Legacy Of Dracula). Not only does is not feature Dracula at all but strictly speaking nor are any vampires either. It begins with city man Kazuhiko (Atsuo Nakamura) visiting his fiancée Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi) in the country, only to be informed by her oddly calm mother Shidu (Yoko Minakaze) that Yuko was killed in a car accident.
Staying the night, Kazuhiko hears a strange noise and sees Yuko walking in the gardens where she leads him to her grave. A few days later Kazuhiko’s younger sister Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) is worried about her brother’s sudden disappearance and persuades her fiancé Hiroshi (Akira Nakao) to drive her out to Yuko’s house to get some answers.
None of the films in The Bloodthirsty Trilogy breaks the 85-minute mark in their run time so it is interesting to see how slow The Vampire Doll is, saving what little action and scares there are for the slightly farcical climax. Up until then it is all quietly effective atmosphere building and for the audience, a chance to tick off their “Spot the Hammer influence” checklist.
From the old Gothic house setting and conveniently situated nearby woodland area with leafless trees, to the suspiciously ambiguous hostess with her mute gardener, not forgetting the hokey special effects the template is adhered to faithfully. Yet Yamamoto is canny enough to give this a distinct Japanese spin so that these attributes become genre staples and not intensely observed rip-offs.
If The Vampire Doll doesn’t appear to be an encouraging start, 1971’s Lake Of Dracula is a huge leap forward in terms of quality and in vampire presence. A young girl Akiko (Michiyo Yamazoe) chases her dog to a clearing in the forest where an old house stands, inhabited by a creepy old man and a dead woman slumped over a piano. Fast forward to 18 years later and Akiko (Midori Fujita) is an artist living with her younger sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi).
A mysterious delivery to the local fishing port arrives in the form of a white coffin which isn’t empty, and soon many local people are being attacked, their behaviour changing as a result, including Natsuko, whose jealousy towards her older sister starts to show. Akiko calls her doctor boyfriend Takashi (Chôei Takahashi) to help solve the mystery, as she is convinced it is related to a dream she has from her childhood days.
One again co-scripted by Ei Ogawa, this film still misleads us concerning the titular lake but at least we have a genuine vampire antagonist, played by Shin Kishida. Not quite Bela Lugosi or Christophe Lee, Kishida’s Dracula-but-not-Dracula has a blue-grey skin tone and eyes that glow a fiery orange when he’s ready to pounce. He doesn’t say much, instead growling and snarling like an animal but he does cut an evil figure.
Many of the previous Hammer-esque aesthetics are carried over into this film, most notably in the ominous psychedelic painting of a demonic eye of Akiko’s which seems to be a lure of sorts for the vampire. There is a lot more story being told here along with increased action, and at the risk of appearing shallow the two female leads are rather fetching which also helps – especially Sanae Emi who sadly died aged just 36 in 1988.
Shin Kishida returns in Evil Of Dracula, playing the bereaved principle of a small all-girls school in the country. He employs Tokyo teacher Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) to take over as principle which surprises Shiraki as he thought he was just after an ordinary teaching role. But the Principle’s eerie behaviour bothers Shiraki as does that of the other people in the area.
Three pupils, Kumi (Mariko Mochizuki), Yukiko (Mio Ôta) and Kyoko (Keiko Aramaki), are forced to stay behind when Kyoko takes ill but her ailment isn’t treatable by medicine – she is another victim of the vampire Principle, creating slaves for his undead wife (Mika Katsuragi), whose coffin is in the school’s basement. Unfortunately for Shiraki, nobody other than Kumi seems to believe his concerns are real.
Usually a film series suffers from the law of diminishing returns but in this case, the films keep getting better, with this one worth the price of admission alone. Finally realising Hammer also did blood and gore as well as moody horror, Evil Of Dracula sees Ogawa and Yamamoto catch up with the more base instincts of the genre, employing more blood and a little nudity as the vampire doesn’t go for the necks of his female victims but their breasts!
Also in this film, they proffer an explanation for how vampirism came to Japan, pinning the blame on a Christian traveller from the West, persecuted and punished for his beliefs and forced to drink his own blood to survive when left to die in the desert. With this becoming his main source of sustenance, his first victim in satiating his hunger was a Japanese girl; the rest you can figure out yourself, although no direct lineage between this chap and out current day vampire is established.
I don’t know if Hong Kong director John Woo saw this film at all, but the rather tragic final scene did remind me of the equally heartbreaking climax to Woo’s 1989 classic The Killer (possibly a slight spoiler if you’ve seen that film). Otherwise this is more Hammer inspired hokum with the violence and sexuality turned up a few notches, with some truly effective scares and improved visual effects.
Viewed in isolation one might think “so what?” about these films, dismissing them as cheaply made ersatz attempts to copy western horror, but when viewed in sequence, their cult status becomes clearer with each film. There is palpable growth in confidence in Yamamoto’s direction and staging which sees him drift further away from the Hammer template whilst Ogawa comes into his own in creating more interesting and provocative stories.
What is likely to be the main selling point is how these films look on Blu-ray and I can tell you then prints are pristine. That late-60’s, early-70’s slightly pale colour palette remains an overriding influence over the main veneer which dates the films a little but the overall the images are crisp and vivid enough, that the effectiveness of the creepy atmosphere isn’t compromised in the slightest.
The Bloodthristy Trilogy is arguably more cult and “vintage” than “classic” but the typical Japanese earnestness and ambition behind them gives them the curious charm that has made these titles guilty pleasure for discerning film buffs and horror fans alike. Now remastered for the digital age, this superb Blu-ray release should bring joy to long time fans and hopefully make some new ones too.
Any connection to the true Dracula canon is, of course, spurious at best so the individual film titles should be taken with a large pinch of salt, but for a quick bite of creepy Asian nourishment, any one of these films will satiate your hunger. A hokey, campy but highly enjoyable triple treat of retro-J-Horror to sink your teeth into!
Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM Audio
Kim Newman on The Bloodthirsty Trilogy
Reversible sleeve featuring theatrical poster art and original artwork
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ****
Man In Black