ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Rochester is a librarian. Mad about movies and books and film soundtracks. His favorite film is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Released by Toho (the Japanese Studio that brought us Godzilla!), The Vampire Doll (1970), or to give the film its full title, Legacy of Dracula: The Vampire Doll, was the first of a three-part series of Japanese vampire movies (known as the Bloodthirsty Trilogy) which was followed by Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1974). Director of all three of the otherwise unrelated films was Michio Yamamoto, who before taking up directing in 1969, was the Assistant Director on films such as Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Samurai Assassin (1965), starring Toshirô Mifune.
Set in modern-day Japan, The Vampire Doll follows Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) and her fiancé, Hiroshi (Akira Nakao), trying to unravel the mystery behind Keiko’s missing brother, Kazuhiko (Atsuo Nakamura) and the recent death of Kazuhiko’s girlfriend, Yuko Nonomura (Yukiko Kobayashi). Western audiences may not recognize most of the cast, with only Kayo Matsuo (the supreme Ninja in Shogun Assassin (1980)), Atsuo Nakamura (Lin Chung in the 70’s TV series The Water Margin) and Jun Usami (Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)) providing the likely exceptions, but they will recognize many of its tropes and distinct plot influences from Gothic British and Italian horror movies and its touches of Mario Bava, Psycho (1960) and the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations from the 60’s made by Roger Corman. For this reason, the Bloodthirsty Trilogy is often held up as Toho’s answer to the horror films made by the British Hammer studio (1957-).
The setting for much of The Vampire Doll is the fabulous Nonomura mansion – an old, huge Western-style home with a spiral staircase (the scene where Yuko’s mother descends the staircase is straight out of many a Hammer vampire movie), creepy, dark basement, secret doorways, strange cries in the night and even a mute butler called Genzo (who attacks all the guests whenever he gets a chance). The interior design of the house is superb and it is atmospherically, beautifully lit, with some rooms disarmingly bright and welcoming and others so dark with only the characters within lit at all. Some of the interior shots (by Kazutami Hara), especially the ornate shadows cast by flashes of lightning on the brown walls are among the things I enjoyed most about this film. Also impressive is the genuinely scary make-up and look of Yuko Nonomura, who with her green-yellow eyes, long dark hair and pale blue-white dress is more like an Onryō (“vengeful spirit”), a vindictive ghost from Japanese folklore (and movies), instead of one of Hammer’s busty vamps. Horror fans will also appreciate that this film is scarier and a bit less melodramatic than most Hammer films – the blood looks like blood, not like red paint, with the blood-letting scene at the end as realistic as it is spectacular. It is also eerie and atmospheric in places, has a number of genuinely creepy characters, a couple of good jump scares and a disconcerting jump cut out of a (?) dream sequence.
On my list of not so good things about the film are the performances, some of which are a little uneven, and the soundtrack which at times is overbearing and jarring to no positive effect. The middle section of the film, which focuses on the sleuthing and snooping of Keiko and Hiroshi, is a little slow and some of the plot devices (e.g. Hiroshi letting Keiko go back to the Nonomura mansion alone) are unbelievable. It is also very obvious where their snooping is leading. Or so we think ! More intriguing and unusual are the twists and plot lines in the last third of the movie involving the mysterious Dr. Yamaguchi (Jun Usami), Yukio being hypnotized, and maybe not even being dead at all, and her ’empty’ grave – ok, they may be a bit confusing, and you may want to rewind and watch that last section again to take it all in, but you won’t mind, as many of the best moments are in the last quarter of the movie where Yamamoto takes the story away from traditional Western vampire themes and into the realms of the Japanese supernatural. And what makes this film worth watching, regardless of its flaws, is that despite its obvious Western influences it still has its own distinct and vivid style. As such I found it to be an interesting and entertaining Japanese take on the vampire movie.