Starring Yoko Minazake, Yukiko Kobayashi, Midori Fujita, Toshio Kurosawa
Directed by Michio Yamamoto
Distributed by Arrow Video
Toho Studios is seen the world over as the house Godzilla built, so much so it can be easy to forget they produce features that don’t star everyone’s favorite kaiju. Taking cues from Western cinema of the late ‘60s, specifically the Gothic horror pictures coming out of Hammer Films in the U.K., Toho and director Michio Yamamoto set out to produce a loosely connected trilogy of fanged fables in the early ‘70s that are collectively known as The Bloodthirsty Trilogy. In many ways these pictures feel like Hammer-meets-Bava by way of Tokyo, with stark lighting choices and a romantically grim atmosphere practically oozing off the screen. The three features are related in subject matter only, and despite their titles only one actually features a character named “Dracula” (and he isn’t even seen on screen), but they are linked through key crew members and a visual palette that is patently Western while also being unmistakably Japanese.
The trilogy lifts off with The Vampire Doll (1970), which is an alternate title used by both the Japanese and American market. Personally, I like the original title, The Ghost Mansion’s Horror: A Bloodsucking Doll, but it’s maybe a bit long. Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) drives through a furious storm to visit his girlfriend, Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi), at her remote countryside home but his excitement is instantly stamped out upon arrival when he learns she has died. As Mrs. Nonomura (Yoko Minazake), Yuko’s mother, explains to Sagawa, Yuko was killed in a car accident a couple of weeks ago; her grave is just outside in a small plot. Sagawa, grief stricken, stays the night but the wailing of a woman awakens him. His investigation leads him to… Yuko? Smash cut to Keiko (Kayo Matsuo) waking up in a panic, filled with terror thinking something has happened to her brother, Sagawa. She and her boyfriend, Hiroshi (Akira Nakao), drive out to Yuko’s family home in an effort to quell her fears.
That plan doesn’t go so well when Mrs. Nonomura informs Keiko her brother left the previous night… but Keiko isn’t so quick to buy that story. Hiroshi, interested in prowling the grounds to dig deeper into the mystery, feigns car trouble and asks if they can crash there for the night. Mrs. Nonomura agrees but her faithful servant, Genzo (Kaku Takashina), appears distrustful of the duo. He’s a grabby dude who loves to brawl, as evidenced by the fact he fights, like, three or four people in this film – and he’s not very skilled at it. Later, the vampire mystery has an additional family crisis tacked on to it in the form of a home invasion shooting that took place in the past and left much of the Nonomura family dead. Genzo and Mrs. Nonomura were the only survivors. But then, why is her daughter a vampire?
I was immediately sucked into the Hammer-in-Japan vibe Yamamoto was going for, with rich imagery, bold colors, lush atmosphere, and Beatles hair. The opening title card is striking, with huge red lettering covering the screen, imposed over the glimpse of a large home illuminated by lightning on a rainy night, with a piercing harpsichord score setting the tone. The best word I can use to describe the film’s aesthetic is “Gothic”; the stately manor where the Nonomuras live is a horror staple. Yamamoto still works in traditional Japanese horror elements, such as the ever-present Pale Girl with Long Black Hair, and the film still has much of the trademark weirdness viewers expect, too. The mystery is stifled a bit once the mass murder is introduced – its inclusion doesn’t quite jibe with the film we’ve seen so far – but the ending wraps things up soundly and provides a few satisfying moments. Vampire Doll is a strong kick-off to the trilogy and, thankfully, the rest of the films follow suit in terms of quality.
Next up is Lake of Dracula (1971), which opens with a gorgeous sunset sequence wherein a child is playing by the beach with her dog. When the dog runs off, the little girl gives chase and winds up at a dilapidated home by the Cliffside. She cautiously ventures inside and… vampire! Cut to 18 years later and it turns out the opening was just another one of Akiko’s (Midori Fujita) recurring dreams. She now lives in a bucolic little paradise situated around a lake. One day, a large crate arrives, shipped from a “Dracula”, and within is an equally-large coffin. A worker, Kyusaku (Kaku Takashina), curiously and carefully opens the lid later that night to find… nothing. But then a vampire attacks him immediately after.
Akiko welcomes her boyfriend, Dr. Takashi Saki (Choei Takahashi), and her sister, Natsuko (Sanae Emi), to town but the trio is complicated since Natsuko secretly loves Takashi. The good doctor has enough on his plate already, what with victims arriving at the hospital with unexplained bite marks on their necks. Not long after his arrival in town, the vampire sets his sights on Akiko and those around her. But why is he targeting her, and what do these dreams have to do with Akiko’s current reality? Just as with Vampire Doll the plot sets up a few novel twists and keeps the story interesting right up to the very end.
Lake dials back on the Gothic horror elements for the most part, presenting a film that goes against the grain in terms of structure and setting. As implied by the title, our lead vampire takes a vacation to a charming, placid little lake. Plenty of the film takes place during the day. Characters are granted more depth, providing an unexpected pathos and making the mystery truly intriguing. Tropes of the genre are still used but used effectively. Yamamoto has an eye for intimate, elegant framing as well as stunning vistas. The sunset seen during both the opening and climax of the film is a fiery, toxic cloud of unearthly creation – and it looks stunning. The vampire has blazing golden eyes. The ghoulish make-up done to the vampire’s servants is simple and effective. Once again, Riichiro Manabe provides a stirring score.
The trilogy is laid to rest with Evil of Dracula (1974), concluding with an entry that, despite the title, is actually quite touching. Professor Shiraki (Toshio Kurosawa) arrives in a new town, prepared to take on a position in a local school. He is slightly put off, though, when he finds the town nearly abandoned. The school’s principal (Shin Kishida) offers to let Shiraki stay in his home. It’s a creepy home. Not only does it look haunted but in the night Shiraki encounters a wailing vampire in a blue negligee; however, in the morning he isn’t so sure it wasn’t a dream. His introduction to the school starts off suspiciously when he learns a girl, Keiko (Yasuko Agawa), disappeared the other night – and she was wearing a blue negligee.
After a college girl is bitten by a vampire, Shiraki is told the origin of the bloodsuckers. In short, some wandering white dude shipwrecked on the shores of Japan, abandoned Christ, and wound up drinking his own blood for survival. The man acquired a taste and eventually, somehow, created vampires as we know them. Student dorms are put on lockdown until this vampire crisis is solved, with a few girls offering to watch over the one who was recently attacked. The vampire still finds a way inside, though. Shiraki thinks he knows who is behind the attacks, but his charge carries with it a lot of weight and as the new guy he has little leverage.
Yamamoto had yet to disappoint me with his endings and Evil has the best yet, finishing off his trilogy with something poignant and unexpectedly sympathetic. He also offers up the trilogy’s most horrific scene yet, wherein a girl has a pair of scissors jabbed into her neck – complete with massive blood geyser! – before having her face sliced off. Much gnarlier than anything we’ve seen in these films up to this point and it managed to get a “Holy shit!” reaction on my end. This is also the only entry to show breasts which, coincidentally (?), are where the vamps like to strike in this film. I didn’t necessarily miss the absence of strong violence or nudity in the previous two films… but I wasn’t complaining when they appeared here.
According to Arrow Video, all three films have been “remastered from the original film preservation films elements by Toho Co., Ltd., and delivered as high definition masters to Arrow Films. Additional picture restoration work was completed at R3 Studios, London.” All three films feature a 2.35:1 1080p image, and all three are of similar enough quality that my remarks apply across the board. If you know anything about Toho and home video, you’ll know the studio isn’t known for their meticulous storing of original film elements. These transfers are in good shape nonetheless, with all three looking cleanly restored and no signs of excessive damage or dirt. Anamorphic lenses soften the edges of the image already, but these films tend to have a slight softness throughout. Film grain is moderate, appearing cinematic with occasional bouts of heaviness making the image a bit noisy. Colors are generally strong, with bold bright hues gaining a nice pop. There are many wide shots of the Japanese landscape and the images are beautiful. Despite a few clear flaws the pictures presented here are more than acceptable and, given Toho’s notoriety in this department, practically a revelation.
Doll provides only a Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono track, while Lake and Evil offer that plus an English dub. I generally don’t go for dubs, and truthfully I didn’t even sample these, but the original Japanese tracks offer a simple and balanced audio experience. The clear highlights of all three films are Riichiro Manabe’s exquisite scores, which are delivered with excellent fidelity. Subtitles are available in English.
There is scant bonus material, which is not a shock considering these are Toho productions. The studio is famously disinterested in extras on foreign releases, but this release does contain one nice bonus and a bit of ephemera.
Kim Newman on The Bloodthirsty Trilogy is a 16-minute chat with the famed critic and film historian, covering the production of all three films.
The discs also include trailers for all three films, along with stills galleries for all three, too. The cover art is reversible and, yes, the trilogy of Japanese posters on the back side looks awesome.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation transferred from original film elements
- Uncompressed Mono 1.0 PCM audio
- Newly translated English subtitles
- Kim Newman on The Bloodthirsty Trilogy, a new video appraisal by the critic and writer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin
- First pressing only: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp
The Bloodthirsty Trilogy is one of my favorite Arrow Video releases of the year, not so much for the quality of its content as for my being exposed to these rarely seen works. I’m also speaking as someone who has been a huge fan of Toho Studios (thanks to Godzilla) for over 30 years, so to see more pictures done during their prime years – especially horror – is a welcomed treat. Each entry is distinct and follows its own enigmatic tale, yet they share enough similarities that the idea of lumping them together as a trilogy works.