Every monster has an origin story, and for the vampires who haunt the Japanese Bloodthirsty trilogy, that story begins in the late 1960s or early 1970s. While attending a wrap party, film and television director Michio Yamamoto was overheard chatting with somebody about what he would like to do for his next project. “I’d like to make a film that would really make audiences scream," Yamamoto stated.
His frightening proclamation caught the attention of a Toho producer named Fumio Tanaka, who also happened to be a huge Dracula fan and who wanted to make Dracula-esque movies for the Japanese market. Feeling he’d found the man for the job, Tanaka sent Yamamoto a sampling of horror novels and comics to use as inspiration for their upcoming project.
“At first, I refused,” Yamamoto recalled in a 1996 interview with Stuart Galbraith IV, “I wanted to shoot shockers, not horror movies per se.” The director, who admired films like Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, did not share Tanaka’s fancy for making a Japanese Dracula. To him, trying to make a better vampire movie than the ones the British studio Hammer Film Productions made in the '50s and '60s was impossible. “You just can’t beat Terence Fisher,” he said, referring to the director of classics such as Horror of Dracula and Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
In the end, though, Yamamoto accepted the assignment and went on to create three aesthetically similar (but independently related) horror pictures from 1970 to 1974, the whole forming a trio known by genre enthusiasts as the Bloodthirsty trilogy. Drawing ostensibly from both traditional Japanese horror as well as European and American movies of the same time period, the Bloodthirsty trilogy represents a unique mix of eastern and western filmmaking aesthetics as well as a masterclass of visual stylization.
They’re also a real treat for Godzilla fans due to the number of familiar actors and actresses peppered throughout; each film makes for a fun “who’s who?” exercise. Plus, all three films were scored by Riichiro Manabe, who composed the “unique” music for Godzilla vs. Hedorah and Godzilla vs. Megalon. Your mileage may vary.
All three movies are worth a watch, whether you're a Godzilla fan, J-horror cinephile, or just want to see what bloodsuckers are like over in Japan. On to the films.
THE VAMPIRE DOLL
Perhaps due to his insistence that he could never make a Dracula movie as brilliant as any of Fisher’s, the first picture in Yamamoto’s trilogy did away with the idea of a traditional movie vampire, instead concocting a story closer in spirit to Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, about a spooky house and the disturbing legacy of the people who live there. It also seems to follow in the footsteps of pictures such as Hitchcock’s Psycho in that it starts off with a character we might assume to be our protagonist, then kills him off and tells the remainder of the story from the point of view of the people trying to find him.
In this case, a man journeys to the remote countryside to meet the girlfriend he has not seen in six months. When he arrives at her residence—the aforementioned house, where much of the story takes place—he discovers she died in a car wreck during his absence. He visits his love’s grave only to discover her standing off to the side of the cemetery — rigid like a corpse and ice-cold — and she kills him.
What follows is a light-on-violence screen mystery as the man’s sister and her beau journey to the house in hopes of learning his fate. This sparks a complex narrative involving a 20-year-old massacre, a local doctor interested in the occult, an act of revenge (common in traditional Japanese horror), a postwar element, and of course, an undead woman who still walks the earth.
As with the other two films in the trilogy, 1970’s The Vampire Doll is wonderful to look at (with cinematography by Kazutami Hara, who would later photograph Koji Hashimoto’s The Return of Godzilla). The Gothic art direction of the house is clearly inspired by those of western horror pictures—and contextually explained in that the owner’s late husband was a diplomat to America—and Hara uses the elaborate surroundings to his advantage. Foreground objects, creative use of shadows, moody lighting, and unique camera angles go a long way in rendering a haunting visual texture.
So strong are Hara’s images that they somewhat manage to redeem the picture’s awkwardly paced narrative and downright underwhelming finale (the most memorable scare is a direct lift from a similar scene in Psycho). The film is visually investing even if the story leaves much to be desired. Also holding it back is Manabe’s second-rate score: more gimmicky than effective, and frequently distracting.
For Godzilla fans, there are three recognizable faces. The titular villain is played by Yukiko Kobayashi, of Destroy All Monsters fame, and the cab driver at the beginning of the film is Sachio Sakai, the reporter in the original Godzilla and the shades-toting burglar in Godzilla’s Revenge. Most notable is Akira Nakao, who played the recurring character of Commander Aso in the Heisei Godzilla series and was also in three of the Millennium era films, delivering an effective performance in The Vampire Doll as the film’s hero.
LAKE OF DRACULA
There weren't any definitive plans for a follow-up to The Vampire Doll, but after the film proved successful at the Japanese box office, Fumio Tanaka came to Yamamoto with the idea of making a successor. What they ended up producing was not a direct sequel, but a similar movie with a similar aesthetic—and a new villain. “[Tanaka] still wanted to shoot a film about Dracula,” Yamamoto explained. And this time, Tanaka got his wish. The second Bloodthirsty movie featured a male vampire (played by Shin Kishida, the Interpol agent from the original Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla) and like its predecessor, garnered a respectable profit.
It also proved a superior effort on just about every front. With a stronger script and more assured direction, 1971’s Lake of Dracula triumphs as a solid horror picture and is arguably the best of the trilogy. In contrast to the uneven pace of the last film, this second entry moves at a predominately consistent tempo and features a more personal story. The new setting—a lakeside community surrounded by a decaying forest—makes for fitting scenery, the water’s glimmering surface regularly visible in the background as though serving as a constant reminder of the vampire’s presence. (Major credit to new cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki for the incredible imagery in this picture.)
Scenes of action are more confidently handled this time around, as is the score by returning composer Manabe. Though it sounds at times as if it had been written for an entirely different movie, the music succeeds for the most part at contributing to the picture’s dark, unsettling mood—rather than simply drawing attention to itself as the last score did.
Shin Kishida is positively menacing as the vampire: stiff and ungainly and boasting very little dialogue. Much like his American and European counterparts, Kishida’s vampire hides in a coffin during the day, the casket transported from location to location by subjugated mortals. (In this case, the coffin’s delivered by truck, à la Count Yorga, Vampire.) Western influence (perhaps?) also comes through in detailing the vampire’s origins. Just as many American and European movie vampires came to the United States or to London from countries such as Hungary and Transylvania, this Japanese movie vampire heralds from a foreign land as well, albeit one unspecified by name. Also in line with his western counterparts, he does not cast a reflection, and his victims, once bitten, become enslaved to his will. (An amusing production note: at a mere five-feet, five-inches tall, Kishida was considered too short for the part, so the actor was fitted with lifts to make him appear more menacing on screen.)
But what ultimately elevates Lake of Dracula is the writing and casting of its lead. The protagonist this time is a young woman named Akiko, who has a history connected to the antagonist, which makes the film more personal. Her younger self once narrowly escaped the vampire’s clutches; and now, as an adult, she’s brought to her wit’s end when the horrors of the past return to haunt her. Director Yamamoto stages numerous claustrophobia-charged scenes of Akiko seemingly alone in empty rooms or surrounded by leafless trees in the forest, the audience waiting in dread alongside her for something terrible to happen—effectively capturing the psychological stress and the sense of loneliness the character’s been placed under. A sympathetic lead, and the performance of the part by actress Midori Fujita is absolutely wonderful; her eyes alone convey emotion and paranoia.
EVIL OF DRACULA
Having produced two successful horror movies in a row, Fumio Tanaka was able to secure financing for a third Japanese vampire feature, Evil of Dracula, eventually released in 1974. Once again, it was an independent story, unrelated to its forerunners outside of aesthetics and the people behind (and before) the camera. Unlike its predecessors, however, the film did not perform well at the box office, which may explain why the Bloodthirsty series ended here.
Kazutami Hara takes over as director of photography once more. Shin Kishida returns as another vampire. And making his first and only appearance in the trilogy is Katsuhiko Sasaki (recognizable as the heroes in Godzilla vs. Megalon and Terror of Mechagodzilla, and from minor roles in Godzilla vs. Biollante and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah), here playing a Charles Baudelaire-quoting minion.
Of the three Bloodthirsty films, Evil of Dracula exhibits the strongest similarities to what western filmmakers were doing around the same time period. In what recalls Jimmy Sangster’s Lust for a Vampire, the setting is not a haunted house, but a college. Several students have fallen victim to a supernatural presence who, as it turns out, is a vampire moonlighting as the school’s principal. In addition to the setting, western influence is indicative in the “erotic” nature of the vampire’s attacks: when he clamps his mouth on his female victims—biting not their necks but their breasts—the girls’ faces undertake expressions suggesting sexual pleasure. They then—like the victims in Dracula and Count Yorga—become violent pawns. And following in line with Lake of Dracula, the vampire is once again a foreigner from some unidentified country—elaborated on via a fairly lengthy and detailed backstory sequence.
In relation to the other two pictures, Evil of Dracula is about on the same tier as The Vampire Doll. It’s a bit more efficiently put together, but lacks the editorial rhythm and personalized flair (through a likable protagonist) that made Lake of Dracula so wonderfully entertaining. And while Manabe’s score works well enough in the quieter, more tranquil moments, the composer goes comically overboard in attempting to ramp up the horror. All too often, he loads the soundtrack with musical “noises” which sound uncannily like a creature roar from the Daiei Gamera franchise. The result is an awkward distraction threatening to derail what are otherwise competent bits of horror.