It's strange to hear thunder crashing behind the familiar Toho logo at the beginning of The Vampire Doll (1970), the first in the "Bloodthirsty Trilogy," which makes its eagerly-anticipated debut on Blu-ray this week courtesy of Arrow Video. It's even stranger to watch a gothic horror movie produced by the studio instead of a Kaiju film. Borrowing heavily from the West, The Vampire Doll is nevertheless infused with Japanese originality, making it a fascinating (and very entertaining) hybrid.
The Vampire Doll is part of a proliferation of vampire movies made in the early 1970s. It belongs among all of them; but, with its atmosphere, rises above most of them. It takes full advantage of horror tropes such as the cab driver depositing his passenger at a big dark house and the spirited sibling searching for her missing brother, as well as everything that goes with them: dark hallways, empty coffins, strange noises, creepy manservants, full moons, mysterious figures in the woods… even bats.
However, it adds a unique spin on the nature of the creature. Yuko Nonomura (Yukiko Kobayashi) is not a typical vampire. With an appearance similar to Kayako (Ju-On: The Grudge) or Sadako (Ringu), which is to say pale with distinctive black hair, Yuko represents historical Japanese ghost lore, while preceding a surge in popularity of the subject twenty years later. She has yellow eyes, but no fangs, and commits her most grisly murder with a blade. (What a scene that is, as blood sprays in a very modern fine red mist!)
In the one bonus feature for the first of the three movies in the Blu-ray set, author Kim Newman says The Vampire Doll has more in common with a Roger Corman Poe film than it does with Hammer's Dracula. (The spirit of Christopher Lee will apparently be more strongly felt in Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula, which I did not watch for this review.) I agree. Yuko is not a typical vampire and The Vampire Doll is not a typical vampire film. It's a well-written mystery with a suprisingly strong conclusion.
I find myself with no desire to share anything else about the plot. On the surface, it's standard. Newman claims that, like a dream, memories of it fade at the end. For me, though, it's just that I'm more impressed with the style of The Vampire Doll than the story. It's not necessarily unique, but in the foreign environment, it feels like a revelation. What could so easily have stopped at mimicking a British or United States vampire movie, transcends to become something that feels fresh and new. I literally sat in awe as I watched it.
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