Our strange and sinister little bugaboo tale of horror begins with a young man named Kazuhiko Sagawa (Nakamura) traveling way out into the county to meet up with his fiance, Yuko Nonomura (Kobayashi), at her secluded ancestral homestead to officially announce their engagement. Once there, Sagawa meets Yuko’s widowed mother, Shidu (Minakaze), and her rather creepy handyman, Genzo (Takashina), who have some rather sad news for him.
It seems Yuko was killed nearly a week ago when her car was buried in a mudslide. And to make this even more awkward, Yuko never got around to mentioning her boyfriend. Completely devastated, Sagawa is allowed to spend the night at the old mansion, whose lights seem to have gone out since Yuko’s death if you know what I mean. And later that night, as Sagawa struggles through the grieving process, he hears a woman sobbing -- a woman who sounds a lot like Yuko. Thinking she might still be alive, a desperate Sagawa starts to search the house and grounds, trying to trace that sobbing back to its source. And then, after unearthing several cryptic clues, Sagawa, much to his regret, finds what he’d been searching for...
Perhaps inspired by the huge success of the imported British and American horror films of the 1960s, Toho Studios decided to give director Michio Yamamoto the green-light to try and cash-in on this trend in Japan. And to my eyes, not only was Hammer Horror and Roger Corman’s Poe cycle an influence on the resulting trio of pictures, but a huge nod also goes to the preternatural American soap opera, Dark Shadows (1966-1971), where executive producer Dan Curtis plucked Gothic horrors from the past and dropped them down in the middle of these modern times; most notably the introduction of the vampire Barnabas Collins.
Thus, director Michio Yamamoto’s Yureiyashiki No Kyofu: Chi O Suu Ningyoo (Fear In The Ghost House: The Bloodsucking Doll) -- a/k/a The Vampire Doll (1970) would be Toho’s first attempt at an Anglo-centric horror story and it really is quite effective in the thrills and chills department. And if nothing else, the film shows what was always missing from those old Hammer Dracula movies: some righteous Toho arterial spray when several jugulars are severed by our villainess -- but is it a real vampire behind this bloodshed as the title would suggest?
Well, see, that’s all part of the unwinding mystery as Yamamoto also gives a few nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as he pulls the rug out from under us as whom we assume to be the hero of the piece disappears at the end of the first act (-- and it’s safe to assume he is no longer with us). Thus, The Vampire Doll reloads as Sagawa’s sister, Keiko (Matsuo), and her boyfriend, Hiroshi (Nakao), worried that they haven’t heard from him in quite some time, trace the missing man’s last known whereabouts back to the Nonomura’s palatial estate. From there, the couple start unraveling an intricate mystery and uncover several abhorrent family skeletons that reveal the fate of Sagawa and the undeniable truth that, somehow, Yuko is back from the dead and is seeking revenge on the living.
As to what the reason for all that vengeful throat-slashing is, well, I’m not in the spoiling mood because, dammit, this film earned those twists and turns -- especially that last one, and you owe it to yourself to track this one down and see it for yourself. And now, that’s a helluva lot easier than it used to be thanks to Arrow Video’s new The Bloodthirsty Trilogy boxset, which includes The Vampire Doll along with Yamamoto’s Lake of Dracula (1971) and Evil of Dracula (1975), which, alas, I did not get screeners for. But! If they’re even half as good as this first entry, I will not regret the purchase I just made on Amazon. Hell, it’s worth the price for this entry alone.
For it is kind of funky to see these old school trappings -- violent thunderstorms, haunted mansions, creaking doors, cobwebs, and creepy caretakers, mashed up with the usual Toho stock actors and sound-effects, of which I’ve only seen in a ton of Godzilla movies. (The film was even produced by longtime Godzilla producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka.) The film is long on atmosphere and style and, yes, a few Japanese horror tropes are mixed in -- Yuko is by no means a classical vampire but is just as creepy, but this concoction works remarkable well. And all of it is glued together by Riichiro Manabe’s nerve-wracking and highly dissonant soundtrack.
Add it all up and we’ve got an excellent Japanese spin on foreign film tropes on things that go bump in the night and tend to bite back. And before this screener showed up, I had no idea these three films even existed. That’s on me. Now, with this wonderful boxset readily available, if you haven’t heard of or seen them yet, well, then, that’s now on you. Go. Buy this. Now!
The Vampire Doll (1970) Toho Company / P: Fumio Tanaka, Tomoyuki Tanaka / D: Michio Yamamoto / W: Hiroshi Nagano, Ei Ogawa / C: Kazutami Hara / E: Kôichi Iwashita / M: Riichirô Manabe / S: Kayo Matsuo, Akira Nakao, Atsuo Nakamura, Yukiko Kobayashi, Yôko Minakaze, Kaku Takashina